Every time I hear Dr. Octagonecologyst, the album that introduced me to the former Ultramagnetic MC "Kool" Keith Thorton (aka Dr. Octagon, aka Dr. Dooom, aka Black Elvis, aka Big Willie Smith) and producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, I am still as mystified, intrigued, and humored as I was when I first heard it in my middle teens some nine years ago. Back then, I had never heard a rapper like Keith, who is easily hip-hop's most bizarre, confused, and misunderstood rapper. Sure, I've heard some weird lyrics in my time, but none so flippantly twisted, uproariously funny, or technically verbose as Keith's. And I had never heard a rap record with such a warped, spooky, and complexly orchestrated production as the Automator's Dr. Octagonecologyst. That record was way ahead of its time, a postmodern soundtrack to the sound of the future. Yet, 10 years into the future from when it was made, it still sounds way ahead of its time, forever transplanted and cemented into futuristic times yet to be discovered. There is, simply, nothing else like it, and it is doubtful there will ever be, unless it has the Automator touch.
Dan the Automator With Chali 2na and guests. Neumo's, 925 E. Pike St., 709-9467, www.neumos.com. $15. All ages. 8 p.m. Wed., Dec. 6.
Dr. Octagonecologyst was the Automator's first big break as a producer. It was a turning point that would lead to the creation of, in my opinion, some of the most important, forward-thinking records of the last decade. These include Handsome Boy Modeling School with Prince Paul, Deltron 3030 with Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Lovage, the down-tempo Serge Gainsbourg homage with Mike Patton, and perhaps most famously, the first Gorillaz album with Blur's Damon Albarn, which gave the Automator his first platinum record.
I've been absolutely hooked on the Automator's work since Dr. Octagonecologyst and have followed it closely. I've always felt that the Automator's production had the viscosity and classical touch to be a score to a movie (go figure, the Automator is a classically trained violinist). The Deltron 3030 instrumentals, for example, would've been ideal for some postapocalyptic, gloomy underworld movie. Hell, there was even Bombay the Hard Way, the 1998 collaboration with DJ Shadow that sampled many Bollywood flicks. But I never thought that Automator's first real score would come by way of a video game—a basketball video game, no less.
On the recently released Dan the Automator Presents 2K7, the soundtrack to the NBA 2K7 video game, Dan enlisted rappers from all over, and not just his West and East Coast allies, to fling b-ball-related rhymes over his beats.
"[2K Sports] got in touch with me and told me their idea," he says on the phone from Glue Factory, his San Francisco studio. "Their original premise was too backpacky. That doesn't really epitomize what the whole scene is about. It's not just the East Coast or the West Coast or the South. Basketball is universal. I think that's what made me say I could do this—[working with] different rappers from different genres of rap that I don't always get to work with. That was the appeal."
Because the Automator has always primarily worked with rappers from both coasts, it was a pleasant surprise to hear the towering Houston rapper Slim Thug on "I Love This Game" and Chicago word-slinger Rhymefest on "Bang the Ball," the first tracks to follow the buzzer-blowing, crowd-chanting, sneaker-squeaking intro.
"People might be surprised that I'd do something with Slim Thug. But I picked Slim because he's really talented. That's why I picked those people as opposed to a million others from the Southern region. Every rapper on there has skills."
With the Automator behind the skillfully designed beats for the all-star team he assembled to execute in verse, no doubt this is an essential for any rap fan, whether you're into basketball or not. There's A Tribe Called Quest on "Lyrics to Go (Remix)," Aceyalone and Rakaa of Dilated Peoples on "Champions," Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 on "Anchor Man," Ghostface Killah and Diggin' in the Crate's A.G. on "2K007," the Hieroglyphics on "Don't Hate the Player," Mos Def and Anwar Superstar on "Here Come the Champ," and hyphy kingpin E-40 on "Baller Blockin," to name a few.
Now the Automator's preparing to take his game on the road, with Chali 2na, A.G., Casual of Hieroglyphics, and a full band in tow. "This was the first time where I'm mixing a lot of different stuff from different records, artists coming in and out, keeping it flowing. It's going to be interesting," he says. "Everyone has to hit their mark, but I'll probably be the first to miss it. It should be a really spectacular disaster."