Of all the music Del the Funky Homosapien has made since his first record dropped in 1991, he’s probably best known for a rap he wrote in less than an hour for the Gorillaz.
The group never intended “Clint Eastwood,” a platinum track on their self-titled debut album, to include Del at all. Fortunately his association with Dan the Automator got him a shot at re-writing the song’s lyrics after another rapper botched them. The rest is pop culture history.
Over the past two decades, Del has released ten solo albums and done countless collaborations. His latest, the second record for hip-hop supergroup Deltron 3030, is a concept album set in the distant future. In it Del, producer Dan the Automator, and DJ Kid Koala blast through time and space to vanquish foes and save the world. In an interview before the group’s October 11 show at the Jefferson, the 41-year-old hip-hop artist cleared up a few misunderstandings about his past and dropped hints about what’s next.
Let’s check a few facts. Your Wikipedia page says you stopped working with Ice Cube in the early ‘90s because you weren’t pleased with the limited musical range of your first album.
That’s not exactly true. The reason I stopped working with him is because I didn’t want to be seen as Cube’s little cousin who didn’t have anything else to offer. I had other things musically and lyrically I wanted to express, but there wasn’t anything wrong with the first album. I’m still cool with Cube. I talked to him not long ago
The page indicates you have friction with Elektra records—you broke from them on bad terms, they released a greatest hits album without your consent, etc.
I have very little problem with Elektra records. They were changing their staff around, so people I was working with before weren’t there anymore. My attitude probably wasn’t the nicest at the time. I was a kid. They dropped me, but I don’t have any problems with Elektra or Dante Ross, who signed me. It was just an unfortunate situation.
It says you weren’t the first choice to do the verses on the Gorillaz first record and you were basically brought in to fix them.
Me and Dan the Automator were finishing up the first Deltron 3030 album, and Dan was simultaneously working on the Gorillaz project. He had the song “Clint Eastwood,” and it had another vocalist, maybe two, but he didn’t like it. He figured, “You’re dope, you’re talented at writing raps, you can write a rap in like 30 minutes I bet.” I wanted to go home. But that’s what I did, basically. I had just studied this book called How to Write a Hit Song, and I used the information in that book to write that song.
What was in the book?
The first thing it said was above all else, you have to strive to be original. That made me take it seriously. I was like, “I knew it, I knew these fools out here copying everybody, I knew that wasn’t the way.” There were things like writing to the melody, knowing that the music is going to supercede your lyrics no matter how dope you think you are.
Wikipedia says your mom gave you that book, so you gave her your plaque after the song went platinum?
It was my birthday, and I’m an avid reader, so my mom got me a gift certificate for Barnes and Noble and we went in there. I saw that book, and I was like laughing at it. But secretly I was thinking, “If I’m laughing at it, the joke’s probably on me.” I bought the book, and surprisingly it made sense. Then I gave my mom that plaque, but she gave it back to me ‘cause she thought it was ugly.
It seems like collaborations like your work with the Gorillaz have been important over the course of your career.
Me and Ladybug Mecca (formerly of Digable Planets) are working on something right now. I like working with people. I like talking to people. I like getting people’s point of view on things. If I think you’re dope, whatever you can do to stimulate some imagination or creativity, I’m down for it. Sometimes you get bored just creating things on your own. I get paid to do this, but when it comes down to it, I do this for fun.
Do you think we might see you do anything more with the Gorillaz in the future?
I was never really a part of the Gorillaz. I was the hired help, so that’s not really on the horizon. The main thing I’m working on is the Be Intellectual Project with Mecca. I also got a mixtape based on Frank Zappa that is coming out.
Frank Zappa? Seriously?
I’m into all kinds of music, but nothing really spoke to me like hip-hop. It’s street music.
How has the process of “doing hip hop” changed for you over the years?
I tend to focus more on the production than the lyrics. The lyrics are so advanced that the average person can’t really keep up anyway. I do play around with new ways to say things. The Be Intellectual Project comes at it a totally different way. It’s dissonant. It’s an attack. It’s beat oriented. It’s anti-melody. But it’s not madness without a purpose.
You’ve told a lot of stories about phonies and people you don’t like over the years. Why does so much of your writing come back to that?
I look at myself as somebody that does satire. If you know Zappa’s work, it’s kind of parallel to that. He looks at society in general and just points things out. He might play a character in a song to get his point across. That is kind of what I do. Whatever it takes to get my point across. When talking about something sensibly doesn’t work, most of the time I got to humiliate somebody. I put that mirror up to their face. Then you get their attention.
What does Dan the Automator bring to the studio, and what does the Deltron 3030 live show take the form of?
Dan is not the type of producer that tries to be overbearing. He tries to make you look better. He doesn’t sit there and tell me how to do my lyrics, and I don’t try to tell him how to do his music. He also has a lot of resources. With the guest spots on this album, I’m like, “how did you do this?” He’s like, “I’m the Automator.” For the live show, we have a full band because Dan wants a full band.
Years ago, most hip-hop acts didn’t use live bands. Why do you suppose everyone has gone to that?
I’m not saying this is why we do it, but I would imagine it’s because you can’t get in the big festivals unless you got a live band. You can’t get on TV unless you have a live band. Some people are just not going to want to see you unless it’s more than just you walking back and forth with a microphone in your hand. For some people, that is not a show.
You’ve experimented a lot with selling albums on a “pay what you want” basis, with extras offered if you pay more. How has that worked out for you?
It’s a little income coming in here and there that I don’t have to worry about, but I’m not going to say it made me hella bread like that. One time someone paid like $1,000, and we flew them out to produce a song for them. At first I was like, “is you crazy?” But there are some people out there who have millions and they want to floss some real money.