Early on in the life of HHID, I expressed my love and affection for Dan "The Automator" Nakamura's production work; the man brings a cinematic quality to most anything he touches, and the artists he chooses to work with are hilariously varied (Kool Keith, Prince Paul, Depeche Mode, Interpol, Cornershop, and Sarah McLachlan, among many others), with nearly every song clicking (okay, his remix of Interpol's "Slow Hands" kind of sucked, but that's the exception, not the rule). So it makes obvious sense that I've only written about four of the man's projects throughout my four years on the blog, right? Wait, it doesn't?
Today's post will hopefully encourage me to work through the rest of the man's catalog. Although it probably couldn't get any stranger than Deltron 3030, The Automator's conceptual follow-up to his Kool Keith and DJ Q-Bert collaboration Dr. Octagonecologyst, in that an entire album is devoted to a sci-fi protagonist rapping over motherfucking gorgeous instrumentals while potentially alienating the listening audience, and not just because Dr. Octagon was an alien gynecologist. This time around, Dan chose new allies in his war against boring hip hop: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, the Hieroglyphics-affiliated alternative rapper (in that what he chose to rhyme about was an alternative to what everyone else liked to talk about, and not simply because music critics absolutely had to label his work and couldn't come up with anything remotely creative) who also contributed to Dan's Handsome Boy Modeling School side project (alongside fellow producer prodigy Prince Paul), and Canadian deejay Kid Koala, who handled scratches and generally helped Nakamura set the overall tone of what would ultimately end up being a fucking weird-ass album.
Deltron 3030 is ostensibly a science fiction saga about Deltron Zero (played by Del, conveniently enough), who fights oppressive government-led corporations by day and trains for a massive rap battle royale at night, accompanied by Skiznod The Boy Wonder (Koala) and the unfortunately-named Cantankerous Captain Aptos (The Automator), both of whom apparently walk alongside our hero with a set of turntables and a drum machine, as Deltron 3030 has led me to believe. Since what I just described is pretty heady for what is actually a fucking rap album, it makes sense that Del and company stray from the path on more than one occasion, electing to simply spit some ill verses over some majestic instrumentation, all with the help of one of the most bizarre guest lists of all time. In a way, Deltron 3030 would set the stage for a few of The Automator's future projects, most notably Damon Albarn's critically acclaimed Gorillaz, whose self-titled debut was handled primarily by The Automator and featured a couple of guest verses from Deltron Zero himself.
Deltron 3030 was released in 2000 on 75 Ark, Nakamura's vanity label that sadly no longer exists, and sold about twenty copies, as was expected for such an off-kilter project. Del and company weren't hurting, though: they had to have seen that shit coming. When the Gorillaz album dropped one year later and helped boost the profile of Deltron 3030's participants, 75 Ark re-released the album with a fancy-schmancy sticker affixed to the front advertising the cameo appearances from Damon Albarn, the sum total of which probably took the man less than a full minute to record.
1. STATE OF THE NATION (FEAT. DAMON ALBARN)
An unsettling intro that sets up the dark tone of Deltron 3030. Although this could only be due to the line reading from Blur's Damon Albarn, who sounds so bored that even instances of extreme ultraviolence may only elicit a yawn from him. Great job with the casting, Dan.
The first song on Deltron 3030 is nearly seven-and-a-half minutes long, but don't panic: most of it is The Automator's instrumental work, the results of which make it appear as though Del is rhyming over the score to a film that has never been produced. (The rest of the track is made up of sound bites that serve to set the scene.) Deltron Zero turns in three extra-long verses, all of which skew very closely to his general rhyme style. It should be said right now: if you don't care for Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, you will not like this album. He bobs and weaves around The Automator's musical flourishes like a former heavyweight champion, attempting to kick off the Deltron 3030 story but, as rappers often do, reverting back to his traditional emcee mold more often than not. Not that I'm complaining: although overlong, this song sets up the listener's expectations nicely.
3. THE FANTABULOUS RAP EXTRAVAGANZA (FEAT. PRINCE PAUL)
Prince Paul could have taken this skit a bit further, but I still found it goofy enough, especially as he didn't produce it himself, so I'll let it slide.
4. THINGS YOU CAN DO
After nearly annoying the shit out of the listener with a high-pitched vocal sample (one that gives the song its title), Nakamura brings in some hard-as-fuck drums, and the melody discovers itself around the same time that Del notices it, as the man goes off on one of the most accessible tracks from Deltron 3030 (accessible in that you're not paying attention to Del's actual lyrics, which are as impenetrable as ever). Kid Koala's scratching at the end is the icing on the cake, which I suppose makes The Automator the cake batter and Deltron Zero's bars those edible letters you place on top that spell out “Happy Birthday”. Regardless of your dessert preference, this track is still awesome today.
5. POSITIVE CONTACT
This song also rocks, and its vocal sample as a hook (adopted from a line from De La Soul's “Stakes Is High”, also inspiring the song's title) is better, although “Things You Can Do” sounds like a more complete song to me. Even if you ignore the fact that Deltron 3030 is supposed to be a futuristic sci-fi concept rap album, fans of underground hip hop will be able to appreciate Del's combustible performance over The Automator's banging musical backing. Yes, Del veers off topic a number of times, and a lot of his bars would look ridiculous if they were to be written out, but on “Positive Contact”, he is still the master of his domain.
6. ST. CATHERINE ST. (FEAT. BEANS, MR. LIF, P. WINGERTER, PEANUT BUTTER WOLF, & VERNA BROWN)
There's too much going on during this skit. I get the general idea, and the guest list is impressive enough, but allowing that much dialogue to invade your eardrums can induce a headache. It's like listening to a Robert Altman film without the visual aid.
After another unsettling intro, Deltron Zero goes into anarchist mode, announcing his plans to develop a supervirus meant to shut down the world, thereby creating global unity by allowing people to discard the shackles of their corporate overlords, as though he has James Bond tied to a table and figured that he may as well give away his diabolical scheme, because he is so close to his goal that he now has nothing to lose. (Replace “develop a supervirus” with “blow up the credit card companies” and you have the plot to the second half of Fight Club.) Kudos to Del for sticking to the theme for the entire length of the track, and extra special props are due to Kid Koala, whose scratches over The Automator's instrumental make the song sound truly unhinged, which, granted, may not be as difficult to so with an Automator beat, but still sounds fucking great anyway. Nice!
8. UPGRADE (A BRYMAR COLLEGE COURSE)
You know those commercials for community and technical colleges that air during daytime television, interrupting your court shows and soap operas with reminders that you should be working? Del sounds as though he latched on to the catchphrase from one of those spots and wrote an entire song around it. This track isn't technically bad, but it doesn't hold a candle to any of the previous efforts on Deltron 3030. Even The Automator's instrumental sounds unusually subdued, as though he knew that this would be the part in the program where the audience would leave to go get a snack. Moving on...
9. NEW COKE (FEAT. MARK RAMOS-NISHITA)
Somewhat interesting, but an unnecessary skit regardless.
Within the context of Deltron 3030, this song sounds self-serving and out of place. By itself, though, it's decent enough, although the majestic Automator instrumental is nearly ruined by Del's lyrics, all of which praise...The Automator. I'm happy to see the man get his due, and I realize that Deltron 3030 is actually about a trio who wish to overthrow the corporate regime, but you can't help but find yourself emotionally removed from the project entirely while Del worships at the feet of his producer god, with Kid Koala scratching in Del's performance on the Automator-handled “Magnetizing” (from Handsome Boy Modeling School's So...How's Your Girl?) as a handy reminder-slash-pandering. Weird.
11. NATIONAL MOVIE REVIEW (FEAT. BRAD ROBERTS)
Because Deltron 3030 wouldn't be an Automator project without a reference to some out-of-touch pop cultural event that he loves unconditionally. The only surprise here is that he's talking about the Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas flick Strange Brew and not something featuring Chris Elliott.
Deltron 3030 veers back into the left lane with this low-key effort, with Del, Dan, and Kid Koala all contributing to a song that actually does its best to counter all of the madness they see in their imagined future world. The sampled vocal (from The Poppy Family's “Of Cities and Escapes”) as a hook is unnerving, but maybe the crew's intent was to have the audience experience their own form of madness, albeit temporarily, as there is still a lot more album to hear. Nevertheless, I liked this song, although I can't count it as one of my favorites.
13. MEET CLEOFIS RANDOLPH THE PATRIARCH (FEAT. MC PAUL BARMAN)
A goofy interlude featuring a cameo from Prince Paul's boy MC Paul Barman, who helps provide some much-needed levity to the project, although you can't help but think that Barman was included in the proceedings solely because of his Prince Paul connection.
14. TIME KEEPS ON SLIPPING (FEAT. DAMON ALBARN)
Rumor has it that this very song is what inspired Damon Albarn to dream up his Gorillaz side project-now-day job, and I'll believe it: “Time Keeps On Slipping” could have easily slid into the tracklisting of the self-titled, Automator-produced Gorillaz album, with its simple, pop-catchy beat and a Del performance that remains obtuse and yet fully accessible, something that my wife would probably rap along to had she ever heard this track (she also liked Del's performance on the Gorillaz single "Clint Eastwood"). The vocals (from Albarn himself) fit the mood and doesn't overstay their welcome, which was nice. But the reason “Time Keeps On Slipping” succeeds today is because the Deltron crew chose not to run with the more obvious Steve Miller Band “Fly Like An Eagle” sample; for that reason alone, I would buy everybody involved with this track a round of Patron shots delivered in the vaginas of Victoria's Secret models. I realize that I may have lost some of you with that bit of imagery (you're welcome, by the way), but I am just that thankful.
15. THE NEWS (A WHOLLY OWNED SUBSIDIARY OF MICROSOFT INC.) (FEAT. HAFDIS HUD)
The title itself is supposed to be a statement, and back in 2000 it was plausible that Microsoft could have taken over the world. Today, not so much: any Deltron 3030 sequel would have to mention Google, Apple, or Rupert Murdoch as the potential villain if a similar skit were to appear.
16. TURBULENCE (REMIX)
As one of the major selling points (for me, anyway) for Deltron 3030 was having the entire album produced by The Automator, I'm not sure why the trio elected to replace the original version of “Turbulence” (which I think is available as a B-side or something) with Mark Bell's remix, but at least the music itself fits the overall sound of the project. The track itself is pretty dull, though: not for nothing is this one of the shortest songs on Deltron 3030, I suppose. Also, it sounds like Sesame Street's Cookie Monster threatens Del (and, by proxy, the audience) at one point, which simply ruined the song for me. Sigh.
17. THE FANTABULOUS RAP EXTRAVAGANZA PART II (FEAT. PRINCE PAUL)
Prince Paul reappears to break the tension.
The “Fantabulous Rap Extravaganza” competition that Deltron 3030 has been leading up to finally happens over an Automator instrumental that doesn't feel battle-ready. Del does alright for himself, but the beat never matches his intensity, and the end result rings more than a bit hollow. Considering that Deltron Zero has been training for this moment for the duration of the entire album, I was fairly disappointed.
19. LOVE STORY
Apparently the universe didn't fully agree with my assessment of “Battlesong”, as “Love Story” kicks off with the revelation that Deltron Zero actually won the rap battle, so he prepares to return back home to Earth, presumably to smoke a bowl and continue plotting against intergalactic corporations. Or something. Del is simply coasting now, but I'm not going to complain when the music is this good, even when he starts talking about inane shit like renewing his passport. Nakamura plays it straight, beat-wise, which was a wise choice.
20. MEMORY LOSS (FEAT. SEAN LENNON)
Since Del talks about hailing from Oakland, California during this, the final song on Deltron 3030, I can only assume that he made it home safely. The “Memory Loss” indicated by the title is found in the fact that our host appears to have forgotten about his overall mission. Regardless, The Automator's beat is almost hilariously celebratory, rendering this song an entertaining, if horn-heavy, way to leave the crew's tall tale.
21. THE ASSMANN 640 SPEAKS (FEAT. DAMON ALBARN)
A creepy way to end the album. Damon Albarn's intro repeats itself, this time in a distorted manner, essentially opening the story up for a sequel (and opening your mind up for potential nightmares). It'll give you chills.
A 2008 reissue of Deltron 3030 includes a few remixes at the very end, but I don't have that version, so if you're familiar with those tracks, leave some notes about them below.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The intergalactic space opera Deltron 3030 isn't for everybody. It isn't even really an opera, as there is no tragic ending: I just wanted to write out the phrase “intergalactic space opera”. But The Automator chose fine collaborators to assist with his vision: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Kid Koala work alongside him as both kindred spirits and as functioning arms, grounding the outlandishness of this B-movie in the realm of hip hop, and in that respect, Deltron 3030 is an overall success. Automator's beats have rarely sounded as magnificent and fully formed as they do on here, and Del is truly the only guy who would be capable of rhyming to them. As a concept album, I prefer Dr. Octagonecologyst, but Deltron 3030 is suitable for any hip hop head who wishes to mix a bit of creativity in their morning coffee.
BUY OR BURN? I think you should pick this album up, look at it, inspect its contents, and take it to a nearby cashier to exchange your money for its use. Not every song clicks, and the story becomes pretty hard to follow rather quickly, but as a collection of twelve songs (with a number of skits thrown in for good measure), it works, and hop hop heads will find at least three songs they like on here. You should also throw down the money to pick up the instrumental version of Deltron 3030 just because it's the fucking Automator, god damn it.
BEST TRACKS: “Things You Can Do”; “Virus”; “Positive Contact”; “Time Keeps On Slipping”; “Love Story”