By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
If you go to a hip hop show anywhere in the greater Bay Area -- be it the Cash Money tour at the Oakland Coliseum, an indie artist showcase at the Justice League, or a DJ battle at Zebra Records -- you'll see a few kids wearing navy blue T-shirts with a three-eyed, straight-lipped face staring blankly back at you. On the front of the shirt is a stylized self-portrait of the MC who made local hip hop heads proud of their quirky scene, and who was the first in a long line of multi-syllabic, offbeat Oakland rappers to release an album. Del the Funky Homosapien -- and the Hieroglyphics crew he founded -- are a franchise here, and their triple-eyed logo is as ubiquitous in the hip hop world as the pentagram was for metalheads.
"When I invented that symbol, I never thought it would get this big," he says. "I've seen about 20 people with that tattoo. I saw a comic book -- like Clerks or something -- and one of the fools in there had a Hiero shirt on. I saw a Redman and Method Man video, and there's somebody in the crowd with a Hiero shirt on. I think slowly but surely people are starting to pay attention to us."
Del's father, an abstract artist, had Del drawing and looking at art before he was playing video games or experimenting with hip hop, the two consuming passions of his adult years. He got hooked on both from their earliest beginnings, playing Pong when it came out and listening to "Rapper's Delight" when it was brand new. "As soon as hip hop came out, I was interested in that period, just that whole thing was hella fresh to me," he says. "Every rap record I listened to gave me influence because I just loved it so much."
Del began participating in the art form as a breakdancer and then as a DJ, though it was soon clear to him and his friends that rhyming was his forte. With his deeper-than-most voice and interest in rapping about the stuff of everyday life, from the start Del was an anomaly in the ranks of MCs -- especially because he hailed from Oakland, a city known nationally in the late '80s for the slow-rapping freaky tales of Too Short. Del's cousin, Ice Cube, helped Del get signed to Elektra, where he released the bohemian debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here in 1991. But despite critical and modest commercial success, Del got caught up in the local fallout resulting from the record.
"Now looking back, I like [the record] a lot more than I did at the time -- not even at the time that I made it -- but afterwards," says Del. "Because basically after I made it, I came back here and all my homies that were straight hip hop heads or whatever were clowning me and shit. They were like, 'What's this?' I had already been known around the Bay from my demos, so everybody was like, 'This ain't that hard stuff. Where's the hard stuff?' The peer pressure kind of got to me. Since then I learned that whatever, they were just trippin.' The album is tight, I liked it when I was making it, I shouldn't have let them get to me."
As a result, though, Del shifted gears significantly for his sophomore effort, No Need For Alarm, producing most of the cuts himself and focusing his lyrical content on destroying competition. While the album is significant (along with Hiero partners Souls of Mischief's 1993 record Till Infinity) for the intricate and varied rhyming patterns that are now the Bay Area's hallmark, Del isn't completely satisfied with it. "Second album, I was too consumed with anger and being hella drunk all the time," he says bluntly. "A lot of things I said I probably wouldn't have if I had been thinking about it a little bit more clearly. I was really foul on that album. But I broke out with what I really wanted to do on as far as freestyling and letting everybody know I'm dope and all that shit."
But as far as Elektra was concerned, Del had broken out a little too much. He was making beats that couldn't be lumped into existing market categories, he was featuring squeaky-voiced teenage guests like Unicron (actually Del with his voice sped up), and most frustratingly for the label, he was sounding nothing like the cousin of Ice Cube. By the time Del's third album, Future Development, was almost done, they informed him his unorthodox services wouldn't be needed anymore.
Actually, the term "informed" might be a bit strong. "Right when I was almost done with the album," he says, "I didn't get no calls back from them, and then a month later they sent me a letter saying I was dropped. Like one sentence. Just to give you an idea of how they do you."
In Elektra's defense, Del is a marketing director's nightmare. Once the "You know who his cousin is, right?" line stopped working on radio and video program directors, there were no easy tags left for Del. Too many piercings to be labeled hardcore, too many drug references to fit the conscious rap gimmick, too much Northern Cali slang for New York or LA listeners (though years later, "hella" would become generally accepted hip hop speak everywhere).
Del found himself freed of the constrictions of a contract -- but also without an immediate means to distribute Future Development. Around the same time, Souls of Mischief were dropped from their label deal, so the group decided to self-release its future projects as Hiero Imperium. Del's album was sold as a tape at the band's shows and through its Web site, hieroglyphics.com. It took the group a few years to make the transition from recording artists to label operators, though, and Hiero releases were notoriously delayed. For instance, Del's new album Both Sides of the Brain was originally slated for a summer release last year and is expected (tentatively) March 21.
"From Future Development to this one, that's like 360 degrees," he says. "Future Development was taking it back to the essence. I learned everything, gotten through all the trials and tribulations. This one, I come around again to doing what I really like." Del has returned to describing the strange personalities he runs into in Oakland -- as he did on his most well-known track, "Mistadobalina," from his first record -- while pushing the syntax experiments he debuted on No Need For Alarm even further. By balancing the humorous, storytelling aspect of his personality with the educational, lesson-giving side, he covers more terrain on the album than all three of his previous works combined.
While Both Sides of the Brain is as unconventional as one would expect, Del made a conscious effort to retain enough reference points to keep it inviting for the uninitiated listener. "I study what people are listening to, I keep my ear to the street, make sure I don't go too wayward with what I'm doing," he says. "Because you know when you're an artist sometimes you got that ego, like just because you can do it, that means it's good. And that ain't the case. You gotta keep your eyes open and see what people are willing to accept." He stops to consider the implicit question he's posed. "Well, basically, I know what people are willing to accept. If you got a cool beat going on, you cool. If somebody's got to figure out what the beat is doing, it's weak. Like after five seconds and somebody's trying to figure out where the one's coming in, that ain't tight."
Still, now that Del's gone independent, he doesn't see the point in making a big deal of his credentials. On Both Sides' last song, "Stay on Your Toes," he trades verses with Souls member A-plus about the mainstream-underground debate -- one that's become tiresome to the whole Hiero camp. "It's like people over here on this side are complaining mainstream fools are ruling in hip hop and there ain't no dope shit coming out no more, just hatin' and complaining, basically," he explains. "Then you got the other fools in the mainstream thinking that anybody on an underground, gritty type level -- I don't even like using that word underground, I'll say just the funky, gritty, ground-level thing -- and they think everybody in that camp is hatin' too. And that be making me mad, because I got Jay-Z's album, I got a Puff Daddy album, I ain't hatin' on nobody. I'm trying to make my money, too. But I can understand people in the underground like that, because when I was younger I used to be like that, too.
"But when I got older I realized you have to make money somehow, you ain't giving your art away for free. When I figured that out, I realized I couldn't trip off what the other guy's doing, and it ain't my business what he's doing, anyway. He ain't keeping me from selling."