Thursday, August 13, 2009

Space-Rap: Deltron 3030

The use of science fiction and fantasy themes in music is nothing new. Tie-dyed college hippies have been exclaiming over the Ringwraiths in Led Zeppelin for years now, while references to Captain Marvel and sci-fi literary classics have populated garage rock since the 60s. But the stunned rock fans who’ve been awe-struck by David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust since 1972 (myself included) are not the only ones to love a good-old-fashion, science fiction concept album. In fact, the hip-hop genre has enthusiastically embraced SF and the idea of the rap-opera (or, as some call it, the hip-hopera). Many artists have created reoccurring characters, modeled on both comics and spacemen (although rarely on fantasy figures). There are three leading men in particular: Dr. Octagon, MF Doom and Deltron Zero. I can’t help but start with the latter, the space-rap hero Deltron, the star of one of my favorite albums ever.

Deltron 3030 came out in the summer of 2000, and we played it relentlessly and incessantly at Crossroads, the record store where I worked while at Virginia Tech. It’s emblazoned in my mind, and not just because of summer nostalgia (it really WAS a good summer). It’s an album with a rich and layered musical landscape, beautifully-realized production that feels like a movie, classical score and opera, all at once. In my head the songs are all blues and storm greys, rust brown and black. The album cover, too, is distinctive, with its mustard-gas-colored sky and futuristic architecture.

Critics consider it a masterpiece of underground hip-hop and I agree, although I know very little about the genre, so take my opinion as you will. The album features the talents of a virtual hip-hop supergroup, composed of Del tha Funky Homosapien (MC), Dan the Automator (producer), and Kid Koala (turntablist). Both Del and the Automator would later use their love of crazy concepts in the Gorillaz.
In Deltron’s world, it’s the year 3030, Earth is a wreck, and the universe is ruled by evil corporations. Whack MCs continue their rap battles, but this time in post-apocalyptic space, where they travel from port to port and use their verbal talents like sonic rayguns to annihilate the competition. Del describes the “interplanetary adversaries, battling for supremacy,” jetting through hyperspace, and establishing hideouts on Mars. Yet, our Deltron Zero is also a rebel, fighting against the monstrous reality of the 31st century dystopia.
As many reviewers have noted, narrative coherence is not something that one ought to expect from a rap-opera. Instead, it’s more about a general theme and especially a state-of-mind. Deltron has definitely managed that, since the anxiety, misery and hopelessness of his dystopia is palpable. One reviewer has suggested that it “is probably the closest hip-hop will ever come to an equivalent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.” Deltron rages, “Fuck Earth, I want to live on Mars somewhat closer to the stars/And farther away from dumb civilization with no mental stimulation/…The online is touching your head/ With brainwashing, with propaganda about your fearless leader/Who got two hundred body guards so you can't touch him either/Bodies disappear, obviously of fear/…Everybody's spirits are under control/ Computers run with the soul/ Elitists defeat us, they live by the beaches/Bubbledome over the hemisphere, so you can't enter here/We live in the dumps with mutant rodents/With blood red eyes, saliva drips for opponents/Scratch your ID chip off ‘cuz everybody own it”[‘Turbulence (Remix)’].

Del the Funky Homosapien has described how difficult it was to create an entire album of technospeak and space-talk; at certain times this becomes clear to listeners, when the futuristic, technology-laden language begins to make no sense. As Pitchfork’s Sam Eccleston noted, “Del was never shy when it came to flaunting his restless MC intellect, favoring elaborate puns and encyclopedic vocabulary over, like, meaning.”

Anger and rebellion course through the album as well. In one of the most memorable choruses, Del threatens, “I wanna devise a virus/To bring dire straits to your environment/ Crush your corporations with a mild touch/ Trash your whole computer system and revert you to papyrus/ I want to make a super virus/ Strong enough to cause blackouts in every single metropolis/ ‘Cuz they don’t wanna unify us/ So fuck it: total anarchy/ Can't nobody stop us”[‘Virus’].

Ultimately, Del has not imagined a future much different from others we’ve seen before. But he’s populated it with wonderful cowboy-esque, dueling braggadocios, flying around with oxygen packs and taking the rap battle to interstellar heights. Del stated in an interview that he was inspired to do the album by anime, comics and the books he read. But most of all, he compared his created world to Mega Man. When Mega Man X was released, he saw that it was the same old Mega Man, but more suped-up, flashier, better. Morphing like Mega Man, Deltron 3030 took today’s concerns and put them in outer space, together with a reinvented Deltron Zero. Del planned, “It’s gonna be Del still, but more suped-up.” [To watch Del discuss his idea for the album, watch this video starting at min 2:40].

Deltron 3030 is without doubt the most sci-fi of hip-hop albums, and one that presents a world definitely worthy of a “-verse” at the end: The Deltron-verse. I highly recommend you visit.


doug said...

I have no idea how I completely missed out on this album until now.

Katie Rask said...

Oh my god. You have to buy it right this second.

doug said...

Done, thanks to the magic of the Internets (and Amazon MP3).