Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Dynamic Duo

Prince Paul and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura

By Alex Pappademas

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Most hip-hop producers who become marquee names do so by cultivating Jumbotron egos -- they date movie stars, they pick up the mike and drop (weak) solo albums, they discipline their A&R guys with broken champagne bottles. Others just deliver faster, flashier price-break takes on the sound of the moment, and every beat they touch turns to cheddar. By that standard, Paul "Prince Paul" Houston and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura are more scrubs than celebs: they're producers who've become famous for actually producing, creating music that makes up in long-term impact what it may lack in immediate commercial payoff.

Paul got his start in the top half of the '80s as the DJ/producer behind the five-man MC squad Stetsasonic -- which is how word of his innovative approach to the turntable first got out. It wasn't just what he could do with a vinyl LP that set him apart but which vinyl LPs he was apt to do it with, as he proved when he moved on to become the musical force behind the cerebral verbiage of De La Soul, where he deployed everything from French-language instructional albums to Turtles tunes. His production on 1989's Three Feet High and Rising made slapstick out of Steely Dan and Serge Gainsbourg and altered hip-hop's sonic texture as radically as the Bomb Squad's work with Public Enemy. And his later work proved equally influential, whether he was kicking satirical "horrorcore" mayhem with the Gravediggaz (alongside the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA) or savaging every rap subgenre imaginable on his darkly comic solo debut, Psychoanalysis: What Is It?

The Automator, meanwhile, is credited with creating one of the earliest DJ-oriented "break" records -- 1989's Hitchcock-referencing Music To Be Murdered By EP. And though he went on to inject some funk into college-radio playlists, producing rock bands like the Eels, Cornershop, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, he's still best known for working with Kool Keith on the now-classic Dr. Octagon album and living to tell about it.

So when Paul and Dan made arrangements to join forces under the moniker Handsome Boy Modeling School last year, it amounted to nothing short of a meeting of two of hip-hop's great production minds. Working under the aliases Nathaniel Merriweather (Dan) and Chest Rockwell (Paul), they convened a summit of fringe rappers, turntable hotshots, and semi-pop weirdos -- including Del the Funky Homosapien, Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto) and Mike D (Beastie Boys), Puba and Sadat X of Brand Nubian, Alec Empire (Atari Teenage Riot) and EL-P (Company Flow), Sean Lennon and Father Guido Sarducci, and DJs Shadow, Quest, and Kid Koala -- and recorded So . . . How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy), a disc that rightly ended up on many critics' Top 10 list for 1999, often competing with Paul's own A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy), a brilliantly dizzying rap-opera satire featuring vocals by Christ Rock, De La Soul, Everlast, and others.

The Prince and the Automator are currently busy on their own individual work: Automator's producing an album for Handsome Boy graduate Del the Funky Homosapien, and Paul just did the same for Brown-educated MC Paul Barman, whose Jewish-suburbanite background and oversexed-undergrad lyricism should flip as many wigs as De La did back in the day. But they're also reteaming (along with Dust Brother Mike Simpson) for another all-celeb freak-hop jam, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is due later this year on DreamWorks. It's rumored to feature contributions from Beck, Björk, and Cornershop's Tjinder Singh.

Dan and Paul were in full Handsome Boy mode when I sat down with them for lunch one Sunday late last December at Boston's Elephant and Castle Restaurant. So though there was no spoiled-rap-star behavior in evidence, roughly half of the answers to my questions were jokes of some kind. In other words, the crack comic timing that makes their recordings so engaging was in full effect.

Phoenix: When you look back on the past decade, what do you think you've both achieved?

The Automator: I think what's cool is, we ended up creating a market for what we do.

Prince Paul: For me, it was realizing that I could actually make money off this. In '89, when I was with Stetsasonic, I thought it was strictly a hobby, and I was gonna go to college, y'know, and get a job. And it wasn't until like '89, when Three Feet High and Rising came out, that I realized I could actually make money doing this.

The Automator: Exactly. Then you want to make the money. Now, it's gotten to the point where we can make the records we want to make, and because we're not looking to sell two million copies we can take more artistic liberties.

Prince Paul: And if you do sell two million copies, then, hey, it's great. But there are a lot of pressures that come with that. All eyes are on you, and then -- the slightest bit of deviation and nobody wants to ever hear from you again. That's the scary thing.

Phoenix: Since you both come from the production side of things, I'm wondering whether you admire the producers who play such a big behind-the-scenes role in the making of a Britney Spears or a Backstreet Boys album?

Prince Paul: I admire their money. That's about it. I don't know if, when people look back on music history, if I'd wanna be, like, in that arena.

The Automator: Money comes and goes, but the CD will last forever.

Prince Paul: You look at VH-1 and it's like, "Remember such-and-such?" And they're always talking about somebody who was really popular at one time, like a pop sensation, but now he's a butthole? You don't want that. You want that Bob Dylan respect.

Phoenix: Do you approach things differently when you're working as a producer for an artist, as opposed to bringing in an artist to work on your project, the way you did with Handsome Boy Modeling School?

Prince Paul: Yeah. You don't have the last word when you're just producing. That's the main difference. When it's your own project, the person could come over, do their lyrics, and then we could switch it around, have Alec Empire remix it, whatever we want. We get to say it's okay.

Phoenix: You mentioned Alec Empire -- he and a lot of the other guests on the Handsome Boy record, like DJ Shadow, are artist-producers. As a studio situation, does that ever get out of control, like having too many cooks in the kitchen?

The Automator: You know how that works? When Shadow works, we go out and eat.

Prince Paul [laughing]: Pretty much.

The Automator: Everyone on So . . . How's Your Girl? was either someone we'd worked with a lot in the past or someone we knew really well already. Y'know? And, basically, there's people you work with who like everything you do, and they may have different ideas, but they go with it. And then there's people who don't go with it, and that determines how it's gonna work, I think. The people we end up with really wanna work with us, they kinda know who we are and what we do. I mean, I haven't been getting any calls from, like, DMX lately. Paul, have you gotten any?

Prince Paul: Nah, not yet. I did parody DMX, though, on the Chris Rock album. I had my man D-Most impersonate him -- he's called "BMX."

Phoenix: So what was the division of labor like on the Handsome Boy record?

The Automator: I'm more in charge of food, he's in charge of beverages.

Prince Paul: Pretty much. I ordered the wine, he ordered the fine filets and steaks.

The Automator: Had 'em shipped in from Canada.

Prince Paul: Actually, I say this in every interview when I get asked this question, but to me Dan is like the most instrumental part of Handsome Boy Modeling School. He was the driving force. He really made a lot of things happen. He just used me 'cause I could get the girls.

The Automator: This was actually the first time I ever heard Paul sing. I think that what he did was he studied all these different artists, figured out what their flaws were, and then went and took voice lessons for several years while everyone else was just smokin' blunts.

Prince Paul: While they were destroying their voice with the blunt, I was perfecting my craft.

Phoenix: Do you consider Handsome Boy Modeling School and A Prince Among Thieves to be parodies? I don't know how much you read your own press, but a lot of people said Handsome Boy was a parody of, like, the vain rapper . . .

The Automator: Oh, no. We're serious. This is how we live!

Prince Paul: I'm surprised they even said anything like that! I think they really shoulda done their research, to find out who we were first, who we really were.

The Automator: We just do stuff that we enjoy doing. I don't think it's a parody. Life is a parody of itself.

Prince Paul: It is. And rappers are parodies of themselves. It's like, how close are rappers and wrestlers? They're basically the same, y'know?

The Automator: They may say we're jokin' around, making parodies, but they never say anything about these rappers who talk about all the drug deals and all the people they're shooting. Why is that any more real than what we're doing?

Phoenix: But isn't A Prince Among Thieves a goof on all these straight-to-video rap flicks?

Prince Paul: That was more like, uhh, every movie and every person I've ever met, kinda combined into one thing -- you know, crooked cops, naive virgins, drugs, women . . .

Phoenix: Paul, you've been using those donkey sounds to dub over the music on promo CDs in order to foil would-be-bootleggers since De La Soul's Buhloone Mindstate . . .

Prince Paul: Might I add that that album was the first promo copy that had, like, the bleeps and stuff so you could identify where your shit was getting bootlegged from. I should get credit for that. What happened was, especially with De La's stuff, we'd give it to the label, and the next thing you know, people at other record companies and, like, radio people would have it. It was the people at the label who spread it out. So what we did was, we gave everybody at Tommy Boy a copy of the record with a different animal sound dubbed over the music. So if we heard it someplace, we knew who it came from specifically.

Phoenix: Did you hear about Jay-Z allegedly stabbing somebody for bootlegging his album? It can't possibly cut into your record sales that much, can it?

The Automator: Well, you don't wanna get bootlegged.

Prince Paul: It's not just the sales, it's the respect, as well. It's very disrespectful.

Phoenix: Well, at least both of you do get respect for what you've accomplished.

The Automator: The problem with respect is that we do things, then someone else takes it, dilutes it, sells two million copies, and they make money off it.

Prince Paul: That's what happens, exactly. Like, we'll invent something, they'll dilute it and make a lot of cash.

The Automator: So, sure, people call us innovators. And, it's like, "Yeah . . . but we're broke."

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