South Central Los Angeles, 1987: Teren Delvon Jones was staying at his aunt's house, visiting his cousin, O'Shea Jackson, whose rap name was Ice Cube. Across the street, Jones noticed somebody playing with a remote-controlled car in a driveway. He ambled over, started a conversation, and found out that the man was a DJ and producer by the name of Sir Jinx. Jinx, it turned out, had a cousin rhyming under the name Dr. Dre who was already working on music with Ice Cube. With another member named Kid Disaster, the two were in a group called C.I.A. — a project that eventually morphed into N.W.A. At the time, Jones had his own aspirations of becoming a rapper. As he remembers it, "I impressed Sir Jinx with my rapping because he was so amazed that I could write raps so quickly and so dope. He never worked with anyone that prolific — that got him hella juiced, and he started working with me exclusively." This relationship kick-started a 20-year-strong recording career for Jones as Del the Funky Homosapien, who went on to find significant solo success and, later, as the voice of the character Russel Hobbs in Damon Albarn's semicartoon group Gorillaz.
After donning his expansive new rap moniker, Del managed to persuade Ice Cube to give him a shot at making his own music, even though it took a few years for the opportunity to come to fruition. Cube, by that point, had left N.W.A. in a very public and highly acrimonious manner, hooked up with Public Enemy production unit the Bomb Squad, and started his own label, Street Knowledge. Brought into the Street Knowledge fold, the Oakland-based Del started to help out, writing songs for female rapper Yo-Yo. ("All music produced by Sir Jinx and Ice Cube for Lench Mob/Street Knowledge Productions with the Funky Hip-Hop Punch from Delvon Tha Funkee Homosapien," read the credits to her 1991 album, Make Way for the Motherlode.)
Del's own debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, followed later that year. It was right at the cusp of a period of hip-hop history described by many as the golden era — a time from the late '80s to early '90s when the music was perceived to be at its most vital and innovative. It was a hip-hop peak Del pays tribute to on his latest project, the appropriately titled album Golden Era, which relies on the classic formula of beats built on looping funk and soul samples, topped with blistering raps in which artists fought to establish their reputations. On "Descending," he spits, "Battle me inside the alleyways and the hallways/I always had a raw phrase/Back in '88 before the jaw paid my bills and stuff." The album sees Del proudly referencing the past — but from the vantage point of the present.
Del fondly remembers his days coming up, describing a more open-minded hip-hop scene. He recalls weeks spent holed up in the Street Knowledge studio — "somewhere out in L.A., we had a building in the 'hood," is all his hazy memory can pinpoint — where artists congregated and collaborated on ideas, inspired simply by a thirst to make music. They wouldn't limit themselves by working only with artists with a similar public image. For his own P-funk-sampling debut, Del remembers the moment Ice Cube cohort DJ Pooh — who went on to produce for 2Pac and Snoop — prompted a song. "I just came to the studio one day and Pooh was like, "Hey, Del, I got a song called 'Money for Sex.' This is how it goes: 'Money for sex, money for sex, ring it up!' Then he does the cash register sound. I was like, 'Ooh, that's cream, okay, let's do something with that.' Came back the next day and did the song." This collaborative process was common, he says: "It's not like Cube or Yo-Yo needed me to write lyrics as a ghost writer, but they invited me into the mix. We all helped out."
Del's days in the studio in L.A. were accompanied by nights back home in Oakland running with the Hieroglyphics crew, formed by future Souls of Mischief mainstays Tajai and A-Plus (the latter being Del's best friend to this day). While still underage, they sneaked into clubs like the Bird Cage, the Ice House, and the legendary underground-but-palatial rave venue Mr. Floppy's Flophouse in East Oakland. Once inside, they persuaded the DJs — who were often friends — to let them freestyle. Or they'd take to the dancefloor to perform the moves of the day — the Cabbage Patch, the Roger Rabbit, the Robocop — while vibing to a mix of East Coast rap staples like E.P.M.D.'s "Rap Is Outta Control," Chubb Rock's "Regiments of Steel," and tracks from Masta Ace's debut album and the Jungle Brothers' second project. It was all infused with "a little bit of house music," Del says, "as long as it was funky."
Del remembers his early hip-hop years as good ones, but he isn't terribly nostalgic for them, and even with the new album, he's not trying to live in the past. Creatively, those days saw "the blueprint for the new form of rap being laid." But it was also a time when, as he puts it, "It wasn't easy to get your money from a record label. It was a racket. It was all about capitalism." Tellingly, asked whether he had more fun being an artist back then, Del says, "You know what? I don't know about that, man. I guess I was younger and had less responsibilities, but it seems like I'm freer now, 'cause I got more money and have traveled through the hard times." Or, as he puts it on "Break the Bank," from the new album, "Things can't stay the same, they got to change — get that in your brain."