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Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and what it's like to be the most popular cartoon rock star in the world. 

Man in the Gorillaz Suit

Everyone knows Gorillaz: the animated rock stars, the album, the hit single "Clint Eastwood" and the MTV-sponsored tour. Ask these same people if they know Dan Nakamura and the likely answer is, "Who?"

Granted, a few might recognize The Automator, Nakamura's hip-hop name. But most will only feign interest after learning he's the innovative producer of hip-hop responsible for Gorillaz, as well as a stack of similar albums dating back to 1998. That was the year Nakamura and fellow producer Prince Paul came up with a concept album named after the Handsome Boy Modeling School episode of Chris Elliott's short-lived but brilliant TV show "Get a Life."

Featuring a wide variety of cuts by artists as diverse as DJ Shadow and Sean Lennon, the two producers pulled together a cohesive and imaginative hip-hop album, and from that point Nakamura was hooked on collaboration. Since HBMS, he has released the futuristic hip-hop of Deltron 3030 (with Del tha Funky Homosapien and DJ Kid Koala), Gorillaz and recently a new group project of gloomily romantic hip-hop called Lovage.

Nakamura made his first little mark in 1996 as The Automator on the "Much Better Tomorrow" EP. It featured the rap talents of a then nearly forgotten Kool Keith, who had been a big name during his days in the '80s rap group Ultramagnetic MCs. The album lived and died way off the radar, but The Automator and Kool Keith returned a year later with the stellar follow-up, the full-length Dr. Octagon album that breathed new life into Kool Keith's career and put The Automator on the map.

Well, at least in certain circles. Superstars like DJ Shadow might have worked in Nakamura's Glue Factory studio in San Francisco, but his music has only just reached the mainstream half a decade later with Gorillaz. And beyond the music, most people only know the cartoon band on the video.

"There's a period of paying dues," Nakamura says over the phone from San Francisco, pointing out that recognition can only come gradually for someone working outside the mainstream. "At the time it's happening you want the recognition to come faster," he admits, "but looking at it from a detached point of view, it hasn't taken that long."

One hindrance has been the format structure of radio and television. The Automator's records are in the R&B/rap section of just about every record store, but rarely do they fit into traditional R&B/rap radio station formats. Nakamura points out over the phone that Gorillaz — his most commercially successful project — made the R&B charts. But that just proves Gorillaz, cute animated characters and all, was too attractive to be ignored.

When asked about future products, Nakamura promised another HBMS release as well as another Deltron 3030. That news should delight his die-hard fans, but only confuse people waiting for Gorillaz 2. Case in point: While this article was being written, word came in about another Automator release, the "Wanna Buy a Monkey" remix CD out Feb. 19.

Even industry insiders have trouble keeping up. So how does Nakamura expect to be a name on everybody's lips when he has so many names? Isn't it counterproductive to getting your name out there?

"I don't think so," Nakamura says matter-of-factly. He thinks his name gets out plenty to the people who matter, the people he wants to pull in for other projects. The novelty of working on something fresh is "the most interesting and fun part" of being a producer, he says. "I just like to make records."



The MTV2 Gorillaz tour comes to the 9:30 Club in Washington Tuesday, Feb. 26. The show is sold-out.

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