The phrase “underground hip-hop” has seen some tough times. Regardless of whether or not names like Wordsound, MF Doom, or Peanut Butter Wolf are in your daily lexicon, there’s little denying that, for the casual enthusiast, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish hip-hop’s underground from the establishment it purports to be a reaction against. But disputing the credibility of one artist versus another reduces the music’s validity to a battle of presentation, where pedigrees are established chiefly through tiresome one-upmanship. Such banal practices are expected within the mainstream, but is that really the best the underground has to offer?
Fortunately, along with everything else that submits itself to the critical eye, the sounds that fall between the cracks of hip-hop’s conventions often reveal themselves as the most worthy of repeated inspection. Anyone can knock the establishment for its shortcomings, but the truly distinguished artists are those whose goals are more ambitious than simply calling foul on an industry they find themselves boxed out of. The Newark/Brooklyn hip-hop combo known as Dälek is one example. Comprising the verbal skills and poetry of thirty-one-year-old MC Dälek and thirty-two-year-old producer Oktopus, the group has for ten years created complex, performance-oriented hip-hop that boldly asserts the true sonic vocabulary of the genre.
“As underground as hip-hop gets, it seems there’s still a template that everyone has to follow,” MC Dälek says. “If you remember when hip-hop started, it was experimental music. It [had] never existed before. When Afrika Bambaataa was dropping loops from Kraftwerk with rhymes on it, it was like, What? What is that? And people have just forgotten about that.”
Dälek’s passion for experimentation is most evident on their recordings: 1997’s Negro Necro Nekros matched planet-shattering beats to the spiritual drones of Indian tabla music and William Burroughs sound bites. Three subsequent albums have worked such unlikely elements as shoegazer guitar, melodica, and peels of clamoring feedback into the mix—each release representing a full-scale reinvention of their unique vision, and demonstrating how far beyond the over-broadcast realm of major-media hip-hop Dälek remains.
With a knowing smirk, the MC confides that “the best compliments we get are the ones that start with ‘I don’t listen to hip-hop, but...’” Indeed, the group members’ own musical passions extend far beyond the customary list of expected influences. Avant icons like Glenn Branca and the legendary German art-rock band Faust (whom Dälek have recorded a full-length collaborative LP with) earn the same reverence as genre kingpins Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. Casual conversations move quickly from Public Enemy to Bjork to out-jazz, with head-spinning connections made between them.
With such an expansive arsenal of musical touchstones, Dälek might be dismissed as merely unfocused. But the band’s appreciation for disparate elements has been translated into admirably realized works of incising narrative. “Spiritual Healing” (the opening track from 2002’s From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots) begins with a plaintive piano introduction in the tradition of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Abruptly, the pensive mood is shattered by what sounds like Balinese gongs hurtling through a vortex. A colossal beat that invokes Godzilla rampaging across Tokyo falls in tandem, and the cacophony is parted by a furious verbal reckoning:
Who you pray to, my god, the black god? / Who you pray to, my god, the brown god? / Who you pray to, my god, the white god? / Your reaction’s kind of odd for a kid who loves to nod.
It’s a convincing introduction to what the end of the world might sound like. Not bad for the first forty seconds of the album.
Within the local club environment, the members of Dälek relish their reputation as known outsiders. Long regarded as too noisy for most mainstream hip-hop audiences, they cultivated their first home base at a squalid venue on Avenue A called Brownies. Throughout the late ’90s, they performed there regularly, often to stupefied fanzine editors and record store mavens who’d come to see the indie-punk bands that Dälek, lacking any obvious peers, was customarily billed alongside. This period of performing to hostile crowds is now regarded as an important stage in their evolution as instigators, though they were not the first to take creative nourishment from treading in unwelcome waters. The Sex Pistols did it on their 1978 tour of the American south, though they ultimately imploded from the exertion of going where they were least wanted. In Dälek’s case, a dedicated following of converts and forward-thinking hip-hop fans emerged from the realm of bottle-hurling naysayers.
In the ensuing years, a lot has changed for the better. The emergence of a critically sophisticated subculture that embraces electronic music, hip-hop, metal, and the avant-garde, and to whom Dälek’s work doesn’t seem so alien, has emboldened their touring activities. While surging crowds still elude their Stateside performances, they’ve found substantial success across Europe, where they’ve performed extensively to an ever-growing fan base.
“Our booking agent in Europe is able to get us hundreds of shows, but we struggle to maybe get four or five dates on the west coast,” Dälek says. “It kinda lets you know where you’re at…It sucks that we can’t draw bigger crowds in our hometown, but I think it’s been a common tale throughout musical history with so many bands that broke overseas. I mean, [there’s] Public Enemy for you. They were bigger in London than they were in New York.”
Blame America for being jaded, having a tepid musical palate, or simply being too distracted to care, but don’t blame the record industry. In 2002, the group’s constant touring attracted the attention of Ipecac Records, a west-coast indie that ambitiously champions difficult sounds ranging from skronky free jazz to sputtering laptop metal. For a group like Dälek, who unlike many other artists harbor no ambitions for a major label deal, the arrangement couldn’t be better. Ipecac has released three of their albums (including the brand new Abandoned Language), and has been exceptionally supportive of the band’s deployment of the modest funding it’s been able to proffer.
With both members of Dälek coming from studio backgrounds, they opted to use Ipecac’s advance money to purchase their own recording equipment, rather than renting time in someone else’s facilities. Although it took them several years, they eventually replicated the kind of professional setup that labels customarily pay a third party to give their artists access to. “In the end, we had what the big studios had, but it was in our basements and bedrooms,” the proud MC notes. “Ipecac has always been amazingly great with us. They understand that if we come at them with an idea that involves X amount of money, it’s not because, you know, we have some great idea about hiring a thousand hookers.”
Dälek’s ideas were fully realized in May of 2006, when they cut the ribbon on Deadverse Studios in Union City, NJ, where much of Abandoned Language was recorded and mixed. Although hit-minded majors no longer give priority to long-term artist development—never mind a band that’s already got multiple albums (and no hits) behind them—this curious arrangement has benefitted both Dälek and their label. With the group’s equipment now in a proper studio, they have the freedom to scrutinize their recordings, remix them, add textures, and re-think their entire architecture from the inside out—ultimately delivering the kind of meticulously realized work that most labels dream of, but few are willing to finance. On Abandoned Language, Dälek’s most cinematic and carefully arranged release to date, the payoff is abundantly evident. Whereas past albums have shared the common theme of the lyricist’s anger, Abandoned Language is more notably attuned to the poignancy of defeat and sorrow.
“More than anger, there’s constant sadness,” MC Dälek confides. “Anger is always ugly, regardless of how you portray it. But there’s something about the sadness of this record that gives it a quality of beauty that we’ve never had before.”
This elemental departure is most evident in “Tarnished,” in which some of the vocals are mixed on the same plane as the instruments, rather than as a centerpiece. The song gathers ominously into a funerary dirge, and as if broadcasting from remote space, the rhymer’s distant voice summons grave attention:
Verses amplified acoustically through wires… / It all makes sense when mind’s on liquored virus / Traveled under soil with Osiris / Birth and death of modern world on the Tigris / Why fight this?
“I don’t need to be in the forefront,” he states. “Even though I’m the MC in Dälek, I don’t need my words to be ten decibels louder than the backing track… The music, along with the words, is what gets the point across.”
Point most assuredly taken.
Dälek website: http://www.deadverse.com