A decade ago, when Del the Funky Homosapien was still spelling his name funee, his cousin Ice Cube drafted him as point man for a mid-gangsta-age P-Funk revival and piled more George Clinton-copyrighted hooks on Del’s first album than a too-goofy-for-the-‘hood East Bay starchild could be expected to bear. By album number two—which failed the way a lot of hip-hop in the embarrassingly talent-rich mid ’90s did, shooting bricks from a baseline of quality—Del had passed up his position as Dr. Funkenstein’s crazy intern. Wandering off the grid to, like, find himself, he pursued one of rap’s rockier (and more rockish) career arcs, from slacka-MC to bemusedly game J. Mascis collaborator to missing and presumed cracked-out Telegraph Avenue wastoid/record-store clerk to self-evident, self-producing genius in the living room.
Maybe it was the way Prince Paul and classically trained violinist Dan “the Automator” Nakamura gave him rap-star bona fides on last year’s Handsome Boy Modeling School album, or the way Internet hit-counts gave him and his Hieroglyphics crewmates a real sense of their cult’s scope for the first time, but Del’s been peaking all year. His trademark irascibility now seems to stem less from the customary sour-grape-poisoning of the coulda-been-pop than from habit—which means it can sound almost rote, but never completely. And now that he’s finally made a record equal to both his rhymes and his rep—February’s Both Sides of the Brain—and watched it get slept on like all the other ones, his attitude feels earned, too.
Both Sides—all lo-fi pixelation, insult-comic shtick and South Park samples pinging around like racquetballs—demonstrated that Del’s persona could carry a record more or less on its own; Deltron 3030 pairs him with like-minded collaborators to turn that persona into a mission. The Automator kicks creepy atmosphere and makes classical gas-faces in the background, DJ Kid Koala slings vinyl Frisbees, and an all antistar supporting cast (ladies and gentlemen, Medeski, Martin & Wood’s engineer!) floats in and out. As befits a project where the guest list is pretty much gimme-indie-rap (Anti-Pop Consortium’s Beans, Peanut Butter Wolf) or why-the-hell-not (Blur’s Damon Albarn as “Sir Damien Thorn VII of the Cockfosters Clan”), this is also a concept album, set in outer space because that’s where concept albums come from. 75 Ark included a playbill complete with synopsis in their first promo mailing, so I’m not sure how well the story—standard postapocalypse futurama about rap battles in a galaxy ruled by “evil corporate Goliaths,” if you must know—comes across, but I’m not sure it matters, either. Deltron can’t match the tightly controlled dramatic arc of Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves and doesn’t try. But it’s a better humanity-as-virus-in-global-machine headphone psychodrama than Radiohead’s Kid A, if you’re enough of a nut to keep score on such interleague competitions. And battle-centric rappers, especially the “abstract” kind, need concepts like this one—the story becomes an oblique strategy, forcing everyone to stick to themes without getting in anybody’s way.
More important, confirmed Chris Claremont fan Del seems to really dig sci-fi for its own sake—its wonky mythological texture, its wonder verging on schlock, and the way its gearhead vocab serves as an expansion pack for his mental Magnetic Poetry set. Detailing rhymes for Star Trek conventioneers the way Raekwon does for kung-fu-loving black-Italian ex-crack dealers, he title-drops Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell, plays “Gamera to amateurs,” and translates “ancient language with a brain-dish” before the record’s half over. The real hook, though, isn’t the way Del can rhyme “wireless” and “psoriasis”—we should expect no less of an MC who seems to know the dictionary definition of “idiom”—but the way he personalizes the material.
A 31st-century schizoid man talking space shit not to freak you out but because he’s got space shit on his mind, goddamit, he’s both an emotively frustrated outsider (“Fuck Earth, I wanna live on Mars/So I’m closer to the stars, and farther away from dumb civilization”) and an involved social commentator (“They only teach high-tech in private portables that float above commoners they’d soon as bomb at first”). Like the commercial says, he is sci-fi. And like most black sci-fi writers, he uses the future tense to critique the present from an ironic distance, and his editorial is no less cutting just because it’s funny. Not that life in 3030 doesn’t have its ancillary perks, though—when the record ends, he’s back home in the East Bay, perusing his “21st-century classic comics” and watching virtual-reality porn.
Rhythmwise, the Automator sticks to low-key, standardized boom-baps; his ordered astro-creep chamber music is neither as techy as Timbaland’s nor as strikingly subliminal as the thuds and rattles Quasimoto lifts from Fantastic Planet (’70s French space fantasia for animation-festival stoners; Jennifer Lopez watches it blunted in The Cell). But in the margins, you can hear him conducting a Moby-style study of white blues-rock (is that Eric Burdon on “Madness”?) and grooving on, y’know, sonic architecture; the majestically dark title track (turntablist pedal steel zinging off the walls, ghost-mass choir getting its collective swerve on) is an alien-worshiping cathedral erected atop a Shaolin basement.
The Automator’s signature sound is one reason why the ghost of Dr. Octagon—a similarly sci-fi-bent, Automator-produced piece about an MC from the year 3000—haunts Deltron’s lower registers. The other reason is that Octagon‘s ghost hangs over a lot of hip-hop records these days, even the ones Kool Keith himself raps on. Keith’s body of work as an Ultramagnetic MC helped spawn a living, breathing surrealist paradigm for hip-hop, and Dr. Octagon made it OK for Royal Trux fans to buy rap records. But Keith’s antiwackness stance has hardened, and his recent records (like this summer’s scabrous Matthew) sound contagiously disappointed, the deep-leftfield rants of a guy who doesn’t think much of today’s hip-hop but hates the idea of obscurity more.
On the Analog Brothers’ Pimp to Eat, Keith kinda-sorta gets his satiric groove back. Born as a throwaway gag in the liner notes to ’98’s Dr. Dooom (Keith as “Robbie Analog,” mocking RZA’s own concept clunker Bobby Digital in Stereo), Pimp to Eat‘s overall vibe—black borscht-belt fantasists slayin’ em at a wack-MC Friar’s roast—still feels desultory, though, mainly because playas got funnier this year, stealing much of playa-hate’s thunder. Keith is in top form—no other mind could have spawned the hair-hygiene ode “Permsbaldheadsafrosdreads”—but the form itself is weak. Improbably, though, new collaborator Ice-T (analog alias: “Ice Oscillator”) makes the save, coming back weird-hard with all the presence his last album seemed to be saving for the Law & Order cameras.
The last time I saw Ice, he was politicking at a digital-music convention, promoting his Internet record label by signing autographs next to his own champagne fountain (!), like he’d yet to be informed that there was a dotcom crunch going on. Pimp to Eat feels the same way, like a promise that there’ll be mackin’ in the future, even after the money runs out. Squeaky-voiced and foul-fuckin’-mouthed as a motherfucker, Ice nails the smallness behind big pimpin’, from object-fetishism (Oldsmobile gets props as “the epitome of the automotive industry,” ‘hos get treated like bitches) to fussy vanity (“I sleep soft on a pillow, in order not to fuck up my ‘do”). He’s a fallen leading man getting back in touch with his chops in a character role.
The beats are Moogy junk from G-funk’s trunk, moving less like gleaming space Cadillacs and more like the rides some Dungeon Family member describes on OutKast’s Stankonia, held together by chrome and rubber bands. Pimpin’ itself is now an unreliable vehicle they have to push uphill; even the Brothers’ playa handles—”Keith Korg,” “Silver Synth,” etc.—evoke lowlife in the so-called space age. Sometimes astral traveling is manifest destiny, after all. But sometimes (per Flavor Flav) it’s more like going to see Captain Kirk like a jerk ’cause you’re out of work.