From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots

The Noise of the World, Turning on Itself: Dälek’s ‘From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots’

From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots established Dälek as the finest underground, deconstructive hip-hop outfit that ever toured with heavy-metal heavyweights and held their own.

From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots
Ipecac Recordings
6 August 2002

When Ipecac Records signed Dälek in 2001, deconstructive, noise rock-inspired, industrial hip-hop wasn’t exactly a cash grab. Straight from Newark, New Jersey, Dälek are hip-hop with an asterisk— an outfit inspired by the likes of Dublin shoegazers My Bloody Valentine and German experimentalists Faust; heavy enough to tour with the Melvins, Cult of Luna, Dillinger Escape Plan, Tool, Mastodon. With no such thing as an underground hip-hop touring circuit in the late 1990s, Dälek developed a habit of sharing stages with alt-rock and metal acts out of necessity and never looked back. 

Though the essence of hip-hop is pushing boundaries, Dälek’s sophomore album From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots (2002, Ipecac) stood little chance of approval from the Slim Shady crowd. Then again, lyricist and frontman Will “dälek” Brooks wasn’t exactly aiming for Nellyville, often acknowledging how Dälek makes music that tends to “weed out” people (Beermelodies Interview). 

Back in 1996, when Brooks formed Dälek (a wordplay on “dialect”) with his college friend Alap “Oktopus” Momin (later adding turntablist Hsi-Chang Lin, a.k.a. Still), a marginalizing of the genre’s powers of protest was already underway. Music journalist and historian Dart Adams describes the hip-hop of his youth as something “only played at night, hated by our elders, [and] located all the way at the back of the record store” (DJBooth). By contrast, what today’s masses consider “hip-hop”, he says, amounts to an innocuous, corporate byproduct. Meanwhile, artists more in keeping with the genre’s foundations, offering more than a one-dimensional narrative, are relegated to an underground ecosystem in a post-rap apartheid, separate and unequal.

By the time Dälek began making records, hip-hop— a social force synonymous with taking on the power structures, beholden to no one—  had lost its teeth and “gone pop”. Writing for The Nation in early 2003, Jeff Chang, maybe having never heard Dälek, even suggested that with politically-charged rap virtually nonexistent, hip-hop had abandoned the revolution (17). Such was the American zeitgeist in a decade of terror alerts, aggressive overspending, and unchecked debt. We went from “Fight the Power” under Bush I to “Air Force Ones” under Bush II. 

But here’s where the ecosystem of underground hip-hop comes in, as a 2002 release date situates From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots in a post 9/11, war-on-terror cultural context. While the corporate apparatus offered songs about sneaker shopping, Dälek offered the poetics of dark machinery, the noise of the world turning on itself. The vocals bear the influence of early 1970s bands the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets — both forerunners of hip-hop, specializing in a collision of jazz and faith in the revolutionary power of speech. 

On that note, Brooks believes the emcee’s role involves “point[ing] out the house is on fire” (Roosa), honing in on the world becoming a scarier and more claustrophobic place as the inevitable consequence of flaws in human character. From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots opens with “Spiritual Healing”, a whir of air-raid sounds juxtaposed with “dialogue” that isn’t dialogue, but rather a fused sentence, people talking over one another (“Who you pray to, my God the black God / Who you pray to, my God the brown God / Who you pray to, my God the white God”). Then, exhausted with such tedium, the song’s narrator eviscerates fundamentalism, calling out the religious right’s hollow hope-mongering and heathenish neglect of the economically disadvantaged, bowing toward a groovy white Jesus of suburbia. All this happens less than a minute into the record. 

As for the album title— the griot, as in “from filthy tongue of”, acknowledges the tradition of the African oral historian who preserves and “performs” tribal history on demand, in verse. James Braxton Peterson calls the griot “the ancestral progenitor of the modern-day rapper” (16). To that end, the song “Trampled Brethren” offers observations on Black American identity, the track structured around an unidentified orator prophesying against efforts to dilute Black history— “so that we would be denied the knowledge of who are.” Of Honduran ancestry, Brooks references religion as a civilizing force, noting how conquistador-ed peoples — Mayas, Incas, Aztecs — had a culture (Beermelodies interview). Ultimately, on From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots‘ final track, “Classical Homicide”, he revives the ethnic-erasure theme, lamenting, “I learned to crawl / Appalled by sense of urgency to resurrect the dead / Shed my last skin searching for angel with broken wing.” 

Fans of underground hip-hop, hearing this record for the first time, usually say something to the tune of “How’d I miss this for 20 years?” On the other hand, many of us in the West, fortunate enough to have discovered this band two decades ago, may still associate the record with its war-on-terror context— when a mood of patriotic revenge took hold of the United States, coupled with a mass longing for a retro-America that pre-dated inconvenient cultural expressions such as experimental, social justice-oriented hip-hop. 

In reconsidering From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots as an artifact from 2002, we might ask, What shapes the human imagination to a greater extent: art or terror? The voice of the terrorist or the voice of the rapper? Terrorism is a narrative aimed at changing the way we see the world, using our media obsessions against us. By contrast, the avant-garde hip-hop artist replaces the endless media loop with performative art—always more thoughtful, more introspective, more demanding, more complicated. 

In a just universe, an enthusiast wouldn’t have to go 20 years without hearing this album. But in the universe we have, From Filthy Tongue established Dälek as the finest underground, deconstructive, shoegazing, played-only-at-night, back-of-the-record-store hip-hop outfit that ever toured with heavy-metal heavyweights and held their own. 

Works Cited

Adams, Dart. “Hip-Hop Is Already an Inclusive Artform & an Exclusive Culture. Mainstream Rap Isn’t…” DJBooth, DJBooth, 5 March 2018. 

Chang, Jeff. “Stakes Is High: Conscious Rap, Neosoul, and the Hip Hop Generation.” The Nation, 13 Jan. 2003.  

Fortunato, John. “Dalek Bring’ Gods and Griots’ Trip-Hop Gratuity.” Beermelodies, 5 June 2009. 

Peterson, James Braxton. Hip Hop Headphones: A Scholar’s Critical Playlist. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 

Roosa, Brandon. “Dalek Interview by Brandon Roosa.” YouTube, 2 November 2015.