“I’m a Student of Music and Always Have Been”: An Interview with Dan the Automator

Madeleine Byrne talks with Dan the Automator about Bay Area rap, Dr. Octagon, and Kool Keith's genius.
By    April 11, 2018

Art by Jackie Kingsbury

When the first Dr. Octagon album came out in 1996, it sounded like nothing else in the hip-hop universe. Writing in Rolling Stone, Chairman Mao characterized Dr. Octagonecologyst as the “heretofore-undefined area where hip-hop meets hallucinatory sci-fi and porn.”

Combining the space-age chimeras of New York rap eccentric, Kool Keith, with the musical eclecticism of Bay Area beat-maker Dan the Automator (DJ Qbert’s scratching providing commentary), the album stood apart from the Golden Era sound and was similarly far removed from California gangsta rap. Since then, the album has only increased in popularity, featuring on best-of lists and launching the current crop of abstract MCs. Enthusiasm for the twisted worldview of the self-defined “paramedic fetus of the East” has garnered the album permanently certified cult-status.

Over two decades later, the Dr Octagon crew have reunited for Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation (out on Bulk Recordings). Guests on the album include Slayer’s guitarist, Gary Holt, Paul Banks from Interpol and Del the Funky Homosapien. Kool Keith sets the scene: on the opening track, “Octagon/Octagon,” heralding the return of the doctor saying how he offers, “Octagon surgery for people who need Octagon face/ Octagon belts for Octagon waists/Octagon curtains, everything Octagon refurbished/Octagon turtles and don’t forget Octagon gerbils.”

Central to the achievement of the Octagon project is producer, Dan the Automator, who has developed a reputation as someone equally at home finessing music for rock acts (Primal Scream and Kasabian) as left-field hip-hop legends, such as Kool Keith, Del the Funky Homosapien, and DJ Prince Paul. The latest installment in the Automator/Prince Paul Handsome Boy Modelling School is due out this year, he says, as they both believe the world needs some more “handsomeness.”

Dan the Automator is largely credited as the source of the psych-infused hip-hop production style, built on a basis of musical eclecticism, that drives a lot of contemporary beat-making. His knowledge and risk-taking has led to the creation of such influential collaborations as the Deltron 3030 project alongside Del and Kid Koala.

In this interview, Dan the Automator shares how the first Octagon record found an audience with the most unlikely hip-hop heads, why scratching remains central to his art, the foundations of Kool Keith’s lyrical mastery, and why his Bay Area roots are behind his desire to keep mixing it up. —Madeleine Byrne

While Dr. Octagonecologyst set the tone for a lot of hip-hop that’s come in its wake, at its release it was a radical departure. Can you talk about how the first Dr. Octagon album was received back in 1996?

Dan the Automator: The real traditional rap crowd, the New York boom bap crowd, thought that it was a bit weird originally, but as the years have gone by more of those hip-hop dudes have told me they like it, even though they normally like “street rap” or whatever you want to call it. This is surprising to me because it isn’t traditional New York rap. That’s why it was a little bit of a shock for some people, but over the years I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of rappers who tell me they like it.

I found a great quote from an interview with Kool Keith in 1997 where he said back then everybody wanted to be Dr Dre, they wanted “To have the Lexus and deal pounds of drugs…that’s not our lifestyle. You don’t see us coming out with fur coats.” What you were doing then was pretty different to the rap mainstream, wasn’t it?

Dan the Automator: When I made that record a lot of alternative rock people liked it, you know, and rappers who rode skateboards. But then later on, it was cool because I heard other people liked it as well, people that I didn’t think did the first time around, including a lot of people from the Bay Area, you know, grimy drug-dealing type acts from Oakland. Initially I thought it was more alternative rock people, but over time it’s built up a deep hip-hop following.

One of the reasons for its broad appeal is the music. You’ve said that the album for you was about an “expansion of horizons.” Can you speak more on this?

Dan the Automator: At that time, I felt like rap had got a bit stagnant, with everyone rhyming over the same stuff, you know, James Brown and music like that. One exception being the Wu Tang Clan to a degree, I just felt that rap historically was not just DJ Premier and Dr Dre. It’s more things musically-speaking, from rock n roll to whatever, ‘cause you know old breaks are all kinds of music. I went into making the record with the attitude that anything goes, not just because you want to do anything but because it can be good.

One interesting aspect of your production is how it links with other kinds of electronic music and that the first Octagon record referenced Goldie and trip hop. Does the album fit into that kind of musical space?

Dan the Automator: Well, I’m a fan of all that kind of music, and in terms of production techniques perhaps, obviously being around DJ Shadow we had a sort of sound, but I don’t think it was necessarily coming from a purely UK perspective, even if it definitely fitted in more with what guys were doing over there in general than what was happening in the US. In the UK, indie charts and the public too, they’re way more likely to try new things, whereas in the US sometimes it’s not only “what is this?” but “what is this, it’s not normal.”

One critic said “Blue Flowers” from Dr. Octagonecologyst linked with trip hop because of the tempo, saying it was much slower than a lot of hip-hop released then. What are your thoughts on that?

Dan the Automator: I don’t necessarily agree with that comment, but it was on the slower side of the spectrum in terms of speed, yeah it was slower. I think what made it different was that it was leaning more on a classical tone, maybe it was kind of mysterious and ethereal, I think that was part of a bigger picture. The slowness might not actually be the tempo but the way we let things develop on the record overall.

Looking back on the album you’ve commented on the synths as being so central to the sound. Is that something you think is distinctive about the album?

Dan the Automator: I think you might be referring to the fact that when we went back to do the shows I had another look at the multitrack and when I went through it I realized that there were so many synthesizers on it. I didn’t think of it as a synth record at the time, but yeah, songs like “Earth People” are all memorymoog. Twenty years on I can say, ‘Oh that was a new expression,’ not really what was going on in hip-hop and even to this day, when you hear a song like “Earth People,” it sounds really strong. I’m not a super-synth-fan-guy but being able to use it in that way, I’m proud and excited that it did happen that way.

That record was made at that time trying to push the boundaries a little bit, to get out of the rut that hip-hop felt like for me then. If you listen to it I think in retrospect, it was like a breath of fresh air and to this day if I listen to it I still feel it’s pretty refreshing, and I’m happy that it turned out that way.

Thinking now about the new album, Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation, one thing that really struck me was the rock aspect. This is interesting because it brings two parts of your career together, as you’ve also done a lot of production with rock musicians. Were you conscious of this when you put the album together?

Dan the Automator: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways yes. I don’t really make a lot of rap records, I make a lot of rock records, but my heart is in rap music. So, when I got down to do this record I felt I needed to be respectful of what the original record was and how it sounded, but that same time I knew that all those years of doing other stuff, which is part of who I am, would come into it.

The Dr. Octagon record is not a rock n roll record so to speak, but some of the song structures are very rock n roll. There is more rock in the record, but I’d also like to point out that acts like Funkadelic or Parliament or even James Brown—there’s a lot of rock in their work too. I think I’m bringing out that side of rock rather than straight up rock n roll, though we do have a couple of songs with distortion and guitars and stuff ‘cause it feels a bit like metal, it feels good in there.

The song “Power Of The World (S Curls)” has a metal feel to it, with a real sense of drama in terms of the song construction. I saw that the guitarist on it is the guy from Slayer.

Dan the Automator: Yeah Gary Holt, yeah he plays the guitar on that song and “Kama Sutra” as well. I’ve known a lot of the Slayer/Exodus guys over the years and when I was doing this record I knew I was going to do that kind of guitar, so he was the one to play on it. I’ve known Gary forever really and so I asked him and he said of course. If you look at the most recent Exodus record I did the intros, so we do stuff together.

The other thing that really came through was the scratching by DJ Qbert, it’s a defining quality of the album. Talk to me about why you think he’s such an impressive DJ.

Dan the Automator: Well, Qbert is just the best scratch DJ there is, period—ever was, probably ever will be. He’s like the Michael Jordan or Jimi Hendrix of scratching. This is my opinion, but you could ask any scratch DJ in the world, but they’re not going to say there’s this other guy who is better than Qbert. It’s just so fortunate and lucky to have someone around who is a virtuoso on the instrument, it’s a treat and a joy to have this talent on the record.

You started off as a DJ and saw in one interview you said how back then you were really inspired by a Malcolm McLaren song, “D’ya Like Scratchin’?” What is it about scratching for you personally and hip-hop in general that’s so important?

Dan the Automator: It’s a longer story than this conversation, but basically the energy of it all. Being a kid watching hip hop, seeing the DJ cutting and scratching and seeing the breakdancing and graffiti I just thought this was an incredible world. And then when Run-DMC was coming out, it was just new, a new kind of music. For me DJ-ing was a way of, I guess, of being part of it.

I’d never really thought about being in a band or playing rock music so to see Run-DMC for example, everything was so professional and so good I couldn’t really understand what was going on, but when you hear the naivete of the Malcolm McLaren stuff you can understand a bit more what’s happening. The next thing you know, you’re doing it yourself on your parents’ turntables.

You’ve said that Run-DMC was a key influence for you when you were coming into your own as an artist. I can hear a kind of ’80s feel on the new album. Was this intended?

Dan the Automator: Yeah, maybe, not on the whole record. The original rap acts, Run-DMC and acts like thism they used a lot of drum machines and I wanted to reproduce that on the record. It’s probably just a couple of songs where I really lean on drum machines, but they’re a special tool in my production just like turntables are a special tool. Over the years I’ve done a bunch of records and tours so I’ve collected a lot of drum machines, so I pull them out and try to use them.

And it’s not just rap, they’re used in industrial by groups like Ministry. I’ve got a soft spot for it, that’s partially why, but I also like to use drum machines for the juxtaposition they create of contrasting organic live performance with something that is more static and stiff. I like that combination.

This contrast between the mechanical sound of the drums and live instrumentation, is this something you’re interested in more generally as a producer?

Dan the Automator: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been doing it for years and years. As I learn things and travel around the world and collect drum machines I try to incorporate them in records because yeah, the static and stiff sound when compared to the more organic rock n roll—a guy playing an acoustic guitar against a regular drum machine sound, I like that contrast.

In terms of the recording process of both records, the first album was recorded in your parents’ basement in a 14-hour period and the most recent one I saw was recorded in a 24-hour period. You definitely work hard putting these albums together.

Dan the Automator: I wouldn’t say it was that fast this time around. Keith was around for a week, we brought in Qbert and other artists. The actual project takes about five to six weeks but yeah the recording of the vocals takes a day or two, a couple of days.

When you’re inspired, stuff goes quickly. When Keith is inspired he gets things done quickly. The thing about Keith is, it’s either good or it’s bad. If it’s bad you get rid of it, if it’s good you keep it. We don’t really go back and edit a bunch of vocals in terms of content, it’s purely on the basis of the take. The reason is that his stuff is almost a stream of consciousness, even though it’s written. There’s also a lot of information in there held together in weird ways so when you start to take things out, it messes it up. I might say, rewrite the hook, but with the verses I wouldn’t do anything, it’s just a matter of picking the best verses. If you slow it down, it all goes. When it’s bad, it’s bad, but when it’s good, it’s great.

Is this how you work with other artists as well, or is that something specific to Kool Keith?

Dan the Automator: It’s more with Keith. With other artists there’s a lot more editing and reworking stuff, with Keith it’s either going to work or not work. I think we did nine songs one day but other days we did about four. If Keith is in his zone and writing well, the stuff comes out pretty quick.

Now how about the album title, Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation. I know “Moosebumps” was an instrumental released back in 1997, but what does the title mean, what is “horripilation?”

Dan the Automator: Well, this record takes place in the year 3000. In the year 3000 certain maladies have cropped up, one of them is linked to the fact that there are no more “goosebumps,” they are now extinct so they have transferred over the moosebumps. Horripilation is the technical term for goosebumps, which means the erection of hair on the skin so there’s been an outbreak of this hair erection on the skin, that’s what it means.

The idea of the future is important, it keeps coming back when you’re speaking about the albums. I saw that you once said that using the future is a way to comment on the present. Is this something you still think?

Dan the Automator: Yeah, when we started out doing Octagon it was like a madcap adventure but as we were doing it, I started to understand what science fiction truly is. Science fiction the genre is the future commenting on the present, so when we started the second record we worked out that we are working on a future world and that this future world always comes back to the present world. If you’re reading Orwell, or a writer like that, you understand why they’re geniuses in their fields as they’re giving us insight to our world through a fantasy of sorts.

Kool Keith often comes up as an inspiration for other MCs, which is interesting because in some ways he’s got a comic persona, but he’s also very intense.

Dan the Automator: A lot of people don’t know what Keith is saying, that there is a reason for it. Recently, I was hanging out with his brother and we were talking about stuff, he and a couple of nephews were talking about their childhood and all these things came up that Keith references in rhymes. The thing is, is if you don’t know these reference points you don’t know what he’s talking about. When he’s talking about stuff, there’s the fantasy, his real life, and then his observation. You need to combine all three to get what he is saying, but most of us don’t have the privilege of understanding the personal stuff so that’s where it falls off in terms of understanding sometimes. But the reason why he gets so much respect is that he is the real inventor of the on-beat, off-beat flow and that changed rap forever.

Before Keith, everyone rhymed on the 1s, 2s, 3,s and 4s. Keith rhymes in between. Other people do that now but he’s the originator and inventor of that flow. He told me why this happened, he said that when he had a crew called Mastermind Productions which became Ultramagnetic MCs, he said when Eric B and Rakim came out everyone was like, “Check out my melody. Check out my melody.” That was the new flow, but he knew he couldn’t do it because Rakim was already doing it so he invented the flow. He’s a scientist in that way.

There’s something too about the way Kool Keith creates mood, you can see this on the new album, it’s got the humor but it’s also unsettling.

Dan the Automator: Yeah, I think that’s what he does. He sets a mood and then turns it around. The real thing is he’s painting a portrait, there are all these things happening; all these animal references and whatnot. It’s interesting when you think about what he’s talking about in real life because it’s a mix of fantasy and his way of constructing thoughts and putting together the mood is part of that, it’s all very interesting and unique to him. There are very few people who have the imagination he has.

Del the Funky Homosapien is another guest on the album. You’ve worked with him on a lot of different projects. How was it working with him again here?

Dan the Automator: I’ve been basically on tour with Del on and off since 2012 so we see a lot of each other, four months of the year we’re not roommates [laughs]. Del is a true poet also, he is a real artist of rap and rhymes as well, so to put the two together, well I had to do it.

You’re an interesting figure in the industry—you’ve worked with acts like Gorillaz, Kasabian, and Primal Scream, and also with hip-hop legends like Prince Paul and Kool Keith. What is it about your work as a producer that’s allowed you to maintain it so long, straddling these two worlds?

Dan the Automator: I love music. I’m really genuinely into hip-hop and genuinely into rock. I’m a student of music and always have been and I think I’ve come at it from a pretty, not archaeological, but genuine point of view. I’m not dabbling in rock, I love rock, I’m not dabbling in hip-hop, I love hip-hop. I think honestly not many people are like that, when you think of hip-hop producers, most of those guys are not into guitars, or when you’re thinking of rock guys messing with beats, they’re looking at it from a tourism point of view. I’m like someone like Rick Rubin, I guess. I’m not the only one, there are a few of us who exist in multiple worlds.

The Bay Area, where you’re from, is also a possible reason for this in that it’s very diverse and its music has always reflected this.

Dan the Automator: Yes, without a doubt. I mean it’s before my time, but you’ve got artists like Sly and the Family Stone, there’s a long history of people doing their own thing, you’ve got the Grateful Dead—not one of my favorite bands—but they created their own scene and when it gets to rap you’ve got Too Short and MC Hammer, Digital Underground.

None of those guys relate to each other, maybe personally they do, but musically they don’t. It was like everyone did what they felt they had to do and this had a lot to do with their Bay Area upbringing.

If you follow Bay Area rap it’s like Too Short, MC Hammer, and Digital Underground; it’s all over the place, it’s awesome. If you follow rock, it’s the same. You know, L.A had “L.A. rap” and New York had “New York rap,” but we never really felt that way. We enjoyed music and appreciated it for what it was. None of us were dipping our toes in it, we just liked it, so that combined with early hip-hop, crate-digging was a great education for me. Having this wider musical palette has allowed me to develop in a lot of different directions.

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