Dashed Hoop Dreams 

Raw brains beat cocky experience in the NBA 2K7 match-up of Dan the Automator vs. Press Play.

Unexpected beatdowns deeply scar the brain. One minute you're walking the usual route home from school, and the next second — wham! — you wake up in the hospital with your skull stapled shut. That walk home will never be the same.

I'm thinking about high school beatdowns as I get stomped like a Guantánamo detainee by world-famous Bay Area producer Dan the Automator. The tall, casually dressed Japanese American is in the Express conference room with me and a PlayStation 2, discussing his new project wherein he produces seventeen local and national rap acts for the music inside NBA 2K7, Take Two Interactive's new basketball videogame. Naturally, I assumed the veteran producer would have no skills whatsoever and I could whomp up on him whilst doing a pithy interview. Yet here I sit, down fifteen points at the end of the first half in an East Bay battle of Dan's Golden State Warriors against my Sacramento Kings.

The Bernal Heights resident claims he's skill-less on account of playing 2K7 only once and a general disinterest in gaming. He tosses up the occasional full-court air ball instead of hitting the "pass" button, and even has trouble picking a team. Yet his knowledge of the real Warriors' strengths and the Kings' weaknesses has him slowly pulling ahead. I try to distract him with questions about the origin of the project. "Videogames, they sell a million copies, and records don't sell that many," Dan says. "Anything that allows me to not be beholden to a major label is good. Labels are in such trouble these days, it's nice to do other things."

After loosely curating the NBA 2K6 soundtrack, which was one of the strongest compilation albums of 2005, Dan says Take Two called him back to do something more in-depth. He chose a rapping dream team, produced all the beats and instrumentals for them to rap over, instructed them to branch out according to his vision, and sewed up the final product.

Over the course of little more than five weeks, Dan had Mos Def, E-40, Lupe Fiasco, Zion I and Hieroglyphics, and other big stars send in their work while he did production on ProTools from home, New York, and pretty much anywhere in between.

"I never did a record like this before," he says. "Because we had five weeks, I wasn't able to bring in anybody [to the studio], and to be honest, it's not my way of doing records. I don't enjoy it. But on the other hand, having those particular constraints was a cool challenge."

Dan says the highest-caliber albums come from long, in-studio collaborations, such as his iconic Deltron 3030 with Richmond's Del the Funkee Homosapien. He says he can tell when rappers mail in their vocals, such as with Kool Keith's latest fiasco, The Return of Dr. Octagon. "That wasn't a Dr. Octagon record," Dan says. "Dr. Octagon is me, Kool Keith, and Q-Bert. The label didn't have the legal right to use the name, but I didn't want to get involved in a legal battle."

You and Keith still friends? I ask. "Keith's my man, just trying to make a little bit of money."

Sandbox censorship from the corporate videogame overlords further hampered the rawness of NBA 2K7: The Tracks, Dan says. Millions of copies are shipping to children across the country, so rapping about bitches, hos, money, guns, and cars was banned.

"By the end, it was kind of almost arbitrary," he grouses. "Like, we couldn't use the word 'green' for money. Another thing that wasn't allowed was the word 'foul.' It's a sports game, right? It was kind of a drag."

The time constraints and censorship explain a lot about the final PG-rated product, which goes heavy on high-tempo anthems like Mos Def and Anwar Superstar's "Here Comes the Champ." Dan has crafted hook-filled sonic wallpaper designed to fit the paradoxical goals of insistent music that doesn't interfere. That takes music skills as cerebral as his love of sports — and it's apparent Dan is an avid sports follower.

Neither a fantasy football player nor a gambler, the Automator moves slowly and methodically on the court. There are no big crosses or and-ones. Like a high school basketball coach, he patiently works the Warriors up the court, passing around to Davis when he's open and making each shot every time. By contrast, I run Bibby like a Harlem Globetrotter, setting fruity picks and attempting big threes and dunks. NBA 2K7 is thinking man's basketball, and I get ruined by three-in-the-key calls, out-of-bounds whistles, and offensive fouls. "No more questions, Dan," I say, and make a frenzied, desperate push.

By the end of the fourth, we're shooting a similar 49 to 46 percent, Davis and Bibby both have 31 points, but I've turned the ball over 23 times to his 4.

The final score: Automator 66, Press Play 44. An absolute stomping. "Never played the game" my ass.

"Leave, Dan, and don't come back," I say in my head. But he's a gracious, silent winner, and I want him to come back for more on the new Deltron project (very far along, he says; it'll be finished by the end of this year). I also want a rematch when he tracks NBA 2K8, for which I'll be studying up.

Unexpected beatdowns deeply scar the brain, but revenge heals all wounds.


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