How do you make music that's fresh, but still accessible?
I asked Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, an MC known for 16 years for his lyrical mastery and innovative production. Del, I said, how do you keep it challenging but still easy to get into?
"You can't be uninteresting and be accessible, you feel me?" he said. "You got to be interesting. You got to be entertaining. Otherwise, nobody's going to want to listen to you. I think it's hard to be interesting."
Damn. I had it all wrong. See, I thought of Del as this semi-underground figure, an alternative hip-hop hero who made appearances on all my favorite discs, even before his familiar voice could be found on tracks like the now-famous "Clint Eastwood" by the Gorillaz. I made a list of questions with that figure in mind, and, always, Del's answers defied my expectations. How has hip-hop changed since your first release in 1991? "It hasn't really." What would you change about the music industry? "I don't think nothing's wrong with it." What are you listening to? "Whatever I could get at Target is what I usually get."
But there's always more to it than that.
Hip-hop's the same as it ever was, says Del, "more like the ’80s now than it was before," but he's talking technical. It's all because of those 808 beats, drum machines and synth-heavy production.
He thinks people who complain about the state of the music industry, about the state of hip-hop in particular, are just looking with sentimental eyes toward an elusive Golden Age—basically, whatever period they like most. "I stay hip," he says. "So I don't see nothing wrong with what's coming out now. It's still street. It's still basic."
Del lives in Richmond, Calif., "out the way from anywhere that got hella good hip-hop," but there must be a Target nearby with some kind of selection. A signing at a record shop means some serious fleshing out of his collection. He picks up what he can when he's on the road, too, he says.
He's been touring nearly solid for the last 10 years, ceaselessly on the road and working on his next long-awaited solo release 11th Hour. Del's tired. What's a day like for him? "I'm kind of burnt out. So if I have the energy to even get up and do anything, I have to do real basic living things, like cleaning up." He's had a break of a few months before he heads out on the road for yet another tour—this time, swinging through Albuquerque. "I'm already used to the knowledge that I got to leave."
He's on the road again to support 11th Hour, due out next year. And though he's satisfied with it, he says, "It ain't done ’til it's done. It ain't done ’til the packaging and the wrapping is on it and it's in the store." He's still working on the CD, keeping an eye on trends and thinking about what's hot and why it's hot. "I look at it as the competition."
Here's one answer that's not a surprise: In spite of being beat up by years of road life, it's the music that keeps him going, he says. Del's been studying music theory for the last seven years, trying to acquire more tools for his arsenal. If he has any complaint about his work, it's that it's not cohesive enough. "You couldn't really pin it on me," he says.
"I'm trying to make it like a reintroduction for everybody of what I'm about, just to kind of set it straight what Del is about."
So what's Del about? Don't ask me. You and me both will have to buy the disc to figure it out.