All Heat In This Day And Age
1999 was, by all accounts, a weird time.
The Y2K bug threatened to eradicate civilisation, The Simpsons began its well-documented decline and the son of the decade’s first President was running in what would become one of the closest and most controversial elections in American history. Amongst all this, hip hop was slowly becoming a more mainstream force in American popular culture.
Films such as New Jack City, Dead Presidents, Poetic Justice and Juice had acted to popularise African-American culture with previously indifferent audiences. The latter two titles featured Tupac Shakur in lead roles, a powerful affirmation of the rapper’s newfound ability to act as both an emcee and an entertainer.
The recently-revived underground scene was flourishing - MF DOOM released his debut, Operation Doomsday, whilst artists like Kool Keith helped push the genre forward. One of the most startling and engaging works to emerge from the underground at the turn of the century was a highly-successful concept album titled Deltron 3030. Orchestrated by an unlikely trio of the same name, it incorporated one of Oakland's premier emcees, one of the underground's most influential producers and an eccentric Canadian-born DJ.
This is the story of Deltron 3030.
Deltron Zero, Hero - Ain’t No Small Feat
By 1999, Del The Funky Homosapien was a moderately successful Oakland-born rapper. His big break came when his cousin O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube, recruited him to write lyrics for his newly-formed affiliate group, Da Lench Mob. In return for his ghostwriting services, Cube helped Del with his debut album, the well-received and commercially successful I Wish My Brother George Was Here. It boasted his most enduring solo hit, the contagious “Mistadobalina.” Despite his successes, Del grew increasingly disillusioned with his debut - he soon parted ways with Ice Cube and set out to reinvent himself.
He founded the Hieroglyphics collective in the early 1990s alongside fellow Oakland artists and Souls of Mischief members Opio, A-Plus, Tajai and Phesto. Del featured prominently on their well-received debut, ‘93 To Infinity, contributing both vocals and production.
His sophomore record, No Need For Alarm, was released in November 1993 and represented a complete stylistic pivot from the yet-young artist. Leaning heavily on the talent within Hieroglyphics, he crafted one of the collective’s most admired and acclaimed records on his own terms. Despite this, Hieroglyphics and Del himself remained quiet achievers, at least in part due to the same-day release of Snoop Dogg’s classic West Coast debut, Doggystyle. Del’s third album - 1997’s Future Development - was released as an online-only offering in the US, a telling sign of Del’s forward thinking. The internet would become a key part of Hieroglyphics’ publicity, with the group releasing their first podcast episodes as early as 2000.
And so, by the start of 1999, Del The Funky Homosapien had cemented himself as a self-reliant innovator with a talented team on hand. His next project - perhaps still his most significant - would find him shunning his Hieroglyphics connections in favour of the then-unorthodox talents of a Canadian DJ and an oddbeat producer.
Automator, Harder Slayer, Fascinating Combinations
Daniel Nakamura’s fingerprints are all over hip hop’s strangest and most innovative records. As Dan the Automator, he’s one of underground hip hop’s most visionary producers.
Automator released his first project, a short EP titled Music To Be Murdered By, in 1989. He followed this with 1996's A Better Tomorrow, another lowkey release from an artist cutting his teeth. That same year, Automator earned his first major production credits on Dr. Octagonecologist, a concept album by Kool Keith in which he portrayed Dr. Octagon, “a homicidal, extraterrestrial, time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon.” Automator was listed as a producer across the entire record, which has since been credited with “revitalizing underground hip-hop.”
His subsequent credits were just as well-received - Cornershop’s When I Was Born For The 7th Time and Handsome Boys Modelling School’s So… How’s Your Girl? both received acclaim. He also released Bombay The Hard Way - Gun, Cars and Sitars, an album of 1970s Bollywood funk remixes.
“The Projects (P Jays)” and “Magnetizing,” standout tracks on HBMS’s So… How’s Your Girl?, feature Del’s distinctive vocals. These marked the first collaboration between the two artists, a marriage of underground eccentricity and West Coast reactionism. On “The Runway Song,” the fourteenth track, Dan linked up with Canadian-born turntablist Eric San, better known as Kid Koala.
Kid Koala got his start handing out material amongst other McGill University students who lived near his sharehouse. He honed his talent for ten years before he linked up with a UK Label, Ninja Tune, despite his living in North America. A huge fan of NT signees Coldcut, he specifically aspired to the label. Whilst his signing to an international label seems miraculous, it was more the product of masterful manipulation - according to AllMusic’s Sean Cooper, Koala managed to “arrange an ‘inadvertent’ car ride with [Coldcut] when their label's Stealth tour passed through Montreal in 1996, making sure his mixtape, Scratchcratchratchatch, was in the car stereo well beforehand.”
From their, Eric San released the Scratchappyland EP, featuring selections from his debut mixtape, and his debut album, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Both were well received. In the months following the release of his debut, Koala worked on the debut from his hip-hop supergroup, Deltron 3030.
Yo, It’s Three-Thousand Thirty
The album was recorded out of the Glue Factory, Dan the Automator’s home studio in San Francisco. Recording purportedly begun in 1999 and stretched into 2000, though there’s little information on the Deltron sessions themselves. We know that they happened, and in November 2000, the group dropped their self-titled debut record.
The narrative is as eccentric as the sounds used to furnish it - Deltron Zero, a disillusioned mech soldier and tech-magic “neuromancer,” rebels against the intergalactic New World Order that once employed him. A fugitive relegated to the dark and grimy corners of a universe gone mad, Deltron Zero slowly becomes a folk hero by participating in rap battles - literal battles - in which words conjure physically-damaging psychic attacks.
Sure, it’s silly, but that’s the charm. It’s within the loose confines of this vaguely-defined narrative that Del finds his stride, providing pithy bars about an oppressive global elite, his trademark troublemaking and some good old-fashioned science fiction tropes. It should come as no surprise that the hip-hopera managed to withstand the lofty, absurd premise: Automator’s pivotal Kool Keith collaboration, Dr. Octagonecologist, had achieved greatness on the back of a similarly cartoonish premise.
The Hieroglyphics website argues that Deltron 3030 was a brilliant marketing move for Del - it “capitalized on the growing interest of computer technology, incorporating motifs of science fiction, telling stories about life and hip hop based in the year 3030, and infusing much of the popular internet terminology and culture in circulation at the time.” Indeed, Del’s forward thinking when it comes to technology is well-documented: the first Hieroglyphics podcast dropped in 2000, and his 1997 solo album was an online-only release in the US. Whilst both of these practices are now commonplace, Del’s shockingly early use of novel communication technologies set him apart from his peers.
Another stylistic quirk that set Deltron 3030 apart was its refined use of sampling. 2000 was a pivotal time for sampling culture, with The Avalanches’ Since I Left You reinvigorating the then-niche art of plunderphonics and Kanye West kicking off his breakout tenure as a producer at Roc Nation. His work on 2000’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia and 2001’s The Blueprint foreshadowed his role as a sample-loving tastemaker in the years to come.
Dan the Automator favoured samples of all sorts - whilst he repurposed the work of others, he also took elements from his own work. “Mastermind” samples vocals from “Magnetizing,” a track from Handsome Boy’s Modelling School’s debut album and his first collaboration with Del. “Madness,” called “the album's masterful centerpiece” by Pitchfork, samples Del The Funky Homosapien’s own “Wack M.C.’s,” a track from his innovative sophomore album. Another track from the same album, “Catch A Bad One,” is sampled on Deltron cut “Memory Loss.”
That’s not to say he fears the antique - the earliest identified sample on the record is Lou Donaldson’s 1967 track “Ode to Billy Joe,” a prolific sample also used by artists such as Kanye West (“Jesus Walks”), A$AP Rocky (“L$D”), A Tribe Called Quest (“Clap Your Hands”) and Lauryn Hill (“To Zion”). The idea of sonic cohesion is also reflected in his samples - elements of Christine McVie’s 1970 track “And That’s Saying A Lot” appears on both “3030” and “The News (A Wholly Owned Subsidiary Of Microsoft Inc.),” the distinctive drum fill helping to create a subtle musical motif.
The album’s cover - previously unknown to me - is an old photo. It depicts the Perisphere, a massive monument to futurism erected at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The Perisphere and the accompanying Trylon were centerpieces of the Fair, though neither survived the century.
They’re relics of an ultimately misguided vision of the future - the lofty goals embodied by the Perisphere were undone by a century of stagnation and infighting, most immediately the Second World War, but also the subsequent Cold War. Their use on the cover invokes the idea of an unintended present - progress has been slow, and the utopian ideas of yesteryear are now laughable flights of fancy. In the same way as we reflect on the hopes of 1939, Del reflects on our present aims from the year 3030. Indeed, as explained throughout the record, the future is more dystopian than we’d ever imagined.
Despite this, the future still holds a mind-boggling amount of talent. Deltron 3030 collaborators include then-Blur frontman Damon Albarn, singer-songwriter Sean Lennon and De La Soul affiliate Prince Paul. Even skits were loaded with talent - 40-second interlude “St. Catherine St,” features Mr. Lif, vocalist for funk-infusion group Thievery Corporation, and Peanut Butter Wolf, a DJ who founded the now-hugely influential underground label Stones Throw Records.
I keep my dreadlocks in a napkin ring
Rap and sing, unlike the homogeneous clones
I'm into earth tones, birth stones, and erogenous zones
The more ticklish the more you have
Sitting on the curb over what used to be the 'burbs
And before that was Canarsie
I'm a disturbed and bitter herb;
Like saltwater and parsley
Mites crawl up, tights fall down
That's my mnemonic for a stalactite slash stalagmite
You may have this Maglite®
It survived the apocalypse
And for the fragile force of an agile horse
Here's a handful of very special chocolate chips
Things don’t end well for Deltron Zero - crowned the “Intergalactic Rhyme Federation Champion,” he returns home to earth and relaxes. Eventually stripped of his title after failing to show at a battle, he’s tracked down by the omnipresent oligarchy, who wipe his mind. “Memory Loss,” the album’s closing track, explains his predicament - the most volatile and reactionary freedom fighter of his time is reduced to ignorance, a surefire win for the bad guys.
It would take until their sophomore effort, 2013's Event 2, for his story to continue. In those thirteen years, the group had won a legion of high-profile fans who clamoured to be involved in their second outing - talents such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Amber Tamblyn, David Cross, Jamie Cullum, Zach de la Rocha and The Lonely Island contribute to the admirable sequel.
Someone Let Me Out Of My Cage
Nakamura produced much of the self-titled LP, whilst Kid Koala provided turntabling. Del contributed vocals to two tracks, including one of Gorillaz’ most enduring hits, 2001’s “Clint Eastwood.” A perfect combo of alt-rock inklings and hip hop influences, “Clint Eastwood” ultimately became Del’s only platinum single. In an interview with HipHopDX, Del reminisced about making the track:
I had finished doing Deltron 3030 with [Gorillaz producer] Dan the Automator. He was in San Francisco, and I said, “Take me home.” This fool busts out with “Hey, I just need a verse for this song. Can you do it?” And I’m like “I don’t wanna do no verse, take me home.” You gotta peep Automator: “I know you can do it in like 15 minutes.” And so I did the shit in 15 minutes, and that’s how it became.
What happened next for the three-piece team behind one of rap’s greatest hip-hoperas?
Automator would go on to produce records for Kasabian (West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum and Velociraptor!), Ben Lee and his own outfit, Got A Girl, a collaboration with actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead. 2017 has found him touring alongside Kool Keith, taking their landmark effort, Dr. Octagonecologist, on the road for the first time.
Kid Koala’s considerable talents have taken him across genres and mediums - he’s made contributions to the soundtracks for films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Great Gatsby, as well as collaborating with artists such as Amon Tobin, Jack Johnson and Handsome Boy’s Modelling School. He’s written two formally-released graphic novels, each accompanied by musical offerings. Earlier this year, he contributed musical expertise to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.
Del continues to be a prolific and productive member of the West Coast underground. Hieroglyphics continue to tour together, and the three-eyed logo that Del scribbled in the early nineties has become an icon in its own right. He's released 7 solo albums since 2000, contributed to two Hieroglyphics studio records and released a swathe of collaborative tapes with artists such as Tame One, Parallel Thought and Gorillaz.
In early 2016, Deltron 3030 teased a new song in the opening cinematic of a video game. A fitting track debut for a tech-savvy outfit, "Countdown" scored the opening of Gearbox Software's Battleborn. Whilst it seems to indicate an eventual follow-up to 2013's Event 2, it's hard to say if Deltron will ever deliver. Their last effort took thirteen long years to eventuate, and with Dan touring and Koala dabbling in film work, it may be a long time before the stars align.
Some things are worth waiting for. Until then, however, we've still got Deltron 3030, a landmark debut which lends itself to frequent revisitation well into its second decade.