Mikal Safiyullah (birth name: Marc Richardson) was born in Harlem and raised in Brooklyn. As a youth positioned at the birth of hip-hop, he was a feverish graffiti artist and B-boy. His father was a prominent DJ in ’70s New York, so he grew up on disco and funk records. Later exposures to psych-rock and prog would have an equally profound effect on the young man, and, ultimately, on the future of hip-hop as we know it. Safiyullah is best known as Divine Styler, a critically celebrated, radically individual artist who remains one of hip-hop’s most imaginative talents. Like many of music’s fiercest visionaries, Divine has always been a cultural and commercial outsider. Still, among all the figures in hip-hop possessed of genius, he sits comfortably somewhere near the top.
His first hint of fame was in the ’80s as a member of Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate, which led to his 1989 debut, Word Power, followed by the confounding 1992 release Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light. Divine would release just one more record (1999’s Word Power, Vol. 2) before retreating from the music industry for 14 years. He had become disillusioned by hip-hop’s self-debasement. (“Not everything is cocaine, dope, ‘hos, bitches, and chilling — what’s artful about that?”) Fortunately, Divine’s narrative doesn’t end there. Here, in late 2014, hip-hop’s grandmaster experimentalist has reemerged, complete with a new LP in tow.
The new record, Def Mask, plots a cold, bleak, yet exhilarating beeline through the malaise of digital living, acting as a kind of invective on human detachment in the information age. Its tracks are all futurescapes, bubbling with sci-fi synths, skittering clicks, and the whir of machinery. Divine’s lyricism, cerebral and stone-faced throughout, is as complex as ever, touching on themes of technocracy and future-shock. Def Mask is the body-horror of Yeezus gone full-glitch, with flesh discarded, brain suspended in the skull of a drone. In many ways, it’s a continuation of Divine’s three-part discography — ominous, heady, paranoiac, ever suspicious of society’s aims — and yet he’s never sounded so direct, nor so conceptually aggressive.
“It’s an interpretation of what I see going on in the world, in people,” Divine reveals. “I didn’t mean it to be a dystopian thing, but it started to write itself into that area, and once I got the term ‘def mask’ — that word just came out of nowhere — the story, the idea, the concept all started to unfold.” Generally, dystopian music falls into one of two categories. The first, typified by genres like industrial and noise, is a visceral response, all rage and rebellion, wherein the artist thrashes up against technology as a means to retain one’s humanity. The second, mostly seen in strictly instrumental, highly conceptual musics, comments on the dystopia by constructing a sonic mirror of it, a device used to express the environment’s strangeness and absurdity. As for Def Mask, it sits somewhere, triumphantly, in between.
“I’m definitely messing around with technology — I think it’s too far ahead of society,” Divine acknowledges. “There’s a way to use technology to push art forward, and that excites me, but there are other aspects, and those are frightening.”
From the unorthodox delivery of Lil B and the grinding cacophony of Techno Animal to the cloudy abstractness of producers like Clams Casino, Arca, and Lil Ugly Mane, Divine is the square root of modern experimental hip-hop. That truth was first gleaned in Spiral Walls, in whose liquid tapestry of avant-garde arrangement, spoken word, industrial noise, and freeform jazz fusion you can hear the first echoes of each paradigm shift in hip-hop since. Nevertheless, nothing else sounds quite like it. Unsurprisingly, Spiral Walls sold poorly; yet each passing year continues to validate the trails Divine Styler blazed over 20 years ago.
Released on Giant Records at the height of rap’s popularity, Spiral Walls might be the greatest sleight-of-hand ever pulled on a major label, a fact not lost on Divine: “People got fired over it. I really chapped some asses with that one,” he laughs. “Looking back, Giant wanted me to be the golden boy for the label, but I’m very resistant to any kind of constructs. I definitely did not intend for it to come out like that,” he remembers. “I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted anything to be, but I knew one thing: I wasn’t going to be manicured into the type of artist that anyone else wanted me to be.”
Divine says people often question whether he made the record on acid, or, worse, was in the midst of losing his mind. Inferences such as these expose a nearsighted and sadly common evaluation of the MC and his music: namely, that his art must be the product of derangement, drug use, or, some acute personal trauma. The underlying assumption being: Divine Styler could not have made the music he did without the aid of some severe external force.
Divine says this simply isn’t the case. “I was fine, and there were no drugs involved — I can’t even have a glass of wine and play my guitar,” he chuckles. Rather, the uniqueness of Divine’s art is owed to the artist’s unconventional approach to music-making. It’s clear from the way he speaks that his creative process hinges almost entirely on subconscious activity — he doesn’t “make” the music so much as it happens to, or through, him. Divine courts his ideas like self-sufficient entities, following their trails wherever they might lead. Of course, this improvised, even incidental process comes at the expense of forethought, a consequence Divine is more than happy to embrace.
“Maybe it’s different for me, but [music] doesn’t come from my mind — I don’t think about it,” he explains. “Of course I’m aware, but I’m not conceptualizing this shit. Once I get a scent of an idea, or something comes to me in a flash, I write it down. I’m not trying to conjure up these ideas, they just happen.”
Divine reveals that he doesn’t care for most modern hip-hop: “I have trouble finding new music that challenges or excites me.” He is, however, quick to mention a few key exceptions. He speaks glowingly about Jay Electronica and Kanye West (“I love what he does. He has the balls to say ‘fuck it’ and to express himself at all costs”), but, above and beyond these, he shares his deep admiration for the recently defunct avant-rap outfit Death Grips. “When I saw that shit, I was excited,” he says. “I think the future of hip-hop is in that Death Grips direction.”
He’s probably right. Rap’s been trending in the noise direction for several years. (No surprise: Two of 2014’s most discordant hip-hop records, Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty and Clipping’s CLPPNG, also rank among its best.) Of course, it makes perfect sense that Divine would say as much — Spiral Walls foresaw noise-rap 22 years ago — but what shouldn’t make sense is that hip-hop is just now catching up to an artist decades removed from his supposed prime. With the release of Def Mask and the arc of his history, Divine Styler remains more or less right where he left off: on the periphery, ahead of the curve, and probably another 14 years out in front of the rest of us.