Experimental hip-hop group Dälek is over in Europe, touring to support their latest release. PopMatters managed to catch up with the trio of Dälek, Still, and Oktopus via email recently to see what’s going on in their very full world right now.
PopMatters: First off, congratulations on the release of your new album, Absence, your fourth. Do you feel you’ve come a long way? Do you think you’ve still got a long way to go? What have been high and low points of the eight years or so you’ve been a group now, for each of you?
Still: Thanks for that. I don’t think that any of this is gonna end for any of us. I mean this was one of the hardest years of my life. I was homeless for a little while in ‘04, and even then I was working on music. Either in my head or on a laptop. Music’s what we do. Between the three of us, we’ll always come up with new ideas. We already have two records’ worth of material in the can. I’m already working on my next solo record. Etc., etc.
High points. I mean, I could pretty much die tomorrow of chainsmoking-related cancer or alcohol-induced liver failure and I’d have fulfilled a lot of my dreams. I means I’m broke as shit but at the end of the day, that’s just not how I define success. I get to see the world on my terms, more or less, and a lot of my friends were heroes of mine growing up. It doesn’t get much better than that. Working with Faust. Chilling with Faust. I mean, damn, we’ve been really blessed.
Dälek: I think we have matured a great deal and we are always trying to learn and to grow as musicians. I am really proud of Absence but it is by no means our apex. I hope we have many more joints that will push further and challenge us as well as our listeners. It’s been a slow steady climb for us over the last 8 years. I really don’t think of it as low and high points because it’s the hardships in life and in this group that drive us and make us work even harder. Plus you have to enjoy the ride, that’s what life really is. If you waste your time waiting to obtain some goal ... the next thing you know you’ll be 80 or dead.
Oktopus: Yeah, I definitely think our sound has progressed since 1997 and is still continuing to progress. When you hear the four follow-ups we have planned to Absence you’ll see how they are all different from each other but still contain us at the core. I think everything that has happened to us good or bad has been a high point to me. All of it helped get us to where we are musically. But specific high points for me was touring with Prince Paul, Techno Animal, the Melvins, Tomahawk, and Isis. Collaborating with Faust, Techno Animal, and Zu are up there too. Obviously doin’ records with Ipecac is a high point. I’m really glad that we’re still doin’ it and hopefully we will be for a long time. We got a TON of ideas at the moment so hopefully that won’t stop any time soon. I’m happy about all the great friends we’ve made all over the world from touring and hope to make more.
PM: Could you give us an idea of your various backgrounds, and how you came to meet and form Dälek back in 1997?
D: I grew up in Newark, NJ, and also spent time with my Grandmother and cousins in Passaic, NJ. My cousins were DJ’s from as far back as I can remember. I grew up immersed in Hip-Hop. It is my childhood. I started DJing at 14 and MCing at 15, and have been in neighborhood groups since then. By the time I got to college I was in a group that basically fell apart around me leaving me to pursue music on my own. I met Oktopus in college, he was running his own recording studio, and I recorded my solo joints with him. Somehow after mad 40 oz’s and talking about what we each wanted to do with music, Dälek formed. We recorded what became “Negro, Necro, Nekros” in ‘97 and started playing basement shows and VFW halls with groups such as Rye Coalition and The Lapse. After years of touring we met Still at a show in PA. He replaced our original DJ, Rek, who left the group to pursue his own music career.
O: D and I met in college back in 1995. I’ve been running a recording studio since 1993. So at first I was just engineering his early solo stuff. After about a year of working together we started sharing our ideas on where we felt hip hop could and should go. By 1997 we had three tracks for our first record, Negro, Necro, Nekros. We didn’t even think about releasing it, we were just experimenting in the studio. Various friends came by to chill and would be like damn you gotta put this shit out!! So we were like yeah? And so we did. Then we started touring like mad. We met Still while on tour in 1999. He killed it on the decks during soundcheck and we were like, we got our new DJ.
S: Without getting too personal ... I was just a kid from Freeport Long Island, liked music a lot. Went to school at Swarthmore College and was intent on being a professor of Anthropology. That was the dream. But there I got REALLY into music. I mean, I started playing turntables my sophomore year and that was pretty much it for me. I started expanding my knowledge of music a ton those years. My junior year I had picked up a record with a weird cover at Bobbito’s in Philly, it was Negro, Necro, Nekros. Helped to bring those guys to my school to play because I was involved in music any way I could on campus. Met them at the gig. Asked if I could show them some stuff. Got on their turntables. Joined the band the next month. Attempts at living a “normal, successful” life pretty much took a nose dive from there.
PM: How would you describe your sound to someone who’d never heard your music before? Besides the obvious hip-hop influence there are shades of dub, drone rock, ambient music, electronica ... also a leaning towards raw sound and disintegration that makes me think of Kevin Martin’s work as TechnoAnimal and the Bug, as well as Pan Sonic and [Norwegian producer] Deathprod’s Supersilent improv group/“Audiovirus” philosophy. Do you see yourselves as part of some sort of movement, with peers and shared ideas, or do you feel that you’re somewhere totally individual and just get lumped in with other artists by frustrated music journalists who can’t find a genre box for you?
O: When people ask about our music I always say it’s somewhere between Public Enemy and My Bloody Valentine. Or Eric B & Rakim and Glenn Branca. But we don’t really try to stay on just one sound so the records are always changing sonically and musically. But that’s usually a good starting point. We are influenced by so much that you never know which way our tracks may turn out. In the beginning we felt really isolated, especially in the US. There wasn’t anything goin’ on like this stuff we were doin’. People were hating our shit. Running out of our shows holding their ears and all that. When Kevin Martin contacted us it was the first sign to us that people in other parts of the world were doin’ similar things and were feelin’ our sound. We didn’t even know it existed. Two dumb ass Jersey cats drinkin’ too much and making beats. Since then we’ve done tons of collaborations with people all over the world and I think these days there are more and more noise-oriented hip-hop records being made, which is great. Finally. Not that we’re having much luck in the States still, but it’s good to see that at least in Europe and Japan people are responding.
D: I don’t know if it is a movement. We are down with a lot of great musicians. If wanting to surround yourself with good music and great musicians is a movement, then I guess so. We are a hip-hop group. We make hip-hop that sounds right to us. That’s it, really.
PM: Speaking of Kevin Martin, you have of course worked with him on more than one occasion. In fact you seem to be exceedingly interested in collaborating with other musicians as a group, not something that’s prevalent amongst hip-hop groups, on the whole. There’s your much-acclaimed LP with/versus Faust, which I’ve been listening to a lot recently, and hopefully an album’s worth of new material composed and recorded in conjunction with one member of trip-hoppers-gone-black Sofa Surfer and a violinist. How did you come to perform at the Vienna music festival that the pieces are being written for?
D: Again, we enjoy working with good musicians. Anytime you collaborate with artists of the calibre we have have the honor of working with, you walk away with new experiences and knowledge. We have learned a lot from all of our collaborations. Faust actually contacted us after listening to our record in which I mentioned them in a lyric. You can imagine how surprised I was when they invited us to their home to meet them and then to record with them! It was an amazing experience. We recorded everything at their studio in Germany with all of Faust, and Jochiem mixed the final record. We have maintained a friendship with all of them and see them whenever we are in Europe. There are no immediate plans to record more ... but you never know. Yeah the Vienna Music Festival project was Wolfgang from Sofa Surfer’s idea. I think it will be interesting to have all of us in a studio, just to see what comes out. Might be great ... might be ... well I guess we will all have to wait and see.
O: The thing with Faust was unbelievable to us. We got a call that a mutual friend had given them our records and they were into it and wanted us to come and meet them when we were in Germany. We had a really bad tour that summer and were like dyin’ on the road. We ended up having like nine days worth of shows fall thru and were stranded with nowhere to go in Southern Germany. Joachim was cool as shit and was like why don’t you come stay with us. We were gonna go anyway, but they let us crash for like nine days. In that time we hit it off so well and started recording. Since then they’ve become like parents to us and we went back a few more times and finished up recording and eventually it was released. I’m sure we will do something again with them. They’re the type of cats that we’ll just show up and set up and just record.
With the Sofa Surfer’s collaboration we met them thru TechnoAnimal when we were out on tour back in 2000. Kevin and Justin got us all really into Cargo. We listened to it every day. Then we show up to Flexxx in Vienna and this cat comes up and gives me a disc and is like, I’m a big fan of you guys, I would love to work with Dälek. Kevin’s standing next to me and he’s like yo, that’s Wolfgang from the Sofa Surfers. We were like OH DAMN!! I was like fuck yeah. So since then we’ve gotten really close with Wolfgang and finally five years later we can work on that record we’ve been talkin’ about! He set that all up with the violinist and the Danube Festival, so mad props for that.
We are also wrapping up a collaboration LP with Zu. For those of you who don’t know them, they are an ILL 3 piece from Rome. Drums, bass, sax. Our collab is straight up Miles, Coltrane, Melvins, WuTang, and Tubby all wrapped up in one. I’m really amped on that. The music end is done, just waiting up now for D to drop the ill lyrics. And there is an avant orchestra/collective from New York called ASM. They comissioned us to write a symphonic piece for them. Just finished mixing that yesterday. So hopefully that record with them will be out later this year. We were goin’ for a Morton Feldman, Branca, Thomas Koner type of thing. Our first time at doing “scholastic” music, so I’m pretty amped on that as well.
PM: Talking of Germanic countries; Oktopus, from your name I’d guess that you’re the source of at least some of those influences in the group’s sound. Being half-German myself, I was wondering whether you lived there for a while, or whether the references were purely musical. That said, would you say that your production approach owes much to German influences, be they the modernist compositions of Stockhausen, the mayhem of Einstuerzende Neubauten, the pulse of Kraftwerk, and possibly Kafka’s world view?
O: Well, the sound isn’t just me. Our music is written by all three of us and we’re all really influenced by things like Stockhausen and Faust and Neu! and all that. Never lived in Germany, but dug a lot of the Krautrock sounds. But our influences vary from Germany to England with people like This Heat, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, to Jamaica with Scientist, King Tubby, Prince Jammy, Augustus Pablo, to India with Vilayat Khan, Zakir Hussein, Sultan Khan, Dagar Bros, Sabri Bros, to the US with Gang Starr, Eric B, PE, KRS, Johnny Cash, Ike and Tina, Meters, James Brown, Coltrane, Miles, Thelonius, Mingus, Ron Carter, Jack De Johnette and it all goes on and on.
PM: Dälek, as MC and namesake of the group, your lyrics are perhaps the most direct window into a sonic world made dark and grim by despair at reality, rather than nihilistic rage or hatred. I understand you name is correctly pronounced “Dialect”, so I’d like to ask where you feel you’re from (and at) in comparison to most of hip-hop as we know it, reveling in an immature fantasy. Do you feel akin to Sage Francis, who commented recently that he sees himself as being outside (and possibly excluded from) the box that represents hip-hop culture, and therefore able to regard and critique it more or less objectively? What do you feel are the fundamental changes that need to be made, in hip-hop as in the rest of the world, if things are to improve?
D: I am from the same place that created Chuck D, KRS-1, Immortal Technique, Rakim, and any other MC who lived and breathed Hip-Hop and spat lyrics with intellect. I do not feel akin to Sage Francis ... I’m not outside or excluded, I AM Hip-Hop Culture. Hip-hop always was about experimentation. It was about being into all types of different music, digging through crates, finding records, finding samples. So I think you always have to have an open mind and an open ear. Look at Bambaataa sampling Kraftwerk ... if he didn’t have an open ear, that wouldn’t have existed, you know what I mean? So to that degree I think that what we do might be one of the purest forms of hip-hop right now, because it’s so experimental in nature, the way hip-hop was intended to be. As far as changes? Well I don’t think that much has to be done. First off, music is cyclical, things are already changing. Plus, what is being pumped down peoples’ throats is pop music. The underground has always kept changing and pushing boundaries.
The only thing that I think is needed is a fairer representation of hip-hop, we need more of a variety on the airwaves, the images and stereotypes propagated by mainstream video, music, etc. have to be off set by images that really represent the majority of the Black and Latino community. You used to be able to hear groups like X-clan, PE, and BDP along side NWA, or A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, EPMD, Eric B & Rakim, and the pop, MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. You had variety. You had intelligent MC’s along with Gangsta MC’s or Thug MC’s ... Today you only have the cookie-cutter sound that is dictated by major labels available on major airwaves. That should change.
PM: Still, you’ve got a solo album coming out on March the 17th, which is a pleasant surprise to all the fans of your remarkable decksterity. Could you give us an idea what to expect from this; is it going to be more a turntablist’s album along the lines of Q-Bert or the X-Ecutioners, or a set of instrumental compositions? Or is this break from the rest of the group a chance to show us something completely different and unexpected—your Polyphonic Spree album?
S: I don’t think that anybody’s gonna expect what happens on that record. I still don’t have a name for it yet. The only instrument I used in making that record were turntables; that was really important to me, but it’s not a “turntablist” record by any means. It’s an ambient record, and there are textures there that run close to guys like Philip Jeck, or Aphex Twin, but it’s also fully composed. I love improvisational music, but I don’t want to let chance be my co-producer. For this record I spent about two years coming up with 35 minutes of sounds!!! It was nuts. Everything’s planned, and everything’s played live. It was a painstaking process. I think Jack Daniel’s stock skyrocketed on the weeks that I was really going to work.
The theory and structure behind the record are pretty air-tight, but I don’t want to bore people with that. It would be something of a failure if people listened to the record and said, “That’s really good for turntables.” I wanted to do something more. I wanted, walking in to that record, to make something really interesting that would supersede the instrument’s pre-conceived range. You know what I’m saying? Like, I started recording that in November of ‘02. I came home from a SICKLY long tour and we were meeting a lot of new people; that broadened my horizons. Like we played Nickelsdorf Jazz Galerie for the first time, we met a lot of avant-garde musicians. But I started to think about how different a lot of what I was hearing was from Coleman. The reason that “Lonely Woman” is such a great song isn’t because the band is free to go nuts and “feel out” the limits of their instruments (which they totally were), it’s great because it’s a heartfelt song that tears at your guts. When Ornette’s melody comes in, man you just want to cry. And I think that turntables, as an instrument, haven’t ever gotten there yet. So this record was my attempt at infusing that feeling, that human-ness, to a very inhuman instrument. Samplers can do it, obviously, so why can’t turntables?
PM: At the end of the day, what does each of you feel the point of music is, or should be?
S: I think I got at that in the last question. To put it another way: I’ve always felt that human language is very poor at conveying a lot of human experiences. Like define “hurt”. It’s a hard gap to bridge with language. It’s a solitary life we live. Nobody dies with you, even if you’re fortunate enough to have them die by your side. And nobody knows your stomach ache the way you do. That’s where art starts to come in. Poetry, at its best, does a lot with a limited tool. And I think that music is really good at bringing the interstitial experiences of life to light. That’s why I never listen to music by genre. I couldn’t do it if I wanted to. All music has in common variations and perspectives of The One experience.
O: For me music is everything. I feel like it should make you move. It’s not about where it’s from, what genre, or even political message. It’s for me really, really basic. Just the energy. If it’s got that energy that makes you wanna go off then you know it’s right. And I don’t mean just loud and distorted. It’s not even about the sound. It’s the core.
D: Music should be you.
PM: Finally, I’d like to give you the opportunity to shout any musicians, artists, authors etc. who mean a lot to you and whom you feel more people should now about, and wish you all the best on your coming tour.
D: The Bug, B4L, Oddateee, Laura Minor, IfWhen, Jesu, Destructo Swarmbots, SKALLA, Crooked Fingers, Immortal Technique, Uniform., Cannibal Ox, Hamid Drake, Nels Cline Singers, Larvae ... to name just a few of the newer artists that I’m feelin’ today
S: Musicians: Linda Perhacs, Tim Buckley, Bruce Springsteen, ISIS, Immortal Techniques, Cliff Martinez (esp. the soundtrack to Solaris!!!), The Bug.
S: Too many to list. Right now I love Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Herman Hesse. Thomas Mann. Anything by Philip K. Dick. Kafka.
S: Le Samourai. 1966 French flick by Jean Pierre Melville. Best movie ever.
And of course shout outs to Family Guy. The only reason I own a TV!
O: The Bug, B4L, Oddateee, If When, Sofa Surfers, TechnoAnimal, Faust, Jesu, 50 Cent, Ali Akbar Khan, Sabri Bros, My Bloody Valentine, Larvae, 69 Corp, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, ASM, Zu, Destructo Swarmbots, Fat Markus Hablizel, Uniform, All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors, Circle, Tech Level 2, Sound Murderer, Velma, Kid 606, DJ Rupture, Donna Summer, Is What?, Porter Ricks, E.A.R., Spacemen 3, IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE, Voice Crack, William Hooker, Hamid Drake, Mats Gustaffson, Nels Cline, Crooked Fingers, Trans Megetti, 1.6 Band, Botch, Knut, AZ, Mobb Deep, Nas, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, Leeway, Old Metallica, Slayer, Misfits, Black Flag, Burn, Straight Ahead, Underdog, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, GANG STARR, EPMD, Aphex Twin, Sick of it All, Agnostic Front, The Melvins, Helmet, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Paul Lovens, DJ Olive, EC8OR, Smif N Wessun, Black Moon, Nine, DMX, NWA, The Femm Nameless, Fela Kuti, Jeru The Damaja, Drive Like Jehu, Suffocation, Obituary, Napalm Death, Archie Bell and the Drells, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Junior Kimbrough, Howlin Wolf, Cymande, Bohannon, The Velvet Underground, Iron Maiden, Talking Heads, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Motorhead, Nirvana, Beatnuts, Notorious B.I.G., Voi Vod, Corrosion !of Conformity, D.R.I., the Dead Boys, Ramones, Blondie, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Prince Paul, Detroit Grand Pubas, DJ Assault, Outburst, Murphys Law, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, Jeff Buckley, Morton Feldman, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Michael Gordon, Milton Babbitt, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Beastie Boys, the Cramps, This Heat, Wire, SPK, Godflesh, The Jesus Lizard, Ragedy Man, X, Rye Coalition, Nolan Gate, Tony Williams Lifetime, John McLaughlin, Shakti, Miles Davis, Jungle Bros, Cypress Hill, WuTang Clan, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, D’Angelo, Jay-Z, Barry Adamson, Bjork, Fantomas, Photek, Azure Ray, Anton Webern, Cocoa Tea, Beenie Man, Yellowman, Bach…