2000; 75 Ark
There’s an easy, three-step way to making a successful hip hop concept album: First, get a slightly unbalanced but talented and tenured underground emcee. Second, find a DJ with prodigous skills (a love of B-movie sound clips is a plus.) Third, hire Dan the Automator.
Ok, so there’s only two real clear cut examples where this formula applies. One is the 1996 cult classic, Dr. Octagonecologyst [Dr. Octagon], which featured former Bellevue Mental Clinic resident and Ultramagnetic MC, Kool Keith as well as world champion turntablist, DJ Qbert. The other? 2000's Deltron 3030, starring East Bay rhyme czar Del the Funky Homosapien and wunderkind crate digger, Kid Koala.
Vocally, Del the Funky Homosapien falls somewhere near the realm of a less serious Chuck D. A less, less, less serious Chuck D. Actually, about the only thing the two have in common is wit and a baritone delivery. Del is perhaps best known as the cousin of gangsta rapper Ice Cube, another lyricist in which Del’s style has no relation. An amalgam of classic battle rhymes, tongue-in-cheek humor and old school braggadocio, Del has been at the forefront of the resurgence of old school hip hop mentalities. Deltron 3030, despite being futuristic in theme, captures many of these fundamental tenants that went missing somewhere along the time ultra-violent rap went multi-platinum.
While Del brings the lyrical heat, Kid Koala mans the tables, adding flavor to album mastermind Dan “The Automator” Nakamura’s beat compositions. Both Kid Koala (Eric San) and Nakamura are classically trained musicians which is especially obvious in the latter’s dense and skilled production. Nakamura’s beats tend to air on the side of electronica more than traditional hip hop beats, a tactic that tends to produce more progressive sounds than what is often heard with contemporary producers. While San plays a secondary role, tossing in scratches and appropriate vocal samples every now and then, his function definitely shouldn’t be underestimated especially in the context of furthering the album’s theme, which is also expanded by the numerous cameos by other artists.
“It’s the year 3030,” Damon Albarn of Blur remarks in the introduction “State of the Nation.” Each segue, like Albarn’s intro, adds a little depth to the world of 3030. Def Jukkie Mr. Lif guests on “St. Catherine St.” as a street hustler trying to sell his futuristic wears to the protagonists of the album, Deltron Zero (Del), the Cantankerous Captain Aptos (Nakamura,) and Skiznod the Boy Wonder (San.) Usually, I’m not a proponent of hip hop skits like these, however, many of the skits are actually funny and push along the storyline a bit. A high score goes to “Meet Cleofis Randolph the Patriarch” featuring MC Paul Barman’s polysyllabic rhyme schemes.
Orwellian is the best word to describe Del’s own rhymes on much of the album. On “3030" Deltron introduces himself, “Del, I’m feelin’ like a ghost in a shell/I wrote this in jail, playin’ host to a cell/For the pure verbal,” letting internal rhymes and pop culture references fly all over the place, a commonality in his work. The seven minute track would probably be too difficult for most hip hop artists to keep from becoming dull but Del’s flow keeps the story going and Nakamura’s beat here is among the finest works of the album. Kid Koala flips a sample at the start that fits perfect on the track, slowing and speeding it up until it melds with Nakamura’s choral howls. Through out the album, there are flourishes and slick samples and scratches that fit the post-apocalyptic theme perfectly. Jangling bells on “Virus” and another Kid Koala vocal sample, this time a mad scientist’s ravings, elicit the same feel as “3030” as Del tells us how he will bring about technological ruin. On his own solo albums, Kid Koala displays his love for not only these B-movie clips but also enjoys mashing in ‘50's how-to records into his often-bizarre sound collages, a talent and joy clearly present on Deltron 3030.
Of course, Del wouldn’t allow an album of his to be so bleak and dire, nor would these beat producing knuckleheads, well-known for their own shenanigans on other works. Along with the aforementioned skits, tracks like “Love Story,” “Positive Contact” and “Battlesong” expose more lyrical absurdity and humor. The techno-funky “Positive Contact” gets it on with some beat boxing and warbling bass stabs as Del pulls some classic hip hop braggadocio for the year 3030 like, “Cyber-tech dialect, you gotta earn my respect/I'm like Gamera to amateurs, hit ‘em with a cannonball.” “Love Story” has Deltron spittin’ game on some chick with three butt-cheeks and one eye. ’Nuff said. Del’s style has always been ripe with punch lines and on Deltron 3030, it’s no different.
Perhaps the best tracks, however, are those which tend to abandon the storyline. “Memory Loss” is a crash course in hip hop 101, with Sean Lennon guesting some vocals in between Del’s verses. Del touches on a dozen topics, ranging from what’s wrong with the music industry to people calling out his home, Oakland, California. On “Time Keeps on Slipping” Del captures the exact flavor of the track when he remarks, “That’s the funky, funky, shi
t!” Nakamura’s atmospherics give off a similar techno feel to the funky beat, a bit like “Positive Contact” and even allow Del to go a capella in between the harmonica and vocalizing in the chorus. These tracks, which don’t explicitly get into the story, do keep some of the warped sci-fi wordplay that is not really a staple of Del’s attack on other albums. It would be easy to pigeon-hole him as a anime-loving, technophile nerd lyricist but the reality is this style is a diversion from his more earthly works. Although he does like his anime.
There’s very little not to like about Deltron 3030. The work of the trio is both forward thinking and classic hip hop at the same time, something that can appeal to a larger audience than most other hip hop albums. In fact, if the album holds any legacy outside of the realm of hip hop, it’s that it is among the few albums that have made huge crossover leaps, pulling all sorts of fans who usually wouldn’t give hip hop a chance. Certainly the presence of a myriad of names like Damon Albarn and Bjork friend/producer Mark Bell can peak the curiosity but it is the skill of Teren Delvon Jones, Dan Nakamura and Eric San that keep the listener in their seat. Like Dr. Octagon before it, Deltron 3030 is smart, funny, experimental and despite what one might think, incredibly down to earth. A true hip hop classic.