With just three officially released solo albums over a fifteen year span, Del the Funky Homosapien (aka Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Deltron-Z) remains one of hip-hop’s great enigmas. A seminal influence on alt.rap, his first two albums, 1992’s I Wish My Brother George Was Here and 1993’s No Need for Alarm, established a template for the subgenre, while Deltron 3030, his millennium-year collaboration with Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, took conceptual futurism in rap to a haz-mat level. Del’s offbeat personality and quirky lyrical delivery made him one of hip-hop’s most unique characters, while his bugged-out sense of humor offered a welcome alternative to violent gangsters and overly serious emcees.
But who is Del, really? Behind the Afro-bohemian poster boy image lies a complex personality. On one hand, he’s been a champion of individuality, lyrical inventiveness, and independent thinking. On the other hand, he’s had some commercial success: His debut album went gold, and the first Gorillaz album (on which he portrayed Russel), sold seven million units worldwide.
Yet Del has often seemed uncomfortable with his populist appeal. He rebelled against the formulaic P-funk homages of I Wish My Brother George Was Here with the almost anti-commercial No Need for Alarm. Rumors of excessive “gurping,” personal problems, and disappointing live shows resulted in a reputation for flaky, erratic behavior. Moreover, his recorded output hasn’t been nearly as prolific as his fans would’ve liked.
Despite being the founder of Oakland’s famed Hieroglyphics collective, he has released only one album of new material on Hiero Imperium, the group’s label, in its decade-long history: 2000’s Both Sides of the Brain (the label also belatedly put out his unreleased third album for Elektra, Future Development, as a cassette-only release).
But with a new album, The 11th Hour, nearing its release on East Coast alt.rap stable Definitive Jux, Del’s November 13 show at Slim’s — the last date on a grueling nationwide jaunt with Devin the Dude and the Coughee Brothers — appeared quite auspicious. Here, finally, was a chance for Del to get his act together once and for all in front of a hometown crowd.
Prior to the set, hype man A Plus discussed being on the road with Del: “He loves the fans, and he loves performing, but everything in between, the travel and all that shit, he doesn’t really dig it. So I’m there to hold him down.”
The tour’s most memorable moment, he says, happened on Halloween in Omaha, Nebraska, when a man dressed like Pee-Wee Herman jumped on the stage and began running toward Del. Despite his small stature, A Plus tackled the crazed fan and heaved him into the crowd. “People were amazed that such a little motherfucker could make a big-ass dude fly so far,” he says.
Del himself seemed pretty chill. “I’m just glad to be home,” he said. During the long tour, he relates, “I was really just trying to shut everything out of my mind and do my job, get offstage, try to rest, and go do it again the next night.”
Casually dressed in a fatigue jacket, camouflage hoodie, and Richard Pryor T-shirt, his nappy head wrapped in a doo-rag from which a long scarf trailed, Del completed his Pirates of the Caribbean-esque look with his signature lip and nose rings. He was observed declining a hit off a blunt being passed around backstage — a good indication of his newfound focus — and seemed genuinely excited about the prospects of collaborating with the Definitive Jux crew. “I’ve known [Def Jux founder] El-P for a long time. The opportunity was there. I wanted to get [the new album] out now.” Hooking up with the label, he adds, “definitely sparked the interest a bit more.” As for The 11th Hour, he says, “It’s been a long time coming. I tried to keep everybody in mind.”
Minutes later, Del took the stage and delivered one of the most complete performances of his entire career. Opening with “Catch a Bad One,” he engaged the crowd immediately and never let go. His set was a reminder of just how many classic songs he’s recorded: “Mista Dobalina,” “Dr. Bombay,” “Virus,” “If You Must,” “Phoney Phranchise,” “Ahonetwoahonetwo.” He also dipped into the Hiero catalog for “You Never Knew,” and unveiled an ultra funky new tune, “It’s In Me.”
As the end of the night approached, Del addressed the crowd: “I gave you everything. What more do you want?” With that, the DJ launched into the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” whose chorus became a “Kumbaya”-esque sing-a-long: I’m useless, but not for long/The future is comin’ on. Del’s verse aptly summed up both the mood of the evening, and where he stands at this juncture of his career: Finally, someone let me out of my cage/Time for me is nothing ’cause I’m feeling no age.
On this night, whatever demons Del has struggled with appeared thoroughly defeated. Fully embracing his funky self, the reluctant alt.rap icon was finally revealed for what he is: one of the most creative minds in hip-hop.