Del Phonics

Out to give logorrhea a good name: Del the Funky Homosapien

It ain't easy being famous when no one knows who you are. Ask those small-time hip-hop superstars nationwide, pouring boundless charisma into their hometown publicity vacuums, running wild in urban areas where any kid with half an active brain cell bands together with his like-minded peers. And damned if any of those potential celebrities can find an audience outside that same group of peers. Some are still waiting for that big break, true. But some have already been broken. In the rap game, nice guys get finished first.

Known as the joker behind the oddball 1991 semi-hit "Mistadobalina," if he's known at all, Del the Funky Homosapien is the sort of musical weirdo the pop world mistakes for a one-hook wonder and the rest of us cherish as a reservoir of enlightening idiosyncrasies. A multiply pierced, bookish Oakland Hills video-game nut, and the baby cousin of Ice Cube, Del is not a hater, nor a teacher, nor a do-gooder. He's just a mouthy goof out to give logorrhea a good name. And though his first two records earned him almost as much in residuals as they did in rep, his erratic m.o. proved too weird for Elektra, the major that signed him at the urging of his brusque Compton relative. The label shelved Del's would-be third disc in 1996, necessitating the birth of Hieroglyphics Imperium, an underground business assembled with his crew, and the label imprint of Del's latest, Both Sides of the Brain.

The heat of the sudden spotlight and the chill of has-beenism have left many once-notorious MCs caustic and brittle. But that tempering has made Del more lyrically supple than when he was youthfully gabbing to the beat of his debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here. He may not be bitter, but that's not to say there's any shortage of free-floating enmity here. Del appoints himself "Style Police" early on, while "Pet Peeves" calls out "fair-weather associates," and "Offspring" calls out wannabes. (Unfortunately, the latter track also takes advantage of the fact that "followers" rhymes with "dick swallowers." Maybe Queer Hop remains an unlikely underground development, but can't intolerant MCs at least keep their metaphors out of other people's bedrooms?) Still, Del is so flexible a stylist you don't realize how pissed off he is a good share of the time.

Similarly, Del's deadpan baritone enables him to tell a joke without outright mugging. Instead, his slightly spaced-out take provokes grinning empathy or even a head nod and a "true, true." This delivery inspires in the listener a sense of identification that acts as a gentle reminder that we're all slightly weirder than we front. Even the crackhead "Soopa Feen," a Pryor-worthy street caricature who wears a "Garfield and Odie beach towel for a cape," is a figure more amusing than despicable or even piteous. Del's idea of a battle dis is "I'll boot you in the cerebellum and make your brain come out your nostrils"--pause--"Asshole." And "Don't hate/Felicitate" is one fat-ass bumper sticker for your hooptie.

Not that Del has a hooptie, or even a valid Cali driver's license, a fact that lends potential political import to the giddily snotty "If You Must," a public-health lecture about how "It's important to practice good hygiene." The indelible hook: "You gotta wash your ay-uss...Or else you'll be funky." (For those of us who patronize mass transit, after all, odor is a social concern, not a matter of private preference.) And that's just one example of Del's commitment to the everyday. A fan of Slick Rick's narrative acuity, Del ensures that each rap treads a relatively linear path from A to B. There's no post-Wu obscurity here, just the world outside filtered through one man's ever-shifting consciousness. Maybe you've got to be as much of a joystick fondler as Del to decipher the video-game debate "Proto Culture," but its slam on Blockbuster (rhymes with "lackluster") is clear enough.

All of which would be merely endearing if the music, mostly self-produced, didn't retool the shoplifted Oaktown P-Funkery of his debut into forward-looking electrohop. This style is easily distinguishable from both Bay Area rappers who "wish the Eighties was back," as he scoffs, and right-coast beat puritans. In an underground that errs on the side of austerity, Del's tracks explode with a generous surplus of caprice, founded on the aesthetics of whim. The result is a sound that stands in contrast to the work of countless undergroundlings who believe less--less ornament, less exposure, less money, less trouble--is best.

"I can't fall in this rap game," Del protests early on in Both Sides of the Brain. "I got acrophobia." Maybe that's not a boast, though. Maybe he's afraid of scaling the heights that could set him up as a target for backlash. With some of Del's best stuff available only via Web site (the Elektra-squelched Future Development for example), the limited cult appeal he prizes may well be his fate. That'd be a shame. Such marginalization is a snugger fit for the Robyn Hitchcocks and Kool Keiths of the world--willful oddballs who appeal to some fan's fluke of taste--than for the gregarious Del. In a just marketplace, Both Sides of the Brain, which is already drawing tentative mainstream attention, would deliver Del from the semiobscurity he so prizes.

In any case, the Hiero Imperium crew's self-sufficiency in the face of corporate Malthusianism is a promising trend. Right now, by a happy fluke of culture and economics, the mass hip-hop audience needs Del's imagination more than Del needs their cash--and the underground needs his iconoclasm more than he needs their cred. It's time for hip hop to recognize the weirdos in its midst. So dedicate Both Sides of the Brain to those whom guest MC El-P (from Company Flow) toasts on "Offspring" as "the misplaced famous." Whoever they are today. The spotlight keeps moving, flickering, fading. Now you see 'em...

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