Hip hop is still a genre we haven’t tackled all that often in the A Scene In Retrospect canon – Del the Funky Homosapien‘s Both Sides of the Brain is only the third album from that particular niche to make it into the feature’s curated list (with more to come in the future, I might add). I’ve got to admit that I’m still fairly unfamiliar with hip hop, despite my best attempts to grasp its sound and culture. Lucky for me, we have quite a few dedicated fans of the genre within our little group of music enthusiasts; among those are EIN editor David and staff writer Ashley, who teamed up to discuss Del‘s momentous fourth record together.
There are some hip hop albums that subscribe to the old skool formula with such smooth clarity that stumbling upon them is a life-changing occurrence. For an entire 20 years, myself and this album were apart. I’ll willingly take the blame for that. I took the long way round towards this matrimony, but it was worth the wait. Del the Funky Homosapien is the man.
Yes, it’s inexcusable that I’ve only just discovered Both Sides of The Brain, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. Drinking in some intensive doses of A Tribe Called Quest and Beastie Boys somehow prepared me for this, though there is a distinctly harder edge to this particular album. Del’s legacy is pretty self-explanatory on hearing the record, as he raps with such a high level of fortitude, you only need to sample one track to calculate his role in hip hop. He is an imaginative yet straight-talking MC with the reputation and connections to substantiate his rhymes.
I like a lot of rap from a lot of different walks, but there is a certain type that gets me on just the right wavelength. It’s when the samples are collated and warped into such a state that they are only partially recognisable from their original source, should you be knowledgeable enough to know exactly what that source is. What remains from that point onward is a sound that works exclusively in the context of the song. I quickly discovered that Both Sides of the Brain is loaded with these moments, in multitudinous abundance and on a molecular level. The entire album is an intense compendium of reconstituted music, conditioned to take on a momentous new lease of life.
‘Yes, Ash, that’s what hip hop is…’ I know. I elaborate on that point in the case of Both sides of the Brain, because it sets an incredible example of how it’s done to a mesmerizing effect. Underline it with some ultra hard groovy beats and you have a wholesome ensemble of music, and at a 77-minute, 17-track runtime, this is an album that takes no half-measures.
Going full circle, and above all the other instrumental trinkets to be found, Del’s lyrical display is a defining factor. The rapping is about as smooth and well-honed as the genre can provide. His is a voice that’s crisp, speedy and relentless, and it effortlessly tattoos his identity upon the music. With this much thrilling content, it’s not difficult to understand why this album is such a classic, and I apologise again for only just discovering it. I have since lapped it up from start to finish and there really is no weak spot to be found. If spacey groovy hip-hop is your thing, then I expect this will be in your record collection already. If like me, you’ve lived your life as a high-functioning ignoramus, then you’re in for a hell of a treat this April.
Did I mention the high levels of funk? Del is indeed a Funky Homosapien. It ain’t just a name.
Me and Del go way back. I’m willing to bet if you’re around my age – a downhill-trending 30 years old – you and him go back as well. For the hip, all you gotta say is, ‘it’s important to practice good hygiene/at least if you wanna run with my team’ for shit to jump off into a rapalong.
Yes, like most, my introduction to Del the Funky Homosapien (or Del Tha Funkee Homosapien if you must) was with the game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 for the PlayStation 2. “If You Must” was a cheeky jam, sat neatly next to fellow rap tracks like Redman’s trunk-knocking anthem “Let’s Get Dirty (I Can’t Get In Da Club)” featuring the legendary DJ Kool, the diss-heavy “I’m A Swing It” from the proud Irish boys in House of Pain, and others. It stood out, acting as the proverbial weird kid in the room. On the surface, it’s a novel track about keeping your appearances up, checking your friends who couldn’t be bothered to shower often enough:
‘I had to ask the dope to pass the soap
‘Cause his coat had the stench of crustaceans
Or bathrooms in a bus station
He had a can of Olde E and some raisins
Amazin’, head-to-toe BO
He didn’t know, used to the fragrance
‘Cause as the days went without bathin’
He felt manly and not like a maiden’
Beyond the surface is a bit of a personal story. Around this time, I was just getting into hip hop heavily, mostly thanks to friends and their musical tastes, and what I heard on the radio. KS 107.5, ‘number one for today’s hottest music’, introduced me to Jay-Z, Ludacris, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Ice Cube, Scarface, Biggie, and so many more. At the time, a very well-rounded introduction to the art form. Of course, ‘hottest music’ wasn’t exactly synonymous with underground rap – had to go elsewhere for that. But where?
Well, unless you knew someone in those scenes, your exposure was basically relegated to chance, luck even. I was into skater culture around then, so I watched a lot of skate videos on VHS and the internet, and played a lot of video games, both of which at the time had increasingly hip hop-oriented soundtracks. It wasn’t uncommon for some games to license songs from older or lesser-known artists to expose a whole new demographic or generation to them. No “Big Pimpin’” here. It’s because of this approach that I have games like Thrasher Presents Skate and Destroy to thank for introducing me to A Tribe Called Quest, Run-DMC, and Gang Starr.
So, Del coming into my life with THPS 3 was just business as usual by the time 2001 hit. I eventually checked out Both Sides of the Brain thanks to an internet-savvy friend with a few CD-Rs to his name. Although I didn’t realize it at first, it’d be one of the bigger defining moments for me as a music fan.
At first, it was weird to me. Most tracks were produced by Del himself and took creative freedoms that I didn’t really hear on the radio. Spacey hums, robotic knocks, stuttering scratches and turntablism, morphing flows, and unclean samples just reverberated through each song, unrelentingly so to my impressionable mind more accustomed to classic boom-bap and the growing opulence of the new millennium. Still, I persevered – I bumped “If You Must” but also took a trip to the shit-talking “Disastrous”, and followed along to the cautionary tale against drunk driving with “Skull & Crossbones”. There was a lot of breadth with this album. Fittingly, it took both sides of my brain to process and see the skill at play.
In retrospect, Del didn’t do much differently from what you heard on radio, it was just the approach and execution that was different. The Oakland MC was well-versed at this point, this being his fourth album and all, so his braggadocious lyrics felt earned, his production – however slanted – sounded studious and experienced after working on both sides of the recording booth for his last couple albums. It was forward-thinking, taking an off-kilter approach to rap tenants like so many more would do around this time. Def Jux, anyone?
Speaking of, a young El-P has a guest verse on the aggressive cut “Offspring” which actually samples the jeering, siren-like vocals from Company Flow’s “Happy Happy Kill Joy” for a grimy sound. It’s the closest I would come to exploring El’s particular universe of rap until years later with I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, but the seeds were planted early.
A great asset to Both Sides of the Brain was how grounded it was. Many sects of hip-hop are known for their lacerating and gritty realism, but this felt more practical. Del sounds down-to-earth in songs like “If You Must” or “Pet Peeves”, rapping as himself, telling stories and speaking his mind on the interpersonal, drug use, the proverbial sucker MC, etc. Even when things lift off with a bit of fiction like with “Skull & Crossbones”, it’s based in something pretty damn real like drunk driving; or with “Soopa Feen”, which is easily the most absurd take on the record, delving deep into storytelling about a crack fiend that fashions himself a flamboyant superhero complete with a Garfield towel as a cape.
There’s even a song for the gamers – “Proto Culture” was a back-and-forth rap with Del and Khaos Unique, name dropping more video games than I could count and referencing deep stuff like industry businessman Bernie Stolar, proclaiming in the hook ‘we get the kind of games you can’t rent at Blockbuster’. It’s a cheery track, laid by a good bass backbone and a fluttery sample of Morrigan’s victory theme from the highly overlooked Capcom fighting game Darkstalkers. Damn, Del’s a nerd just like me! It was wild to hear such a song at that time – remember, this was before nerdcore hip hop had any sort of prominence within the counterculture.
If there’s anything negative to say about this album, it’s mostly with regards to how I deal with music now. Both Sides of the Brain is long – 17 songs, just shy of 75 minutes – so much so that if this dropped nowadays, it’d be a hard sell for me and my proclivities toward shorter projects. Some of the lyrics also trend toward that ‘lyrical miracle’ rapping style that I’m not a fan of, but Del never loses you in abstraction and more than makes up for it with production and rap technique in songs like “Catch All This”. “Phoney Phranchise”, even though it goes pretty hard, rests a bit much on the ‘real hip hop’ aesthetic of elitism, but I suppose all is forgiven with lines like ‘Intoxicated, some of y’all call it faded/With my headphones slammin’, playin’ Iron Maiden’.
And that’s that on that. Like a good producer, Del was instrumental in opening my mind to more facets of hip hop, showing me the realms beyond radio rap. Not far behind from when he would belt out ‘finally, someone let me out of my cage’ on Gorillaz’s seminal eponymous album and its smash hit “Clint Eastwood” and catapult fully into mainstream relevance. He’s still regularly releasing music, cementing himself as an indie legend with his solo career, Deltron 3030, and the whole Heiroglyphics crew, even finding time to appear on other rappers’ work like IDK’s “Pizza Shop” posse track with DOOM and Yung Gleesh. I wouldn’t be where I’m at now with a deeper understanding and love for hip hop without Del and Both Sides of the Brain.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Both Sides of the Brain? Are you a fan of Del the Funky Homosapien, and if so, what’s your favorite album of his? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!