Hip-hop is dead. So sayeth the aged b-boy, so sayeth the flock.
Well, it's not really dead, just different. Most of the people who pine for the Eric B. and Rakim, KRS-One salad days can't seem to stomach today's mainstream hip-hop. "Hip-hop died in the mid-'90s," they claim. Most hip-hop fans came of age in the late '80s and early '90s and, generally, their favorite music comes from this sentient period. Face it, hip-hop fans are getting older.
But Dälek, whose Newark, New Jersey, 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 there were more MC Hammers to Public Enemys."
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Perhaps, but hip-hop is now undergoing the same fissure that jazz did in the '60s, with maverick experimentalists breaking from tradition. John Coltrane lived and breathed roots jazz -- he was raised on the basics -- and from there took it further, to what some listeners pegged as "weird," "noise" or "not music." These are old words, first targeting rock experimentalists and, these days, experimental hip-hop practitioners such as Anticon and the Antipop Consortium. Kids reared on hip-hop basics are now deconstructing them through irregular beats, nonsensical lyrics and unique samples.
Dälek (pronounced "Di-lec," as in "dialect") also fits into this new wave of hip-hop, so much so that many don't know what to make of the group. "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 understand why. Loud bangs pour over industrial soundscapes like concrete, with rhythmic, pained screeches. Deep, low-rider bass holds the whole thing up. It's hip-hop, but industrial hip-hop, made with the same intensity Ministry used in its later albums and fused with the politics of Chuck D.
"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 Dälek out front, co-producer Oktopus at a laptop, and Still on the turntables. This group doesn't invite crowd participation, playing self-contained shoegazers instead. At times, Brooks' lyrics are unintelligible. For a form based on verbiosity, 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."
Dälek formed after Brooks dropped out of college in '97. He and Oktopus, students together for a time at 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 -- a blend of inorganic noise and dark orchestral fills set to Brooks' powerful voice. Dälek's music is more readily embraced by rock audiences, especially those familiar with colossal guitar bands like My Bloody Valentine. But, like Coltrane with jazz, Brooks insists what he does is still hip-hop.
"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."
If Dalek'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. Yet, like most well-executed lyrics, they somehow work for the same reason AC/DC can get away with "She had . . . the body of Venus with arms." It rocks. 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, yes, is dead. But the song is sublime. It's epic. And maybe an MC who's traversing those boundaries has a right to demand answers from his beloved hip-hop.
Being at once inside and outside the hip-hop realm has its demands. Like others forced into the "alt-hip-hop" category, Dälek both embraces nonconformity and scoffs at people's need to label music. The Anticon collective shares that dichotomy, a certain conceit about being unique coupled with frustration over being contrasted with "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 home with Alameda, California's Ipecac Records, run by the eccentric Mike Patton. Not only will the group stray from hip-hop audiences through Ipecac, but Dälek also has less of a chance to tour with other hip-hop acts. Brooks doesn't care.
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"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 for his group Tomahawk on its European tour.
Upon the release of From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots, several rock journalists hailed it as a musical revelation, while hip-hop publications have all but ignored the album. Since the group hasn't been as embraced by hip-hop audiences, 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 MC. This is the way I express myself. I can't sing, so I rhyme. Hip-hop is culture, that's my culture."