Independence for a rapper can be a scary proposition. Rap has long been the hired gun of the major labels, easy money on the backs of young and naïve would-be entrepreneurs.
Given the current woes of the music industry, if you took major label hip-hop money out of the equation, the lean times of 2008 would have been on us back in ’98. One could argue that the hip-hop boom of the ’90s acted as the tech boom of the same decade, and we are merely seeing a market “correction.” (Just don’t tell Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine that.) The majors provide financial stability, million-dollar videos, big-dollar advances, studio time, “name” producers and the security that, as long as you keep writin’ those hits, you don’t have to worry about your next meal.
Independence means severing the umbilical cord. You are left back in the DIY, where you are only as good as your last hit, that next meal might be Ramen noodles, and you’ve long since given up that deluxe tour bus for an Astrovan. But — and this is only for the strongest of stomachs — you are your own boss. You own your own music, you control your publishing, you can release as many or as few albums as often as you like, and you can finally make that Turkish polka techno fusion supergroup album you’ve always dreamed of. You’ve are an Avon salesman, and if you’re good, you’re in for happy times: Wake up early, go to the bank. Call the accountant, call the publicist. Make sure equipment is on its way to the next city. Make sure engineers turned in the final mixes of last night’s work, double-check the artwork for the CD — the pressing plant will have the discs ready by the street date. You are no longer the artist. You are the industry. It doesn’t happen unless you do it. This is a life that few can maintain, and even fewer succeed.
Del Tha Funky Homosapien has been doing this for a long time. Rappers tend to have relatively short careers, but Del’s very near the end of his second decade, bearing no signs of letting up. He began as a ghostwriter for Ice Cube’s offshoot group Da Lench Mob during the early ’90s, and his first solo album, I Wish My Brother George Were Here, came out in 1991 to critical praise, if not quite lighting up the airwaves and cash registers.
After his second album, No Need For Alarm, gave birth to the hip-hop collective known as Hieroglyphics (Souls of Mischief, Opio, Casual, Pep Love, and A Plus), Del set off on the indie route. His crew released two full-length albums and spawned countless combination and solo turns for the rest of the members. The millennium brought about his busiest year, with the solo record Both Sides of the Brain solidifying his legendary status with fans, while Deltron 3030, the science fiction concept album and collaboration with producer Dan The Automator, is probably his high-water mark.
The next year was his star turn: appearances on The Gorillaz’ hits “Clint Eastwood” and “Rock The House,” and Del’s profile seemed to rise a little more each year. Casual music fans assumed The Gorillaz were fronted by this oddly engaging voice on first listen, and the Brit was just along for the ride. When the group’s sequel, Demon Days, was released without contributions from Del, a storyline had to be created to write his character out of the animated group.
His latest, The Eleventh Hour, is his first for the Def Jux label, and recalls the reasons to love him: The music’s funky as hell, with clever, witty lyrics and Del’s one-in-a-million elastic voice and flow. His voice is pure Oakland, and his energy is not of this world. Tracks like “Bubble Pop,” “Slam Dunk” and “Hold Your Hand” are vintage Del, bouncing between usual emcee bravado and did-he-just-say-that? stories that only he can tell.
“I feel that my ability to stay hip no matter what the scene is like is a major factor concerning me hanging around for so long,” Del told riotsound.com. “Also, I try to be engaging and respectful of everybody I come into contact with, so the vibe is just good. I find people want you to win when you keep everything one hundred (percent). When you front, more people wait for your downfall and they’re reluctant to help you out. And we all need help, I don’t care how large an individual thinks they (are), they didn’t get there by (their) self.”
Del co-headlines the Forecastle Festival Friday, July 25, at 9 p.m. on the West Stage.