Del tha Homosapien in a Funk

Plucky, brilliant East Bay rapper fights studio fright and his ex-girlfriend on his way back to platinum.

Del tha Funkee Homosapien ain’t happy/Ain’t feeling glad/Got no sunshine/In a bag. The 34 year-old Richmond rapper is embattled.

This weekend Del plays Rock the Bells, the Bay Area’s biggest hip-hop event this year, following the release of a new DVD detailing the shitstorm in his life. Five years since his “Clint Eastwood” single off the first Gorillaz album went platinum, Del continues to fight a lack of confidence, his ex-girlfriend, Legionnaires’ disease, and the frustrations resulting from robberies and lost material.

He promises that his long-overdue solo album, The 11th Hour, will be out early next year, and speaks of a new Deltron collaboration. But as he sits for a two-hour lunch interview in Oakland, Del is feeling the weight of a career gone awry.

In the early ’90s, Teren Delvon Jones got his break as Ice Cube’s cousin before forming the local Hieroglyphics crew. Best known as a counterpoint to gangsta rap, Hiero toured incessantly with literate flows and ’70s-funk-inspired beats and melodies. In 2000, Del worked with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura and DJ Kid Koala on hip-hop high-water-mark Deltron 3030. The album was a rarity in its time, a prelude to 2001’s Gorillaz and 2004’s equally stunning White People by Handsome Boy Modeling School, another Automator joint.

But Del’s place in the best albums of the period accompanied serious studio fright. When he wasn’t playing his hits live, he was holed up in his three-bedroom Richmond home going back to basics with books on cognitive neuroscience and music theory. “I didn’t know music very well,” he says. “I was dependent on what other people were saying about it. A lot of people in the industry were saying, ‘You got to do this, you can’t do that.’ I would try it out in my own way and I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it. Then I’d try doing whatever I wanted and I didn’t feel comfortable with that either.”

Compounding the situation, Del says he had a crazy-ass girlfriend who he claims got him arrested, waved knives, stalked him, and ultimately left a lot of hate in his life. “I wanted to fight,” he said. “After a while I didn’t care anymore. It was, ‘If you try and climb through one of my windows, I’m going to try and break your nose.’ Know what I’m saying?”

A scene from his mid-July DVD The 11th Hour DVD shows a six-inch kitchen knife stabbing through the crack in a locked door. Del claims it was his ex trying to get in. “I wanted to have a copy of it for my lawyer just in case there was some seriousness.”

It gets better. Del’s computer hard drive crashed last year with all his new material on it. And when he later moved to another house in Richmond, it was promptly burgled while he was away on tour.

Lastly, tha Funkee Homosapien has a funky constitution. Over lunch at Oliveto, an upscale Oakland restaurant across from Rockridge BART, Del claims he’s lactose-intolerant and allergic to fish, and says the chicken he ordered is making him ill. He repeatedly coughs up something nasty: the remains of a bout with Legionnaires’ disease, he explains. “I never get sick at home,” he says. “I got sick three times on the last tour to Canada. I got delirious on a plane and they escorted us off before the plane even took off.”

But life goes on. Antibiotics seem to have defeated the Legionella. Del has since replaced most of his stolen or broken gear. The old lady is out of his life and a new lady is in. And Del says his live show is locked, loaded, and ready to impress the twelve thousand attendees expected at Concord’s Sleep Train Pavilion this weekend.

Rock the Bells creator Chang Weisberg says he booked Del because he adds local spice to the best collection of boutique hip-hop in the world — he’ll be playing alongside the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Redman, De La Soul, and Living Legends. “He’s always going to be relevant because of his character, what he means to hip-hop,” the promoter says. “I think Del is a little bit of that secret sauce. He’s off-kilter. He’s always driving to break musical barriers. He’s not going to do what he’s done.”

Indeed, Del says a new Deltron project he has going with Dan the Automator will be totally unpredictable. “Dan said he has all the beats and samples done and it’s time for lyrics,” he says. “It’s going to be different. The first one was in the future, this one’s afterward. Have you seen Fist of the North Star or Mad Max? Like that. Everything’s broken down.”

Right, but does Del feel confident he can do it, now that he’s joined the 10 percent of rappers who actually can read sheet music?

“Yeah, before, I didn’t know the mechanics of what makes a hit,” he says. “I’d be stuck saying, ‘When am I going to come up with something people like? That could be a thousand years from now. It could be tomorrow.’ But I didn’t want it to be that shaky. I wanted it to be more sure. Like, ‘Okay, every beat I make could be huge,’ feel me?”

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