Hip-hop is dead. So sayeth the aged B-boy, so sayeth the flock.
Of course it's not really dead, just different, and most of the people who are pining for the Eric B and Rakim, KRS-One days of yore can't wrap their heads around the idea of today's mainstream hip-hop, preferring to cling steadfastly to older stuff and the current underground. "Hip-hop died in the mid-'90s," they chorus. What they are really saying is that they grew up in the late '80s and early '90s and, like most people, their favorite music comes from this sentient period of their growth. Face it, like rock fans, hip-hop fans are getting older.
But Dälek, whose Newark, New Jersey-based group shares his pseudonym, has another take: "In the early '90s there were more Public Enemys than there were MC Hammers," he says. "I think it died once once there were more MC Hammers to Public Enemys."
Perhaps, but at this juncture hip-hop is really undergoing the same fissure that jazz did in the '60s, with young, maverick experimentalists breaking off from tradition. John Coltrane lived and breathed roots jazz -- he was raised on the basics -- and from there took it further, branching out into what some listeners pegged as "weird," "noise," or "not music." The same words have been lobbed time after time, first at rock experimentalists, and most recently at "experimental hip-hop" practitioners like Anticon, the Anti Pop Consortium, and Cannibal Ox -- kids who grew up with the hip-hop basics and are now deconstructing them through irregular beats, seemingly nonsensical lyrics, and unique samples.
Dälek, pronounced "Di-lec," as in "dialect," also fits into this new wave of avant-garde hip-hop, so much so that most heads don't even know what to make of the trio. "We've played hip-hop shows, toured with De La Soul," says Dälek, whose real name is Will Brooks. "Our reception is lukewarm."
From the opening strains of the group's second album, From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots, it's easy to see why. Loud bangs pour over industrial soundscapes like fast-drying concrete, with rhythmic screeches that sound like a steel eagle is being repeatedly hit with a baseball bat. A scaffolding of deep, low-rider bass holds the whole thing up. It's hip-hop, but industrial hip-hop, with that same intensity that Ministry had in its later albums fused with the solid, deeply intoned, and pure politics of the Chuck D variety. "We were kind of going for Nirvana 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,'" says Brooks with a chuckle. "It's that meets Public Enemy. High-pitched scratches -- but song structure-wise it's very simple: A-B, A-B, verse-chorus, verse-chorus."
Live, Dälek is even more of a blitzkrieg, with emcee and coproducer Dälek out front, coproducer Oktopus (who at their last local appearance wore a Black Flag T-shirt) at a laptop, and Still on the turntables. Unlike your stereotypical rap show, this group doesn't invite crowd participation, existing more along the lines of a self-contained shoegazer band than "raise da roof" grandstanders. At times Brooks' lyrics are completely unintelligible over the drone. For a form based on verbal communication, that's straight-up unorthodox. "I grew up seeing hip-hop shows," says Brooks, "and I was bored when I would see my favorite bands, and it was just like the guys doing the whole cliché, throwing your hands in the air and all that shit. Well, that's cool, but it's been done. I wanted to be out there and have the show be as powerful as the music. I don't want to just be a DJ and a guy on a mike making the audience work."
Dälek formed after Brooks dropped out of college in '97. He, along with Oktopus, who had also been attending William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, took their student loan money and bought an MPC 3000 sampler. The result was their first LP, Negro, Necro, Nekros -- an innovative blend of inorganic noise and dark, swelling orchestral fills all set to Brooks' powerful voice. Dälek's music is more readily embraced by noise and rock audiences, especially those familiar with hardcore punk and bands like My Bloody Valentine. But, like Coltrane with jazz, Dälek insists that what he does is still hip-hop, just a different branch. "We hold true to what hip-hop always was, taking everything around you and making it your own thing," he says. "It's just what's around me, and what influences me are bands like the 4AD bands, rock, early hip-hop, punk. The sounds are different, but the idea behind making the sounds is straight-up hip-hop."
If Brooks and company's music has an Achilles heel, it's the message in his lyrics, with jabs at organized religion and nods to Kerouac -- predictable lefty stuff that's already been covered by punk. Yet, like most well-executed lyrics, they somehow work for the same reason AC/DC can get away with the line "She had ... the body of Venus with arms." It rocks. Who cares what they're saying? Case in point, "Speak Volumes," wherein Brooks hazily repeats, "Yo, I'm askin', what happened?" as the music builds and builds. He's asking what happened to hip-hop, which is, you guessed it, dead. But the song is sublime. It's epic. And maybe an emcee who's traversing those proverbial boundaries has a right to demand answers from the music he grew up with, anyway.
Being at once inside and outside the hip-hop realm has its demands. Like most groups forced into the "alt-hip-hop" category, Dälek both embraces its own nonconformity and scoffs at people's need to label music. The Anticon collective shares that dichotomy; a certain conceit about being admirably unique, coupled with a weariness about always being compared and contrasted to "real" hip-hop. "I think most people need to figure out where something fits; it's the whole needing to fit the peg into the hole syndrome. Music is music," says Brooks. "I think it was Phil Spector who said it: there's really only two kinds of music, good and bad."
The problem is that most of hip-hop's audience would dub Dälek as "bad," and not, to quote Run DMC, "bad meaning good." None of this seems to particularly bother the group, which has found a comfy home with Alameda's Ipecac Records, run by fellow eccentric Mike Patton. Not only will the group be reaching less of a hip-hop audience through Ipecac, but Dälek also has less of a chance to tour with other hip-hop acts.
Brooks doesn't care one bit. "I think in the long run that on a label like Ipecac with the kind of music that we're doing we are in the best place," he says. "Our sound covers so many different genres that we are better off touring with all these different bands, because we're grabbing small pockets of people from everyone else's audience." Patton, in fact, first saw Dälek on a tour with rock acts, and invited the band to open up for his group Tomahawk on the European leg of its tour.
Upon the release of From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots, several rock journalists hailed it as a musical revelation, one of the best records to come out this year, while many hip-hop publications have all but ignored the album. Since the group hasn't been as embraced by hip-hop audiences as they have by others, why call it hip-hop at all? "Hip-hop's my culture," Brooks responds strongly. "If I picked up a banjo, it would still be hip-hop. For me, I'm just an emcee. This is the way I express myself. I can't sing, so I rhyme. Hip-hop is culture, that's my culture. It's what I breathe, it's what I do."
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