älek, the New Jersey hip-hop duo, recently released Abandoned Language, an album that a good chunk of the Stylus staff thinks will end up as one of the best records of the year. But plenty of rap fans still find their noisy, heavy-handed, experimental approach to be pretty alienating. Not exactly a bangers bunch. Tal Rosenberg, though, cared enough to ditch out of work, tear ass across mid-Manhattan, and hunker down in a cluttered Radio Shack to find out from Dälek, the group’s MC, how they feel about their awkward place in hip-hop, what America means to them, and why Lost Highway is actually an okay movie—and get a reminder that Slayer was once on Def Jam.
In order to conduct a phone interview with Dälek, I had to think and act fast. I’d only gotten confirmation of the interview less than forty-eight hours before, and it couldn’t be rescheduled because of their European tour. I borrowed a digital tape recorder I’d never used, ran from my job in midtown Manhattan, through Central Park to the Upper East Side, arriving sweating and crimson-faced only to find that my recorder wasn’t adaptable with the phones at the office in which I was doing the interview. I ran to a nearby Radio Shack and told the counter person that I would give her twenty dollars to do the interview with the store’s phone. My ability to find order within chaos, to stay focused amid a torrent of noise and disaster, could not help but feel conspicuously coincidental with the fact that I was interviewing Dälek. Abandoned Language, their new album, likewise attempts to use discourse and exploration to achieve its goals. Amid a nightmarish catacomb of strings and gaping digital wounds, Dälek take a heady journey into the unknown. The interview went off without a hitch, and I even got to keep my twenty dollars.
In an interview from a couple years ago, you said that you hoped Absence would spark some sort of dialogue. In retrospect, how do you feel about the reaction to that record?
I think it was generally positive. Still, to this day, I think people kinda try to just skip over the lyrics, especially in the press. I mean no one really comments on the lyrics. Everyone always says how all my lyrics are about how I hate hip-hop, when that’s not even true. There’s so much more to the lyrics besides my concern as to the modern state of hip-hop. There are certainly other things that you can talk about, you know?
Yeah, definitely. But, I mean, did you think that any sort of analysis of the album overlooked the lyrics completely?
From a press viewpoint. But from a fan’s perspective, it has created conversations, which I appreciate. I’ve had a million discussions with fans after shows, you know, about the album, and my outlook, and my points of view, and about the racial situation in America, and in Europe as well. Because being an American and touring a lot in Europe, obviously you always get a lot of “You Americans this!” and “You Americans that!” And, uh, you know, I always end up being the defender of America, ironically [laughs]. And I try to explain to them, “Hey, you know, how much power do you have within your own government?” You know what I mean? And also, you’re gonna try to point your finger at me as to what the American empire is doing, but America doesn’t even like me. It’s kind of a weird position to be in.
At the same time, I do love where I’m from. I love my home, I love my family, I love my peoples. So, I do defend where I’m from. I try to tell them that it’s really easy to point the finger at someone else. But, it’s like, look at the uprisings in France. I mean, to say that there isn’t social struggle and racism in other countries, that’s just being naïve.
In contrast to Absence, how do you feel so far about the reaction to Abandoned Language?
I mean, it’s still early so it’s kind of hard to gauge—we haven’t really played that many shows. But the shows that we have played, the response has been amazing—the e-mails that we’ve gotten, people writing comments and messages on the MySpace page. You know, it’s definitely been humbling to hear people say the things they’ve said about the record. Conversely, it’s weird, we’ve been doing this for over ten years now—maybe eleven or twelve—and we’ve been lucky enough to always have the support of the critics and the press. And it’s funny because this time around it seems like we’ve been getting backlash and shit from press people not feeling the record or whatever.
How did the sound for Abandoned Language come about?
You can say that it’s kind of a reaction to what Absence sounded like, but we actually recorded both albums at the same time. In truth, we started working on both albums at the same time. I make beats all the time. It’s kind of what I do for fun. So when I’m home from tour, even when I’m on tour, I’m constantly just working on tracks. The same with [producer] Oktopus, and basically what we do is we stockpile them into separate folders. We’ll get together every once in a while, and put the tracks with a similar vibe and feel into a folder, and then, when it’s time to do records, we’ll have a concept of what we want the record to be, sound-wise and style-wise. We just use those basic tracks as the foundation to those albums. So when we did Absence and Abandoned Language, obviously Absence took precedence, and so the ones that really didn’t fit into that vibe went into the Abandoned Language folder.
We were working on the concept and idea at the same time we were making the other record, and we knew we wanted them to be very contrasting records. We also didn’t want to lose the strength or the darkness of the album. So it’s definitely the hardest record we’ve ever done in the sense that we purposely took the instruments that aren’t necessarily menacing….
That was just going to be my next question, how much of it is sampled and how much of it is live instrumentation?
Very, very little is sampled. There’s next to no sampling on Absence other than the vocal samples.
So who do you get to play the instruments? Do you play the majority of the instruments yourselves?
The guitar on Absence was Oktopus and our boy Joshua Booth. Basically, we weren’t even playing the guitar, we were just laying it down on the ground and beating the shit out of it for hours. Of course we had guitar pedals and processors and all that shit, but you could say we recorded a good four to six hours of this. Then we just kind of let it sit, and went back to it later. We do that a lot. We tend to record our own shit and then we go back to it as the source material, so we treat it the way we would a piece of vinyl. We sample from our own recordings, then we find little pieces that sound ill and then we loop them and record them, and that’s what became that sound for Absence.
With this new one we used Fender Rhodes, mellotron, a lot of live strings and brass. You know, violin, trumpet, cello, trombone.
Sounds more like a jazz album.
But again, we would have them lay stuff down. Then we would go back and manipulate them. I mean, there’s sampled strings and live strings. But the sampled strings are more like the mellotron sound…so a lot of it—most of that album—was composed.
You deal heavily with language on the new record, obviously in the title but more specifically in the lyrics. I’m particularly intrigued by how many different types of language you seem to refer to. Is that at all a misconception? Is there one specific language that you’re referring to?
Generally no, but I am speaking of language in general, just communication between people. I think the older I get and the more I travel, the more cultures that I’ve been able to experience, you know, I realize that as humans we have so much in common. Our differences should be celebrated; they shouldn’t be the reason as to why we can’t get along.
Do you feel that maybe some of your listeners focus too heavily on the negative aspects of your lyrics and fail to see the positive message within the music?
I mean, I guess. The way I’ve always looked at it, music is just a way to channel one’s frustration, one’s angst, one’s anger, in a positive, constructive way. So, yeah, are the songs tinged with darkness and oppression? Well, yeah, but that’s an experience, or at least my experience. It’s not that there’s no hope in the world…and, especially on this album, although it’s still as dark as the other ones, there’s still the epic core that this always holds. There’s a line on the first song where I say, “It’s hard to focus….” Damn, I suck at remembering my lines on the spot [laughs]. Just a second….
Wait, I actually know this…
Yeah, at this point, you probably know my lyrics better than I do. [laughs]
Well, I was listening to it today.
Found it: “It’s hard to focus / Perhaps the last opus / If younger heads quote this then it ain’t all hopeless.”
Yeah, yeah, that’s right! And Ian Cohen’s review for Stylus, he actually spoke about that as the most resonant line on the whole album.
That’s definitely cool, and kind of linking it with the fact that, you know, I got rich white kids that don’t feel I’m hip-hop. At the same time I got straight hood muhfuckas that are listening to what I’m doing and are inspired to do their own thing—and not necessarily something that’s gonna sound like a Dälek record. I got kids that sound like, you know not necessarily like 50 Cent, but like that kind of mainstream thing, who listen to my record and are feeling it. So I feel like even if you affect people—not necessarily that they’re gonna change their entire style of music, but just the fact that they can know that you don’t really have to do exactly what’s on the radio—to me that’s enough of a start already. It’s funny, ’cause those kids never question whether I’m hip-hop or not. [laughing]
Well, at this point I kind of expect things like that. I expect straight rap heads to listen more openly to other styles of rap with open ears while I expect critics and record geeks to be skeptical. I don’t know, that’s just my opinion.
Going back to people saying about me, the idea that I hate everything that’s mainstream. I don’t hate mainstream hip-hop at all, man. I think it’s a shame that that’s the only form of hip-hop that’s allowed to breathe on the airwaves. But I think that within that genre itself there’s definitely things of merit. Honestly, I think that production in hip-hop, especially mainstream hip-hop, producers like Timbaland. I’m sorry, but that’s a lot more interesting than what’s going on in underground hip-hop.
Unfortunately, I just don’t think there’re any good lyrics.
Yeah, I mean, there are a couple underground hip-hop producers who are doing really interesting things. Edan is someone I think about, and El-P is still doing really great production work. But yeah, I agree, what Timbaland does is really, really awesome.
I just think that there’s this whole preconceived notion that because things are underground they’re good, and that’s not necessarily true. Things could be underground and they could be terrible; things could be mainstream and they could just be really, really good. I’m a big Beatles fan and the last time I checked the Beatles were very mainstream. It’s never been about underground and D.I.Y. and mainstream and selling out to me. It’s always been about good music and bad music.
In relation to that, I was looking on your MySpace page and your top friends are Jesu, Isis, Mastodon…and I was kinda taken aback by how much metal you had. Are you a big metal fan?
Yeah, yeah. When I was younger I was, and I still am, a huge Slayer fan.
Yeah! But you gotta remember man, not that they were marketed the same way, but Slayer was on motherfucking Def Jam!
That’s right! You often forget that.
Yeah, so it’s not that crazy. When I was growing up music was music. You had your crews and you had your genres that kids were into. That was natural when you were a young kid trying to find yourself and shit. But the DJ culture was always about digging through all different types of crazy shit and looking for different types of music. You didn’t really concern yourself with what kind of record you were buying, you were just looking for the flyest shit that you could spin. Whatever shit was moving you, whatever inspired you, even if you weren’t gonna play it. Like, I wasn’t bumping “Angel of Death” at a party, but I was bumping it at home.
I think that’s the one tragic thing about hip-hop today is how closed-minded the whole field has become. Where it’s just become “if it’s not this, this, and this, then it’s not hip-hop.” Hip-hop was never like that. De La Soul was as out there as you could get back in the day and you’d have that and you’d have Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy and you’d have N.W.A.—and it’d all be hip-hop. Now it just seems like the constraints are so much tighter.
Are there any hip-hop records that you’ve heard since Absence that you’ve really enjoyed?
I was a huge fan of The Black Album. I thought that was a great album by Jay-Z. And then I was really disappointed by the latest one.
I think a lot of people were.
Yeah, I feel like he should’ve just left it. It’s sad because it makes you see how talented he really is, and when he wants to do something that ill he really does it. It just seems like a follow-up was kind of pointless. I mean, why even bother, man?
Your press release states that David Lynch was a big influence on the album. You guys have the track “Lynch,” which I’m assuming has a double meaning…
Yeah! Thanks for noticing.
What about David Lynch’s movies really influences you guys?
Well, I know Oktopus used to smoke a lot of weed and watch David Lynch movies [laughs]. We’ve always been huge fans, you know, Mulholland Drive; Lost Highway is the best. That’s one of my favorite movies.
That’s actually my least favorite David Lynch movie.
Haha, yeah, that’s funny, a lot of people just hate that movie for some reason. I don’t know, something about the phone call in the room….
Huh, see, I was gonna say that the Lynch comparison that I see is that when moments hit the height of claustrophobia, you let them release themselves and sort of breathe.
More than anything we were just referring to his ability to set a mood: a kind of—almost—normal-seeming place, but the more you scratch at the surface the more you realize how fucked the whole thing is. That’s the biggest thing that we were seeing. And, secondly, we would love to score something for him, so we just thought we’d throw the name out there and see what happens.
Final question. I talked to El-P recently, and he was complaining that there weren’t very many timely records being released, and not in the sense that people just get up and scream about George Bush, but in the way that they don’t reflect the present day. Do you agree with that?
Yes and no. It depends on what end of the spectrum you’re on. I don’t make millions of dollars, so I can’t really rhyme about cars and mansions and having a thousand girls at my crib, because I don’t. So I can only rhyme about what I know. I think El-P’s right in saying that these are important times and voices need to be heard. Unfortunately, a lot of people are living real nice right now and aren’t concerned.
But I think that there’s gonna be enough of us—him; Immortal Technique is another really good example of a timely voice. It’s not necessarily about the conscious MC, it’s not about, like you said, George Bush, but someone needs to speak to the masses. Last time I checked, the masses don’t all own a Bentley. I’m sure everyone would like to [laughs]. I think there needs to be music for the downtrodden. Hip-hop needs to return to being the voice of the poor and the oppressed, because that’s what hip-hop was. Even when it was party jams, it was parties in abandoned buildings in the South Bronx. Again, I think music in totality is very cyclical and the time will come again. It’s just a matter of time.
Dälek @ MySpace