Dan "the Automator" Nakamura knows as much about celebrity as most underground hip-hop-producer-slash-DJs –– admittedly, not much. But when it comes to grooming, the Automator knows what's up. "It sucks to DJ a show and have your cuticles get caught on the turntables," says the producer of the celebrated 1997 fringe rap album Dr. Octagon. He's relaxing on plush pillows as an attractive young woman named Mia gives him an expert manicure. Across from the Automator is his partner, mad studio genius Prince Paul, who helped birth such hip-hop classics as De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. He's also getting a nail treatment.
Together, this dynamic duo (using the aliases Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather) make up Handsome Boy Modeling School, of which they're not just the president –– they're also clients. Today they are ensconced in Rescue Nail Spa, an exclusive beauty oasis in Manhattan's trendy Nolita neighborhood. Women adorned in matte-black Prada and leopard-print mules pad through cool pastel-colored rooms wearing mud masks, while floral aromatherapy scents and music by Sting float through the air.
The pair does stand out a little in this refined environment. The Automator is a big-boned Japanese-American who's dressed rather plainly. "This is, like, Old Navy but without the navy," he says, pointing to his nondescript brown T-shirt. Prince Paul, a compact African-American, sports and outfit that's similarly priceless –– that is, it cost nuthin': from the color-coordinated Lacoste jacket-and-shirt combo on top to the Andi basketball kicks cloaking his fect. "Everything I've got on, I got for free," Paul says. "It's the benefit of being a Handsome Boy."
According to him, Handsome Boy Modeling School are a finishing academy where "anyone with sixty bucks can have their handsomeness brought out." "We saw a need for handsomeness," adds the Automator as Mia applies another coat of gloss. "And we made a little record to go along with it."
That little record is Handsome Boy Modeling School's funky debut album, So ... How's Your Girl?, which finds Prince Paul and the Automator shopping at the Beastie Boy's Paul's Boutique. It's a thrill ride of bugged-out sounds: One minute it's hardcore rap; the next, orchestral trip-hop that sounds like Billie Holiday fronting Portishead; another track is techno white-noise insanity.
Helping them look sharp on So ... is a star-studded crew of what the Automator calls "successful Handsome Boy graduates": Beastie guy Mike D, Money Mark, Sean Lennon, DJ Shadow, Alec Empire, and members of Brand Nubian and Cibo Matto. Former Saturday Night Live icon Father Guido Sarducci also makes an appearance. "He's an original Handsome Boy," the Automator says. "He's known about handsomeness, understanding its basic guideline: Wear black, look thinner."
All buffed, polished and moisturized, Prince Paul and the Automator exit Rescue, cell phones buzzing. The afternoon's agenda includes a power lunch at hipster bistro Cafe Gitane. Later they'll host an exclusive record-release party, for which they've acquired new Giorgio Armani suits (charged to the record company, of course).
But don't think they've sold out. "Being handsome is not about being a snob," the Automator mumbles, stepping into a waiting limo. "It's about bringing out the best in every man: If you don't have the glow inside, you can't have the glow outside. We've lived it. Now we're sharing it with the rest of the world."