Rap Avengers

You wanna make Dälek laugh? You know, say something that just makes the man double over? Then tell him that a lot of people out there don't rate his home base of Newark as a hip-hop hotbed. It's so funny to him, it's almost offensive. "That's kinda hilarious," says a giggling Dälek, "because Redman is from Newark, and Latifah's from Newark. Biz Markie was actually born in Newark. For someone to say that -- hip-hop and Newark -- is kinda ridiculous. We're neither the first nor the last band to come out of Newark. I mean, you have to understand that Newark is 20 minutes away from New York City. There are tons of bands. I could go on forever."

But it's true. Today's generation of rap fans, fans who may not know that LL Cool J released albums long before Mama Said Knock You Out, has a narrow view of where "good" rap music can come from. Even a town as steeped in rich rap history as Newark fails to garner respect. Unless it comes from New York proper, L.A. or the deep, dirty south, it ain't worth the effort.

That's one thing Dälek (real name: Will Brooks) and the rest of his East Coast-based hip-hop trio, also named Dälek, have working against them. The other is that they don't perform the garden-variety rap music that you hear on black radio stations, MTV and BET every goddamn moment of every goddamn hour. In fact, there's a good chance you may never hear from these guys on black radio or cable TV. They are what you would call an experimental hip-hop group, and they specialize in the kind of dark, industrial sound and emotionally intense lyrics you'd hear if Trent Reznor was on the premises. Hell, you could even go way, way, way out on a limb and refer to them as (deep breath) avant-garde hip-hoppers.

Avant-garde hip-hop may sound as oxymoronic as bad sex, but it exists nonetheless. For example, who could forget those socially conscious, offbeat beatnuts Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy? (Okay, it appears most of you have.) Even Houston has Freedom Sold, our very own underrated art-rappers. Like those guys, the members of the Dälek collective know they can be an acquired taste. "I think the key to listening to something like our stuff is to have an open ear and an open mind," says Dälek. "So I think that would be the common link to the people that come check us out, and it has been to this point."

The whole Dälek (pronounced "dialect") thing began in 1996, when Brooks and his partner Oktopus met at college. Four years later turntablist Still entered the picture and completed the trio. Their latest album, the intriguingly titled From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, went without a distributor for three years. But that changed after the threesome played a couple of shows with former Faith No More frontman Mike Patton's new band Tomahawk. Patton signed them to his indie label Ipecac Recordings, and Griots had its distributor. Sure, Ipecac is a quote-unquote rock label. But Dälek doesn't give a damn. "Being on a record label with bands like Isis, The Melvins, Tomahawk -- I think we fit nicely with those bands, you know," he says. "So it's a good label to be on."

Like most independent hip-hop artists, Dälek attracts an audience that transcends the usual urban (read: hoodie-wearing) crowd. "We're still a pretty young band, so I don't necessarily feel we have our audience completely in place," he says. "We're still recruiting, I guess. The thing about our music is that we have everything from hip-hop heads that are feeling it to metal kids to electronic kids to indie-rock bands."

There may be no average Dälek audience member, but they all agree with Dälek that contemporary rap needs a serious foot in its ass. "It's definitely hard to be optimistic when you see what the corporate world has done with what is the culture I grew up with," he says. "You have this representation in mainstream videos and on MTV that has nothing to do with myself or any of my peers. The problem is when you have those images coming at you nonstop, the rest of the world starts to believe that that's the way the entire community acts."

You can understand Dälek's pessimism. Back in the day when rap was fresh, new and still scaring white folks, many voices and perspectives came into focus. Rap was a boundless genre of distinctive visions. But now, it seems that rap has one voice -- and it's a stilted, vacuous one, often supplied by the bling-blinging likes of Ja Rule or P. Diddy. Needless to say, it's a voice Dälek doesn't want to be associated with. In fact, he'd like to banish it from the face of the earth, but he doesn't think he can do it, by himself at any rate. "It's not that we're trying to save the world or save hip-hop or anything like that," he says. "I mean, I don't know if any one person can save anything."

On Griots, it's hard to tell if the group is merely attempting to shake rap up or trying to tear it down completely. Fortunately, Dälek wants audiences to know that he and others like him are aiming for the former. Commercial rap has already done its part to bury the music alive. "That stuff has more in common with Britney Spears than it does with Public Enemy or KRS-One," he says. "It's all a packaged product, [so] from that angle of it, yeah, hip-hop is dead. But then you have other underground artists that are doing music to express what they're going through in their life, and that's what hip-hop is always about. So I don't see hip-hop, in that sense, dying at all."

So while Dälek's music seems to unleash a fury that the average rap fan can't even comprehend, the trio is really only doing it to bring some logical passion -- a love for the game, if you will -- back to rap. "I think instead of trying to do this or trying to kill that or whatever, artists should be more concerned with melodies and trying to figure out how to write good songs and song structures," he says. "I think there definitely still is underground hip-hop that is good music. I mean, it's still out there, but you just gotta dig deeper now, you know."

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey