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Although Dan “The Automator” Nakamura had already set a pretty remarkable artistic precedent as the producer of rapper Kool Keith’s idiosyncratic solo debut Dr. Octagonecologyst, his collaboration with acclaimed Bay Area artist Del the Funky Homosapien, Deltron 3030, has since become a minor masterpiece of independent hip-hop. But after more than a decade of work with groups like Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Peeping Tom and Kasabian, Nakamura is reuniting with Del (whose real name is Teren Delvon Jones) and returning to the well that catapulted him among the ranks of rap’s most celebrated producers: A new Deltron album is set for release this fall, and the supergroup is raising awareness with a series of concert appearances such as their performance in San Bernadino on Sunday at the hip-hop festival Rock the Bells.
STORY: Rock the Bells Organizer Talks Two-Day Festivals, Five Bone Thugs and a Tupac Hologram
Prior to taking the 36th Chamber Stage with a host of collaborators, including turntablist Kid Koala, actress (and sometime singer) Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a bona fide orchestra, Nakamura and Del spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about their upcoming album. In addition to talking about the process of putting together material for this decidedly unique project, the duo examined the sociopolitical context of their futuristic musical landscape, and examined their past and future musical prospects, both commercially and creatively.
The Hollywood Reporter: What do you feel like has changed between when 3030 came out and now in terms of maybe what you guys want to accomplish musically?
Dan Nakamura: Nothing changed, everything changed. I mean, we do what we do and it’s a different time. So it’s a little different as far as where we are artistically. We’re trying to just always take it to the highest level, so that’s where we are.
THR: Where do you feel like you’re at then musically at this point?
Nakamura: Oh, we’re at the highest level. We just do the best we can, and we take it as far as we can take it.
THR: What are your creative influences for this upcoming album? Is the new record similar to 3030, or is it dramatically different?
Nakamura: Well, [on stage] we have an orchestra with us. So you can decide what you want to decide; listen to it. It is what it is, yes.
[Del, clad in a neon green windbreaker and dark glasses, sits unassumingly in a chair next to Nakamura.]
THR: Was there a specific catalyst for you guys to reunite? Did you meet up and decide the time was right, or had you been stockpiling material that, like you said, you eventually decided was appropriate for another Deltron record?
Nakamura: You know, things come when they come. What I mean by that is we didn’t make a record before this time because it wasn’t the right time. Who knows — it could have been a great record, but it wasn’t going to happen because it wasn’t the right time. And who knows why, but now was the right time and we made that record, you know.
Del: From my end, it takes a lot to write the lyrics, but I wanted to make this one like you ain’t going to see no holes in this one. I don’t care how cynical of a critic you are, you’re not going to be able to find any holes, so I just concentrated way more on this one. With the first one I didn’t know what was going to happen with it. Like it was a hobby, straight up; we was interested in bringing it to life, so I did it but I wasn’t really that focused on filling any holes or anything like that. Then once I got the feedback, I was like, OK, I see what you want, I see what you kind of expect, and I can make it to where you’ll be satisfied with it. Or maybe you just won’t like it at all, but you’re not going to sit back like, he didn’t do what it was intended or whatever you think should have been. So I just tried to cover all the bases instead of just kind of rambling. Before I was just freestyling basically, and on this one I wanted it to have more of a point to it.
THR: Both of you have worked with so many different producers and artists. What do you look for in a collaborator?
Del: I’m usually impressed with an artist that really does it. Like so many people, they kind of do it, but they’re not really doing it every day like they’re just really about it. That will impress me and I’ll want to work with them because I’m making stuff every day, and want to meet somebody that’s going to be able to match that. Beause I do a lot by myself — I make a lot of stuff by myself. Hundreds of songs. So I need somebody that could kind of match that. So that’s how a collaboration will usually start with me.
Nakamura: I don’t know, man. I mean, I work with people who are talented and I don’t work with people who are not talented.
Del: Pretty much.
Nakamura: You know, it’s kind of like liking people. You know if you like a person, and if they’re talented, then it might work. If you don’t like that person then it’s probably not going to work. I’ve reached a point in my particular career where I get the opportunity to work with talented people, so it’s not really a question of that as much as if I like them. And that’s where it is at this point.
THR: Can you talk about what your collaboration is like on each song? Dan, do you start with an instrumental and he pairs lyrics to it, or do you start with lyrics and then he creates musical accompaniment?
Nakamura: I think that’s kind of the work, but there’s also the part of talking about things and just getting in the same mind space a little bit. And then we go do it. I don’t tell him how to do lyrics, he doesn’t tell me how to do music, but we still talk a lot about the overall feel.
THR: Is the subject matter you’re exploring the same as it was on 3030? Or do you have specific new subjects that you want to explore?
Nakamura: This record’s all about saving the koalas.
Del: Not really. I mean, basically [it’s about] the earth – not the Earth but the world. Yeah, the world’s leaders pretty much drop the ball, fumble it basically. So everything’s tore up basically — it’s like a Mad Max type of world. Like everything’s tore up; there’s no resources for people. The government or whoever, police, there ain’t none of that. Like criminals is taking over the streets basically. So you got to deal with that. That’s the backdrop.
THR: Do you make any direct political references or is it sort of purely metaphorical?
Nakamura: The reason that it’s not direct is because it’s a thousand years in the future, but because it’s a thousand years in the future we can talk about certain situations or art that they create or even just talk about it but like not [reference things directly]. If we talk about something that already happened we’d be really locked into a sort of fact/opinion sheet, so this is a way to take an observational look at where we’re headed and be able to maybe talk about it — not the lessons you can learn from this or whatever, but more like just what’s going on.
Del: What you get out of it, that’s up to you I guess. A lot of people might just be into it for the sci-fi type of lean it has, and other people might be into it because they see something in it that’s real to it. It speaks to them. So it’s whatever it is, you know. But we just being creative.
THR: How tough is it to get into the mindset or the persona behind Deltron as opposed to other projects you have done or are doing?
Del: My character is somewhat similar, so it’s not like I’m a whole different person. But it does take some preparation to get to that mindset to writing. It takes a lot of work actually, because I can’t just rap normally. I got to use all these references and what have you, so it takes some research, actually.
Nakamura: I just want to do the best I can. I mean, neither Del nor myself, in regards to this record or life, are one-dimensional characters. So we have a lot of different interests and this happens to be one of them, you know. That interest shows itself on this record in a particular way, but ultimately I think it’s not like the movies or something — everyone is complex. They have different feelings and different interests. You might want to talk about the hood one day. You might want to talk about space one day, but you know what, we’re going to hang out on the street talking.
THR: Does that require some effort then to sort of parse out what’s appropriate for this project as opposed to others?
Del: Well, for me, yeah, definitely. With any type of project I’m doing.
Nakamura: But it speaks for itself for you though, right. I mean, you know when it’s not right. Even though you center in to it, you can leave away stuff that you don’t think is right.
Del: Right, right. I pick and choose definitely. Some stuff might be cool for a Del record that wouldn’t fit into this record. And then I got other stuff that might not fit in either of those. That might be a whole different project. Just creatively it’s like that sometimes, but it’s similar to a marketing type of mind I guess where I’m like, okay, I’ll put that over here and that could be a whole different thing. That ain’t going to fit over here. So I’m pretty much my own judge as far as that’s concerned. And I’m sure he works in a similar fashion, too.
Nakamura: I make lots of shit that I think is terrible. It’s not that it’s terrible, well maybe it is terrible, but it’s not it’s terrible, it’s just wrong for the moment. It may be wrong for what I’m doing. A lot of stuff I open up for a project and later I go, “Oh, yeah, this is great — for this.” But at the time was just shit because it didn’t match what I was doing.
Del: Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself.
THR: How soon is this record coming out?
Nakamura: We just mastered it last week, so late fall. It’s coming out — it’s been mastered, and singles are going to be coming out soon.
Del: Yeah, the album is done.
THR: How do you guys look at the musical climate that this album is coming out into? I mean, Deltron was coming on the heels of the Handsome Boy Modeling School stuff, and Dr. Octagon. It seems like people were kind of ready for that.
Del: You think so?
THR: I guess what I mean is there was a different kind of appetite for it then, and it feels even more sort of from left field. Do you feel like audiences might be more ready for it now than they were then?
Del: Yeah, because before that it was just something new. But that’s why I’m like, nah, I don’t think people was salivating waiting for it to come — because they didn’t know what was coming. Now they’ve had a chance to digest it and understand it, so now it’s like people raving about it, like fighting me for it, like “Where’s the next Deltron? You better hurry up.” Like threatening me about it. So now, yeah, now everybody’s ready and hype off of it. As far as the mainstream and all this other big world of music, I’m not even concerned with that.
Nakamura: We can’t really concern ourselves with any of that stuff. If I had a job marketing records I’d be worried about that kind of stuff, but I have a job making the best record possible and what I can do with that is hand it off and see what happens and hopefully there’s a place for it. But the way I look at it is there like 400 million people in the United States and the No. 1-selling record of all time is like 30 million and change, whether it’s the Eagles’ Greatest Hits or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which means in the whole U.S. there’s like less than one percent of the people who bought the biggest-selling record of all time. So that means we got 99.999 percent of the people in the world to work with, you know. Those are the two biggest records ever; we don’t think we can get away with that, but still only one percent of the fucking nation bought it.
THR: Do you think consciously about sort of differentiating between something that is more idiosyncratic, like the Deltron stuff, and something that might be more immediately commercial?
Del: Not at all.
Nakamura: Good’s good. You’ve got a whole bunch of variables. Like did they spend that money promoting it? Did this happen? Did it end up wherever that makes it happen? And it’s like, you look at a Deltron record, that may not be a No. 1 record, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the song structure and the hooks and all that stuff that would make a song a hit.
Del: You don’t really know either because you’re not going to know — you can’t really predict it, man. Even the people who are going to predict whether or not that’s going to be a hit or not, they’re always wrong.
Nakamura: I mean, even the record label — they’re wrong 99 percent of the time.
Del: You late if you’re following the leader. You going to be late.
Nakamura: So you just make a record and you do the best you can do. And once that happens none of us can predict for what the public [reaction] is.
Del: But there is the certain type of magic that happens in the studio where you know that that’s something.
Nakamura: You know it’s great. The song is great. You don’t know that’s going [to be a hit]. You just know we were on something; And that’s different than going “that’s going to be a No. 1 record.”
Del: But that type of magic usually produces your No. 1 records.
Nakamura: Yeah, that’s true. But that’s a thing that is separate — but it’s a component of what makes it be a No. 1 record. But there’s a million other things that make it be a No. 1 record.
THR: You have a number of sort of long-gestating projects. Are there any other things that you feel like might be on the horizon? Prince Paul talked earlier this year about The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly that you guys did so many years ago. Do you feel like that could ever be released?
Nakamura: You know, you never know what’s going to come out. Basically, the problem with my particular situation is that because I don’t rap or sing or anything like that, and when we do those kind of projects we have to kind of all be together, it’s just a lot of logistical issues. As far as I’m concerned, I’d like all the records to come out. And maybe one day they all will come out, but I don’t know. It’s just like I’ll keep making stuff as long as I can, and I care that people like it, but even if they don’t like it, I’m still going to keep making it. It’s a creative endeavor, and hopefully people want to buy it so I don’t have to like go live at my parents’ house. So all of it hopefully one day will all come out if it can — and I’m not saying it will, but I’m hoping.
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