Del tha Funkee Homosapien Gears Up for Best Album Yet
For someone who’s been winning in the rap game since his 1991 debut, Del tha Funky Homosapien isn’t rolling in the dough and a household name like many of his contemporaries. The Oakland-raised, Richmond-residing emcee—who founded the hip-hop collective and record label Hieroglyphics that’s home to such underground stars Souls of Mischief and Casual—had a whiff of international fame in 2005 as the lyricist on the song “Clint Eastwood” by the cartoon band Gorillaz. But the rapper was so distracted by bad things in his life, from a violent girlfriend to a battle with Legionnaires’ disease, that he didn’t even know the band’s Demon Days album went platinum.
Those days are the subject of the recent DVD documentary The 11th Hour, which is the same title of a forthcoming album that he’s hoping will finally establish his name as one of hip-hop’s headiest, creative forces. He chatted for about an hour from his recording equipment-packed home in the East Bay last week, proving to be humble and insightful. Below is the bulk of that interview.
I’ve been reading that life’s been tough for you in the past couple years: sickness, robberies, bad women, no new albums, and the like. Is life starting to swing in your favor again?
Life is ups and downs anyway, so I don’t look at it as that bad or that good. I try to stay centered, and never get too upset when shit happens and I don’t get too over-joyous when shit is cool ‘cuz it don’t stay that way, ya feel me? I’m just living, trying to concentrate on my girl, on my money, on my work.
I heard that you didn’t even know that the song “Clint Eastwood” you rapped on for the first Gorillaz album, which went platinum, was a huge hit. Were you not paying attention?
I did it as a favor for Dan the Automator and after that, I kinda forgot about it. It was more like a hobby between those dudes. I sure didn’t expect it to be the pop sensation it became. I ain’t mad at it, though.
You’ve got this new DVD The 11th Hour out now, and, along with concert footage, it shows some of the bad shit you were going through in the past couple years. What made you decide to do that movie?
My man Grant, who directed the movie, he started out doing tour shit, right, and then he was kicking it with me at the house…
[At this point, Del trails off until it’s clear through the words he’s saying quietly and the keystrokes in the background that he’s sending an instant message, his preferred form of correspondence, to a buddy about some mixes]…
That’s my boy up in the office and I was doing something for his mixed tape and he only wanted 16 bars and I kicked 55 bars. Then I did another one with the beat he sent, I remixed the beat, and kicked another 40 bars on that one.
Did he dig it?
He juiced! He said, “Man, wow, you was ripping!” But…where was I?
Your boy Grant…
Oh yea, he just felt it was hella interesting the way I was living. So he decided to make it a full-on documentary. It seemed a little more interesting than what was going on on the road, where I do my shows, go back to the bus to sleep or study, and try to make music. It’s not like there was hella drama [on the road].
So you’re studying music composition now. Why do you think that’s important?
I’ve always been a musical person and music just interests me to the point where I was never hella into just looping stuff straight out. I wanted to do something with it, be creative—unless it was so dope that I could bear to change it, you feel me? And it just grew to a point where, creatively, I wasn’t able to express myself as I wanted to just doing it like that. I had to be able to get what was in my head out as a sound, and I couldn’t do that just using other people’s music. That’s how I grew into that.
At the same time, I felt like if I didn’t know something about music while being in the music biz, I wasn’t gonna last much longer. It’s even to the point where what we considered hip-hop wouldn’t be considered hip-hop no more. I couldn’t keep up.
So what about hip-hop has changed? Some stuff sounds new and improved, but other stuff sounds as simple as some of the early releases. Do you have examples?
I like the stuff coming out of the South a lot. What they do with beats and rhythm is hella tight to me. That pretty much to me is what hip-hop is about. It really isn’t about music and harmony and melody. It’s more about rhythm. It could be straight noise, but if it’s rhythmically sound, it’s the noise. Like that drip beat from back in the day. It wasn’t really musical, it was more rhythmic than anything, but everyone was freestylin’ to that drip for years.
What’s up with the “Hyphy” movement in the Bay Area? I musn’t have been paying attention, because all of the sudden E-40 was back on the radio again.
E-40 is one of my favorite rappers, hands down. He’s one of the cleanest rappers to me—hella inventive, hella funny. And you got to be humorous to be in hip-hop. You can’t be talkin’ about shootin’ a million fools and be serious about it. No one’s gonna take you seriously. If you’re acting too much like you’re really a gangster, people really start hating you.
But I like a lot of stuff from the street, I like the hard stuff, but I like lyrics though too. They don’t have to be necessarily complicated lyrics, like I like Cam’ron, which I wouldn’t say is hella complex as far as vocabulary.
Half of it at least has gotta be your personality and how you come off. It ain’t really what you say, it’s how you say it. People are gonna catch the vibe, get more into your music, then get more into the words behind it. First they’re absorbing the song as a whole. That’s something I learned—people ain’t like me. I’m an artist. I dissect each part of the song. But the average person is hearing it as a whole song.
People want you to be creative, people don’t want to hear the same old thing. But there’s only one Dre, only one Neptunes—everyone else is trying to be like them. They are the scholars, they know what they’re doing. That’s who I look to, these are the cats, not necessarily to beta them, but to reach their level of excellence. That’s what I’m trying to emulate, in my own way of course. I’m more into funk, you feel me, but as well I like basic beats too.
I heard that in the past couple years you had some insecurity in the studio too. Then I was thinking that maybe that’s why, in the past, you’ve worked well with a sort of disguise, like Deltron or as part of the Gorillaz.
I’m like a comedian man. I grew up listening to Richard Pryor—he’s like my hero. So if I’m talking to you, I might slip into characteristics of someone I’m talking about. I started applying that to music too.
As far as Deltron, that was a specific concept I had, because I was watching a lot of anime and I wanted to do something like that with rapping. I really didn’t know if it would come out as a product, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that marketing wise it was a good idea. It was still Del, but different enough than Del tha Funkee Homosapien that someone would buy it. So I was trying to press forward with it, and once I got done, Dan the Automator just filled in the blanks. It was 65 percent him and Kid Koala. I didn’t expect it to sell hella well, it was just something I wanted to do.
And to this day, there’s lotsa people who be on the street around here, that tell me, “Man, Del, I love you, I love your stuff, but Deltron went over my head, bro. I ain’t gonna lie, that Deltron, I couldn’t feel that.”
I think it’s a good album. I said a lot of things, well, I don’t want to say innovative, but I said something that was true. A lot of people love that album and Gorillaz opened me to a whole ‘nutha world of fools. They weren’t even born for I Wish My Brother George Was Here [his 1991 debut], or they were too young to remember that. I ain’t mad at it, I let people know that’s fine, but that ain’t really what I do as my core stuff.
Lately, I’ve been trying to get my core nice. I feel like I was mixing elements of Deltron all into Del, and after awhile, I was spreading myself too thin. I gotta be more consolidated so that when people buy it, they know what they’re getting. Everybody got their own taste. I know from being somebody to be out in the street, I know what the average fool is gonna like. Not to discredit people that like my other albums too.
Nowadays, I try to be conceptual, but I don’t try to tell hella stories. People used to be telling me, “You gotta tell stories to reach people.” But that don’t matter. Redman don’t be telling no stories, and he went platinum. I don’t see where they got that logic from. It’s really about the vibe, and there’s a conceptual vibe where each song is its own world. When I go to the next song, it’s not gonna hit me the same way.
So you’re in the midst of your next album. What can we expect?
I’m pretty much done, but I got a few little gems to work on, to add whatever the new thing is. It’s got street type stuff on there, funkier type stuff, which I ain’t gonna say ain’t street. But it may not be what kids consider street nowadays. The funk is a little more melodic. I go between both of those.
You’re a pretty weird cat for the mainstream hip-hop scene: pierced lip and eyebrow, plays and raps about video games, smokes bidis. Do you get any backlash from that?
I don’t really talk to hella mainstream dudes, but from what I hear, they like me. The Neptunes, I hear they grew up on Del and Hiero, so they like me. And Dre and Cube, I know they like me. But I don’t think anyone has seen the full extent of what I can do. That’s what I’m doing with this album. Before, I was just doing it and I was satisfied with that. Then I started to see that some it ain’t good enough. People were grading it and saying it wasn’t worth [buying] it. I thought I was tight, but I got some work to do.
Do you think that notion of not having to work for success afflicts a lot of kids entering the hip-hop world today?
I think a lot of kids in general nowadays—not even just with hip-hop—they get stuff fed to them on a silver platter. Their parents don’t reprimand them and everything is so easy for kids now. I ain’t mad at it—I love that ease after having to do it the hard way for so long. But for a kid to start out with it being so easy and see stuff on TV where fools just pop out of nowhere with diamonds, it ain’t happening like that.
Then is there a responsibility to not rap about some things?
I don’t think they should necessarily rap about the troubles they had to go to get the diamonds, because really, it’s entertainment. Whatever is entertaining, you can’t really be mad at that. But people should have a general idea when making art that it is influential and not go too overboard with the negative stuff. It’s all real anyway, negativity just as well as positivity—that’s planet Earth. But to overdo the negativity, you gotta be like, “Okay, I know I could hurt people.”
Did you ever see rap going as mainstream as it did? I certainly didn’t.
All I know is that I when I saw the commercial for the Russell Simmons bank card, I thought back to the day when L.L. Cool J was my favorite rapper. I would have never thought back then he’d have his own back card. That’s when it really shocked me that hip-hop is really here. It just permeated every crack of the earth.
But everything—and I ain’t trying to be like this, but all black music has done has done that. Hip-hop is a little different though. We got to put a little more of what we really wanted to put in it. Like when funk was out, it was a time of so many disco artists, and they were pushing disco so hard that if you were a funk band, you had to do a disco song. I don’t think it’s like that anymore.
Since it’s gone so mainstream, does rap still have the power to educate like the way it did when Public Enemy was big?
I think so, but the information is different. When Public Enemy was out, it was all about black power. Now, I don’t want to say we’ve made it, but it’s gotten to a point where we can do stuff. It’s also gotten to a point on the street where all this crazy stuff is happening. That is still communicated through the music.
So what’s up with this tour?
I’m plugging The 11th Hour DVD, and this tour is to get out there and get some paper too. Also, I’m bringing A Plus on the road with me too, and he’s got a new album My Last Good Deed. That’s my boy. Me and A Plus and Tajai are pretty much Hieroglyphics. It’s a chance for me and him to get together and also try to get him more out there and push his first solo effort, which is a really good album.
A Plus, you know, is from Souls of Mischief, and they have a new album coming out. Prince Paul is producing it, so that’s going to be tight too. As opposed to doing another Hiero album, for once, we’re trying to go back to what we were doing before. Casual is his own entity, Pep Love just released Reconstruction. He more or less embodies Hieroglyphics more than anyone else in the crew. He’s more conscious. The rest of us kinda do our own thang, but Pep is more concerned with that than we are.
You’ve said that the attitude of the ‘70s was what you were all about. What do you mean by that?
Well, I’m slightly political, but just my whole attitude is from the ‘70s—just cool, you feel me? I’m not really on the same type of tip as cats out there. I still use slang from the ‘70s, still like stuff from the ‘70s.
I was born in ’72, ya know. That’s the best point in black music, that’s the pinnacle. They still had trained musicians doing music, you couldn’t just hop in the game. You had to really be a musician—even if you didn’t understand music theory, you had to have an intuition. And that really supersedes a lot of stuff out now.
But I think it is coming back today. A lot of cats from sampling so many years and listening to so many great artists, they’re starting to learn, like the Neptunes or Dre and Timbaland or Outkast. They’re taking it further, upholding the mantle, taking the baton.
So financially, you’re okay these days? I mean, you’ve been independent for awhile, so the labels aren’t sucking away your profits, right?
I got money. I ain’t rich, I’m doing cool though, doing cool enough to try to make some moves to make some more money. The money I got I spend on equipment.
We were on labels at first, so whatever we made was getting funneled through the label. But then we were dropped off the label and started our own. We got our own thing going with that, but it’s not easy doing that. Just the fact we don’t reach as many people.
I’m trying to make this album really work right here. I’ve go a lot riding on this album, as well as my reputation. I don’t think my reputation is bad, but people are wanting to see the real Del. A lot of people like different songs on different albums. I’m trying to consolidate, to say, “This is what Del is about, this is what I do.” All fortified, as opposed to everything being scattered.
Except for the first album, which Ice Cube [his cousin] produced, my other albums were kinda floaty. That’s because it was up to me and I didn’t have my head on straight. I had a lot of problems, but now I’m not as confused as I used to be.
4•1•1 Del tha Funkee Homosapien comes to Velvet Jones next Thursday, September 28. His DVD The 11th Hour is out in music stores now, and his new album of the same title should be out early next year. For more, see hieroglyphics.com or myspace.com/delthefunkyhomosapien.