Legendary hip-hop producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura talks about his unlikely path to hip-hop immortality and why he’s owning his Asian-American identity now more than ever.
This week on The Trip: Drinking with Exceptional People Around the World, host Nathan Thornburgh sips on Negronis and chats with Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, the man behind the music you hear on every episode of the podcast. Dan the Automator is one of the great music producers of our time and is someone who, like Brian Eno or Phil Spector, changed the sound of an entire decade. Dan the Automator talked with Nathan about his unlikely path to hip-hop immortality and why he’s owning his Asian-American identity now more than ever.
Nathan Thornburgh: So, tell me what are we, what are we drinking here?
Dan the Automator: It’s kind of a take on the Negroni. It has high-proof Cynar and some grand poppy.
Thornburgh: It’s a smooth mother fucker. I like it. It’s been a little bit of a Bourdain nostalgia day. Earlier, I was talking to Kamau who recently filmed an episode of Parts Unknown with Tony in Kenya. One thing about Tony, which I’m sure is on his Wikipedia page, is that man liked a Negroni.
Dan the Automator: Don’t we all, though? It’s really good though, I gotta say.
Thornburgh: It’s super good. I don’t know if I’m just ready for it.
Dan the Automator: I’m ready for it, too. I’ve been eating and drinking well lately. It’s funny, I was in Long Beach recently and had two really great meals in a row while I was there.
Thornburgh: I feel like we should restate that. Dan had two great meals in Long Beach, which is not a sentence that I thought I was going to walk into.
Dan the Automator: Me either. I went with a couple of people to El Sauz. It was a late-night taco thing. I had the best barbacoa I’ve ever eaten in America.
Thornburgh: You mentioned this to me earlier, and I started thinking that you may just be in a special time in your life where things are tasting better. Maybe you’re entering some kind of…
Dan the Automator: Magical food moment?
Thornburgh: Yes. You’re in some realm where the Negronis are sweeter and stronger, and the barbacoa is deeper.
Dan the Automator: Yeah! I go to Long Beach because I do a little work down there, but I don’t tend to eat like that. It’s funny because everyone I was with was talking about how amazing Cambodian pho is.
Thornburgh: Cambodian pho…
Dan the Automator: I’m really late to the game. I never knew that Cambodians made pho.
Thornburgh: That’s not a thing I knew about either.
Dan the Automator: I feel like I really kind of dropped the ball on this one because the shit was incredible. This is next level. I got up early today just to go there, and I’m so happy I did because it was so good.
Thornburgh: Get the fuck out!
You know, pho is such a part of my California story. I moved to San Francisco from Key West, Florida, when I was a kid. I came as an 11-year-old and immediately met a Vietnamese kid. He was the first of four children who were born in America, so his parents named him California. His name was Cali Tran. Shout out, Cali. I know you’re out there. His family ran a restaurant, and I will never have the words to describe how the food just exploded my cosmos.
Dan the Automator: I got you, man. The Vietnamese dropped into the area and it was like boom.
Thornburgh: You know, I think the Bay Area has this character that I feel gets misrepresented. Maybe it’s being watered down. Maybe all the tech stuff is creating an environment that the Bay Area’s character just can’t survive.
Dan the Automator: Here’s the thing. The Bay Area is the center of the universe in terms of innovation and new money. I just don’t think that a lot of culture goes hand-in-hand with tech. I don’t mean just street culture. I mean like art. You have a lot of people who are great programmers and they come here and they see all of this great culture. It just takes a while to get into it. You know what I mean?
Thornburgh: That’s an optimistic view. They could be assimilated to what it is that we do here in the Bay Area.
Dan the Automator: In the end, don’t we all have to like learn stuff?
Thornburgh: I appreciate that. Listen, we could sit here and have a shit-talking session about all the excesses of tech culture, but at the same time—and there had been some people I think who have expressed this better than I could—San Francisco has always been a boom town. It’s always been a thing that’s changing with frequency, but it feels like that particular moment left and it’s not coming back.
Dan the Automator: But for all the gentrification and all the other stuff, there’s a lot of San Francisco in San Francisco.
Thornburgh: The Excelsior is still the Excelsior.
Dan the Automator: Yeah. If I want to go eat great local food or do anything like that, I can find it.
Thornburgh: That is true. And that’s not a thing that the tech bros brought in.
Dan the Automator: Like I said, I’m kind of ashamed I never knew about Cambodian pho. There are always things to discover.
Thornburgh: Right. Because it’s not like there weren’t southeast Asians where we went to high school. You and I went to the same high school—Lowell High School. I think both of us hated it.
Dan the Automator: It was fine. It’s a school.
Thornburgh: It’s a public high school with academic aspirations and that’s very tough for people who feel like that should maybe not be their thing in life. Going back to what we were talking about earlier, this is like a very specific culture in San Francisco.
Dan the Automator: I’m an Asian American and you know that Tiger Mom shit? That’s real. My mom was probably not the prototype Tiger Mom, but it’s the same direction, right? I don’t know any Asian Americans whose parents didn’t really want them to go to college unless they had a really thriving business.
Thornburgh: Intense amounts of pressure.
Dan the Automator: The pressure to succeed is real and it’s artificial. I don’t mean the pressure’s artificial, but what they want us to do is artificial. I sort of knew what I wanted to do since I was in seventh grade and school wasn’t really a part of it. At the same time, I come from an Asian family so I’m not not going to go to school. I’m fucking finishing college and all that shit.
when I went and did Dr. Octagon I was like not giving a fuckness
Thornburgh: How do you go from this kid at Lowell who’s got the same pressures that so many of us had there to like releasing a first album that’s like music to get murdered by?
Dan the Automator: I’m a student of rap. I’m a student of classical music and alternative rock. I’m a student of all forms of music. I was making stuff and I had the kind of success that comes along when you’re a nobody and you’re kind of moving along. I had success in that way. But the record that broke me out was called Dr. Octagon, and that was a big moment for me. I went into it not really caring what other people were doing. This was like the mid-90s and everyone’s making A Tribe Called Quest loops, with the exception of the Wu-Tang Clan, which I’m not going to say it was a big influence on me, but like they’re a big influence in general on hip-hop.
It’s weird because I think I lost the feeling of that moment, of not giving a fuck, for a while. Like I don’t care if anyone buys this.
Dan the Automator: I was at this convention where everyone was talking about like inspiration and blah blah blah. The thing is you gotta have no plan B. You know what I mean? Like once you start thinking about that kind of stuff, you lose that edge.
But I’m going for it period. So when I went and did Dr. Octagon I was like not giving a fuckness.
Thornburgh: What an incredible noun. Not giving a fuckness.
Dan the Automator: Right. I was talking to my friend before I made this record and he’s like you’re really good at making beats and everything, but your shit’s a little different. Why don’t you make stuff that will get you some jobs? I was like, no, I’m going to do what I want to do. And two things are gonna happen. Either no one’s ever going to care or I’ve made my own lane.
Thornburgh: And you got ahead of the culture.
Dan the Automator: I made my own lane. And my own lane has been great because my own lane doesn’t give a fuck. It’s like a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Where I lost a little touch is when I started making hits.
Thornburgh: You get addicted to success. You worked with the Gorillaz, which became a big hit.
Dan the Automator: That was a don’t give a fuck record by the way, but like after that I was maybe a little less out of the box and I think that was a mistake. Not a terrible mistake. Everything’s worked out very well, but I’m saying there’s something about the pure exuberance of just going for it.
I also never really enjoyed the moment. This is an Asian thing and it kind of sucks. I kept right on moving forward and making things. I’m don’t regret it though because it’s allowed me to be where I am.
Dan the Automator: But I definitely did not enjoy all the things that were happening as they were happening. It’s some kind of weird balance of that sort of Asian work ethic and cheapness.
Thornburgh: I have to say this is not a super weepy podcast. I try not to get too sentimental, but I’ve definitely teared up a little bit when hearing you talk about the way that you combine your personal culture with the larger culture.
And that’s your thing. That I don’t give a fuckness. It’s incredibly special because it allows you to just walk into any room and be like, here I am. I deserve to be here.
Dan the Automator: I’ll say this and maybe people won’t necessarily understand but it’s really hard to be Asian in the arts for one reason besides race. It’s hard because Asians will embrace you, but they also put an extra ceiling on top of you. So I spent a lot of my career not being Asian. Not denying it or pretending that wasn’t me, but…
Thornburgh: But you are who you are.
Dan the Automator: Yeah, but I feel like I can be more Asian now. Not in terms of culture, but in terms of work. I didn’t want people to be like, “oh, he’s the best Asian producer.” Like you got to be the best, period. That’s what you’re going for.
Dan the Automator: Asians want to hold onto you and that’s awesome. They care, but it also creates a ceiling.
Thornburgh: You want the lift. You don’t want the ceiling.
Dan the Automator: It’s funny. About six months ago, I had kind of a reaffirming moment. I was sitting right here at this table with Ted Chung. Ted Chung is one of the coolest motherfuckers out there. He manages Snoop Dogg. He’s been managing him for years. We were hanging out and we were super fucking drunk. He was like, “Dude, I got to tell you something man. When I was coming up, man, me and my friends would fucking play your music and go, ‘there’s an Asian guy doing this shit.’”
And I’m like, motherfucker. You’re balling. You’re doing crazy shit.
Thornburgh: You’re going to make me cry again.
Dan the Automator: I didn’t mean to be a beacon for other guys, but Ted did it. But he had the initiative to do it as well. That’s my motherfucker. He’s doing big fucking Snoop moves. And I think the one thing that I and the other guys who came could say is that none of us give a fuck.
Thornburgh: In the best possible way.
Dan the Automator: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. No fuckness.
Thornburgh: Which comes from a very, very deep giving a fuck.
Dan the Automator: We give a fuck about everything to the point so we can get to that point where we don’t give a fuck.