Del, in his more bizarre days.
[We didn’t have space in the paper to run this feature by Ben Westhoff, but we think it’s worth posting on Heard Mentality in advance of West Coast underground-rap luminary Del’s appearance Wed. Feb. 20 at the Vault 350.]
Richmond, California emcee Del The Funky Homosapien was a weird rapper long before Lil Wayne, Andre 3000 and Kool Keith made it, well, kool. He’s not quite so bizarre these days, and that’s a shame. The release of his fifth solo album, 11th Hour—out March 11 on Definitive Jux—comes eight years after his critically lauded, futuristic collaboration with Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, called Deltron 3030. He also had a solo record that year, Both Sides of the Brain, but has released practically nothing since.
So, what the hell has he been doing all this time? Teaching himself music theory, for one, and having his life practically ruined by an ex-girlfriend, for another.
“It was pretty bad,” he imparts in a phone interview. “Probably the worst thing she did was hang herself twice in my garage—thank God not successfully. I went into my garage and she was dangling from the ceiling. The second time she damn near achieved it before I cut her down.”
Another time, she smashed out all the windows in his house, the day before he was scheduled to leave for tour. As a result of this chaos, he was forced to move, as much for her sake as for his. “She’d be in trouble if I saw her now. I probably wouldn’t be friendly at all. I’d probably try to knock her out.” It’s enough to make a man want to quit drugs, and Del has—the psychedelics, at least. “There’s no need to be high, really—stuff like that is enough excitement.”
In any case, this personal drama has undoubtedly had a negative effect on Del’s career. A cousin of Ice Cube who was also a member of Da Lench Mob, he abandoned his mentors’ gangster tropes but maintained the Parliament-influenced West Coast musical flavor on his 1991 debut I Wish My Brother George Was Here, and reached a creative peak with 2000’s Deltron 3030. After joining forces with Gorillaz on the 2001 hit “Clint Eastwood,” he has barely been heard from since, other than a greatest-hits collection, a Handsome Boy Modeling School joint, and collaborations with his Hieroglyphics crew.
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Fans expecting a return to form on 11th Hour might be disappointed. The formerly weird-for-weird’s sake, sci-fi storytelling emcee is a lot more grounded these days. “It was my goal, basically, to be a little more direct, to let people know what was going on in my mind, to let them know exactly what I was talking about,” he says.
True to his word, the stories on 11th Hour are fairly linear, and, sadly, the braggadocio a bit too predictable. “I bet I reach even the hardest G’s, ’cause my artistry ain’t too hard to see,” he raps on “Bubble Pop. On “Situations,” he imparts: “[Y]ou can’t let emotions control you. Foes are going to try to throw you, because they know it’s a way to control you.” On “Hold Your Hand” he threatens: “I’ma analyze wisely situations, see if what you’re saying is warranted.”
A cool, calm, and collected Del? It’s true, and like his lyricism, his beats on the album (he produced 11 of the 14 tracks) are mature as well, undoubtedly the result of all that music theory. The midtempo, scratch-heavy grooves are light on funk and grounded by simple bass and key rhythms that serve as easy repositories for his lyricism. The only track that feels really urgent is “Last Hurrah,” a minor-key slow burner produced by—and featuring—Bronx rapper KU.
Del claims he didn’t really know what he was doing on Both Sides of the Brain—of which he also produced the bulk—but, as is often the case, thorough knowledge is no substitute for great instincts. Nonetheless, it’s nice to see Del back in a good place in his life, free of relationship terror and, most importantly, making music. His relationship with friend El-P and Definitive Jux will undoubtedly ultimately prove fruitful. But one can’t help wishiing for a bit more of that psychedelic scatterbrain we all know and love. “Reality is undisputed,” he says near the disc’s end. The old Del might have taken issue with that statement.