"Why they call you Del the Funky Homosapien?" asks a puzzled gangsta on I Wish My Brother George Was Here. "It means a funky human being," replies an exasperated Del. Though sonically and genealogically tied to the NWA school, Del is not a gangsta rapper. Whereas gansta rap is all about keeping it real, Del is all about keeping it dreamy. Whereas gansta rap's realm is the hood, Del's is the imagination. Whereas gansta rap is dead serious, Del is creatively silly.
Del the Funky Homosapien's career begins with his cousin Ice Cube. Ice Cube, of course, established his career with NWA, the source of L.A.'s post–World Class Wrecking Crew sound. In the mid '80s, the tunes produced by the World Class Wrecking Crew, L.A.'s first major rap crew and the point of origin for NWA founding members Yella and Dr. Dre, were very much indebted to New York crews like Whodini and Run-D.M.C. NWA represented L.A.'s first real break from the East Coast debt and movement toward a new regional form of hiphop. Because Del was close to Ice Cube, the sound of his first album, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, is very much connected to the Funkadelic-heavy hiphop that branched out from NWA at the opening of the '90s.
On his second album, No Need for Alarm, Del completely breaks with L.A.'s Funkedalic program and plugs into the boom-bap pulse that then dominated the East Coast. It can be argued without difficulty that No Need for Alarm marks the opening of the Bay Area's Left Coast hiphop—from it branches Hieroglyphics and Souls of Mischief.
"Finally, someone let me out of my cage," raps Del on Gorillaz's defining tune, "Clint Eastwood." After establishing the Left Coast in the early '90s, Del made an impressive transition into a form of hiphop that emerged right after Dan the Automator and Kool Keith released Dr. Octagonecologyst in 1996. Art hiphop? Post-hiphop? Or Post-postmodern hiphop? Reanimation hiphop? (Reanimation because it revived so many dead careers—Prince Paul, MF Doom, Cee-Lo of Gnarles Barkley.) Whatever one may call it, we all know it has these distinguishing characteristics: It's playful, often theatrical, rarely not ironic, and it has a taste for forgotten cultural junk—cheesy science-fiction films, low-budget sleaze, Playboy-mansion chic. Del not only worked with Dan the Automator on the Gorillaz project, the two also released in 2000 one of the most impressive and ambitious works of sonic science fiction, Deltron 3030.
On his latest album, Eleventh Hour, Del fully breaks with post/reanimation hiphop and takes an unexpected journey into the twilight of New York's underground hiphop. Def Jux is the album's label, and much of Eleventh Hour's sound is within the limits of that label's program of low-tech boom bap. Del's latest direction, however, is not his most productive or creative. He's not doing anything that is really new or innovative. All of the wacky science fiction of Deltron 3030 and Both Sides of the Brain is gone, and so is the playfulness of Gorillaz.
We are left with a very serious and almost too stark Del who is not expanding the possibilities of hiphop but trying to save it from itself, trying to reinforce its core aesthetic values. Sometimes the rescue mission meets with success, as on the dazzling track featuring Ladybug Mecca, "I Got You," the melancholy "Last Hurrah," and the old- school "Slam Dunk." But often Del seems to be making hiphop for no other reason than to demonstrate to the listener that he is making underground hiphop, and not the phony, corrupted crap manufactured by the mainstream. What's lost in this practical demonstration is the joy and excitement of making hiphop. Always what one wants to hear is a hiphop that does things that it's not used to—a hiphop that is continually surprising, shocking, breaking, distorting, and contorting itself.
We may hate a lot of things about the current state of rap, but the solutions to these grievances should not be located in the stabilization and reinforcement of its precommercialization traditions. Rappers like Del must look forward and continue to utilize hiphop as a tool for new cultural situations, new ways of dreaming.