Dälek: “No Question”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/02-no-question.mp3|titles=Dälek: “No Question”]
“A mix of Eric B. and Rakim and Black Sabbath” is how MC Dälek describes Gutter Tactics, the latest release from his eponymously named hip-hop duo (pronounced dial-ect) — but only if you press him to do so. The New Jersey-based pair, which also includes producer Oktopus, isn’t necessarily eager to place labels on its brand of moody, dissonant hip hop that recalls the heaviness of rock acts like Melvins and Torche.
But since the duo’s 1998 debut release, Negro Necro Nekros, critics and fans alike have attempted to fit Dälek into a genre — any genre that isn’t hip hop. It’s little surprise: decades of mainstream-music conditioning have diluted the definition of “true” hip hop to bling, bravado, and track loops. Any contemporary US hip-hop artist that dares to draw from anything but the musical well of mainstream pop and R&B has an uphill fight in proving his or her authenticity. Dälek takes things a step further than what most fans even come to expect from experimental hip hop, with a sinister sound that has more in common with grindcore than crunk, and lyrics that dwell on issues of social and political inequality.
But for MC Dälek, the duo’s musical affiliation to hip hop is clear — he’s not interested in creating a new category of hip hop or to distance the group from the genre. “[Critics] always attempt to put certain parameters around different types of music,” he says. “We started 11 years ago, and from the start, people have attempted to put us into these sub-genres — glitch hop, experimental hop, doom hop — and come up with all of these ridiculous names. That’s not what we really are, though these fads come and go. You can call us whatever you want, but after 11 years, we’re still making records. Our sound evolves, but to me it’s just hip hop. Hip hop is my culture, what I grew up with.”
Arguably one of the more anticipated underground releases of 2009, Gutter Tactics is unrelentingly abrasive, immersing the listener into a sea of jagged, atonal sound and lyrical bleakness. It’s both hypnotic and frustrating — and meant to be. But unlike the gloomy, apathetic drone of 2006 album Abandoned Language, the tracks of Gutter Tactics resonate with a sense of passion, hope, and action.
“I’m proud to be American; I love this country, but I also have no problem pointing out its faults.”
“A lot of people listen to our records and think that it’s just noise, and we understand that,” MC Dälek says. “Our music’s not for everyone. But it’s not just about the anger; it’s not just about showing the ills of the world. The idea is to highlight things that people don’t talk about, things that are going on in communities that don’t have a voice. To me, that’s what hip hop always was. It’s always been the voice of the community, the voice of the lower class. That’s what I’ve always embraced and loved about it, and regardless of what elements we use in our work, that’s what we try to put across.”
And in this, Gutter Tactics succeeds, pairing the duo’s signature ambience with sludgy, lo-fi-rock influences and some of Dälek’s most pointedly political messages yet. The lead track, “Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children’s Heads Against A Rock,” starts with the now-infamous speech of President Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, a damning rebuke of US foreign policy. MC Dälek says that it wasn’t included on the album for shock value, but it was intended to be provocative, or at the very least, intended to challenge listeners to hear the words in their full context, beyond how the mainstream media chose to frame Wright’s persona.
“We’re usually not that topical of a band,” MC Dälek says, “and that’s not really the reason that we included the speech.” He pauses to collect his thoughts, continuing, “It’s funny how the media works. Everyone was in an uproar over what [Wright] said, but most places would only play one or two sentences from his speech. When I finally heard the entire speech [on YouTube], I couldn’t find one line that was offensive to me, or one line that was a lie. I’m proud to be American; I love this country, but I also have no problem pointing out its faults. I just want people to hear the speech in its in entirety, not just the snippets that Fox News will show you.”
Even so, Dälek doesn’t expect much backlash from its choice to include the speech. “If anyone’s gonna be pissed about it, they should at least listen to the whole thing,” MC Dälek says.
Though Gutter Tactics is an admitted departure from the duo’s more abstract direction in Abandoned Language, MC Dälek says that it’s by design and a logical progression from earlier work. “We have a good idea of what we want to do from album to album,” he says, explaining that he and Oktopus had started to conceptualize the sound of Gutter Tactics while working on Absence in 2004. “In comparison to Absence, we knew that we needed to take a different approach with Gutter Tactics. We always knew that it would be in some ways heavier than Absence. [Gutter Tactics] has the melodies of Abandoned Language with the brutality of Absence; we think that it’s a nice mix of the two.”
Dälek acknowledges that its approach to writing is unusual. “We work in really bizarre ways,” MC Dälek says. “We have blueprints for the next two albums. I always said that I’d be making music regardless of whether it’s my job or not, so I just make beats, and Oktopus and I just start grouping things together for potential albums. There’s no set formula. There’s some tracks that Oktopus just puts together himself, but we have that trust in each other to put together the best possible songs, the best possible albums.
“We have ideas of where we’d like to go next,” he laughs, “though we don’t always like to say!”