Sunday, September 1, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #020 - 'deltron 3030' by deltron 3030

Oh, we're going to get weird with this one.

But first, let me back up, because I've referenced this album in passing before in previous reviews but haven't really provided much context or history behind its strange, strange lineage, even though it might stand as damn near one of a kind even to this day, one of the few examples of a narrative-driven Afrofuturist hip-hop concept album, described by some as a rap opera. The producer is Dan the Automator, a California-based producer who by the late 90s had established his reputation through collaborations with DJ Shadow and especially Kool Keith, who had created his Dr. Octagon alter-ego and had released the celebrated if utterly demented concept album Dr. Octagonecologyst. This was the project that arguably won Dan the Automator the most initial attention for blending in organic instrumentation against Dr. Octagon's graphic iconography, which saw him garner the attention of De La Soul affiliate Prince Paul, who teamed up with him under the name Handsome Boy Modeling School for a 1999 project called So... How's Your Girl - unfortunately, it's as goofy and slapdash as it sounds. Then a year later he'd team up with Primal Scream for some production work - not the first nor last time he'd work with British acts, if you're familiar with one Damon Albarn's work in the 2000s - but he was still working with underground hip-hop acts as well...

Which takes us to Del The Funky Homosapien. The cousin of Ice Cube, he struck some commercial success in the very early 90s, but he wanted to go in a weirder direction with his second album... which despite some well-deserved critical acclaim promptly tanked, which saw him not release another solo album until 1997, which he mostly produced himself. But it was around this time he joined the hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics, who carved out their own critical acclaim in 1998 with 3rd Eye Vision, which I honestly hoped to cover before this as it's been on the voting block for some time now. But in the year 2000 in San Francisco, Del teamed up with Dan the Automator and DJ Kid Koala for a one-of-a-kind album that stands as a defiantly unique entry in underground hip-hop, even today. And while I expected I would cover this later rather than sooner, might as well tackle it now: so here we go, this is the self-titled album from Deltron 3030, and this is Resonators!

So here's the funny thing about this album: I was preparing for the sort of layered, tangled, incomprehensible narrative that you'd expect from hip-hop preeminent space opera, where of course you'd get dated references and extrapolations of technology but eventually it'd dive into a muddy mass of philosophical abstraction or just cult sci-fi iconography. Hell, it would not be the first time this would happen in underground hip-hop in the late 90s, even in acts associated with Del The Funky Homosapien - but that's not what Deltron 3030 is, not entirely. In fact, not only is this album refreshingly straightforward and direct, it's also aged amazingly well and feels like a pertinent and relevant slice of sci-fi packaged into a pretty streamlined underground hip-hop project... and just so we have this on the record, it kicks all amounts of ass and of the projects I've explored thus far on Resonators, it's hard for me not to see this as one of my personal favourites.

And let's start with the scant narrative we do get, with Del playing the protagonist Deltron-Zero as a mech soldier who uses the power of his rhymes to synthesize physical attacks and crush his opponents in a totalitarian dystopia post environmental apocalypse. A planned revolution involving a super virus seems to go awry so he goes to win the Fantabulous Rap Extravaganza tournament... a victory that is short-lived as the system continues relentlessly on without him, as he loses his title and ends the album with a plea to memory and to artists to keep up the fight going forward. And while this might seem to be a relatively conventional dystopian redemption arc, the levels of extended metaphor rapidly slide to the forefront: you can tell that Del is drawing upon his own moment of mainstream success and attempt to shift the system at the top as an arc leading into his lyrical warfare in the underground today, not dissimilar to what MF DOOM did on Operation Doomsday. And that's before it becomes blindingly obvious that the corporate-dominant, paranoid totalitarianism isn't that far removed from today - hell, fast forward nearly twenty years and it feels all the more relevant, look how far we've truly come. But here's where you get a pretty major swerve, because while Del doesn't hesitate to call out wack MCs and biters of style and a continued system of racial apartheid, he correctly draws the additional connection to the capitalistic system that anchors and perpetuates those diseased and tellingly fragile modes of oppression, and how with the lack of persistent history and knowledge such an era will come again and again... but also that hope will come as well. 

And this is also where tone and focus is a major factor, and this ties to Del's delivery - he's always had a knack for stacking rhymes with a damn near playful sense of sly rhythm and flow, and while he's a natural fit for sci-fi camp where some of the iconography is rooted, playing it all mostly seriously with the dark humour being more incidental helps the album feel relevant to this day, even if some of the reference points to late 90s sci-fi technology and hacker lingo feel a little stretched. Now disillusioned antihero narratives can have a rugged individualist streak as well, especially in this sort of dystopia which is given more attention to detail and texture than the narrative, and while we do get a bit of that in the final third - Del's the hero of his own story, after all, and you can tell with the metaphorical references to his own career he sees some real triumph - it never seems like he's seeking to rule or place himself above the population, not just through the interludes showing snapshots of those society have left behind, but also in how the album leaves him in the same struggle once again as everyone else - his success was fleeting, back to the grind, but he won a moment of hope all the same. It's a populist arc for the album, pointed in its societal criticisms but also one that can feel invigorating and fun, which is rare for this sort of tangled sci-fi where you can easily get bogged down in heavier meaning. Now for as well textured of a world as Del creates, I do feel like there was more room for storytelling and emotional dynamics we don't quite get - you can tell the extended metaphor is given way more weight than telling a self-contained story, and there are a couple songs like 'Things You Can Do' that feel a bit redundant in just emphasizing Deltron-Zero's awesomeness, telling rather than showing - but that's more because the world is so detailed but immediately human, feeling pertinent to both its time and now, so more storytelling there only seems like a good thing!

Of course, a huge part of why any of this works at all comes down to the music, with DJ Kid Koala providing the cutting texture to firmly anchor this in a hip-hop tradition, but it's Dan The Automator who is doing the heaviest lifting here, and I'm reminded of a quote by Rick Rubin, 'if it sounds too new, then tomorrow it'll sound like yesterday'. It's a fascinating quote but it's all the more relevgrant to how Dan the Automator coaches his production in what would otherwise be classical hip-hop grooves with slightly dusty beats and spacious samples - he could have easily doubled down on the flashier, alien synth tones available but he instead chooses to coax many of these instrumentals through a worn organic aesthetic that only accentuates the textured eerieness. Go to a song like '3030' and you get the depth and grit that you'd expect for this subset of sci-fi, but the swells of strings gives the story a heightened sense of grandeur, and how it's bookended with the eerie, creaking squeals does wonders to set the tone - probably my favourite hook on the album! Then you have the wiry, flattened analog synths with the grind of guitar off the bubbly warp of the beat on 'Positive Contact', the off-kilter jingles and descending arpeggios of 'Virus', the gleaming keen of 'Upgrade (A Brymar College Course)' with those slight melodic adjustments near the back - even as the more "futuristic" moments here, it's coaxed through a grounded hip-hop palette, so when the back half of the album pulls upon rickety strings, guitars and horns, as well as recognizable samples while still maintaining the textured, slightly ethereal grit and impressive mix depth, it feels cohesive; almost a little reminiscent in principle of the original Blade Runner score from Vangelis that blended futurism with slight classical touches, and I intend that as a compliment Hell, the only instrumentals I didn't quite love was the chipmunked hook of 'Things You Can Do' and the slightly clipped sample behind the dense percussion of 'Time Keeps On Slipping', and that's minor - it's no surprise that artists like Yugen Blakrok draw on a similar palette of dark, uneasy tones even to this day!

So it should be no surprise that I consider this damn near a classic... and yet it feels like an odd magnum opus for the majority of the folks involved - it has gravitas and the sort of one-of-a-kind alchemy that helps it stand out, but you think it was just laying the groundwork for far more! And of course Dan the Automator would go on to join Damon Albarn in Gorillaz, and Del would have scattered success on his own and with Hieroglyphics, but it would take until 2013 before Deltron 3030 would reform for the star-studded sequel Event 2... which even despite having better hooks and a strong sonic palette never quite came together, mostly because it doubled down on the narrative and wound up a tonally confused mess where the metaphors and symbolism flew apart. Sadly, it also wound up a lot less fun, the sort of long-overdue sequel that was made less out of a desire to continue the story and more because Deltron 3030 was iconic and the name carried weight - but I don't want that to diminish the original, which is truly something special and one-of-a-kind, netting a 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, I know this might sound like a really weird project to take in, but trust me when I say Deltron 3030 is the sort of sci-fi hip-hop epic that earns its legacy and remains just as potent today - in other words, you absolutely want to check it out!

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