Rapper Del tha Funky Homosapien is somewhere on the road, speaking from a cell phone that's crackling and popping with enough static to make you think he's calling from an underground bunker. Actually, Del himself is confused as to his exact location.
"I don't know where I am," he admits. "I'm on my way to the next spot, somewhere near D.C."
For Del, who has just released Both Sides of the Brain, his first studio record in seven years, the last few years have been rough going. After two records (1991's I Wish My Brother George Was Here and 1993's No Need for Alarm) on Elektra Records, Del's third album, Future Development, was finished but shelved because the label dropped him. Del eventually released it over the Internet, but getting back in the rap game has been a struggle. Rumors surfaced that Del had disappeared because he was addicted to drugs.
"Motherfuckers all said I had a (drug) problem," Del says. "I tell you one thing, my main problem is drinking. Straight up. Because when you get hella drunk, you don't know what the fuck you doing. As far as the drugs go, I've never done enough to be addicted. I was on probation and shit, and I couldn't do weed or any psychedelics, but the dude (his probation officer) told me it was OK to drink. That's pretty much where my problem started. He thought he was helping me out, but that's near worse than everything else."
Del admits that he has experimented with hallucinogens but maintains he never had a habit.
"I do that shit more when I'm playing video games, because I like the visual aspect of it," he says. "To tell you the truth, nowadays I don't do shit that often, but I might take a quarter-piece of X and listen to some music, 'cause now it's active listening and I can figure out the construction of a song. I used to do that, but not as deep as I can do it now. But I don't like relying on shit like that. I'm the type of person who gets bored of shit quick. I can't get too hooked on it, 'cause I get bored of it. If it ain't working no more, might as well do something else."
Though Del breaks out with some clever raps on Both Sides (in the three-part song "Pet Peeves," he disses "fair-weather associates," "shit-talkers" and "followers" who "claim they got game"), little on the record compares to I Wish My Brother George Was Here. At the time, his debut, which was produced by his cousin Ice Cube and released when Del was only 17, was criticized for not being hard enough. But in retrospect, it stands up as well as De La Soul's classic Three Feet High and Rising. DJs such as Kid Koala (who plans to collaborate with Del and the Automator in a group called 30/30 -- "'cause it will be released in the year 3030," Del jokes) have included the cut "Mistadobalina" as staples of their DJ sets.
"A lot of these fools, underground niggers, didn't like the album," Del says when asked about Brother George. "When I did the shit, I liked it. It was hella fresh."
Drug and alcohol problems notwithstanding, Del's re-emergence is just one sign of the hip-hop renaissance taking place in the San Francisco Bay area. Ever since the mid-'80s, when Oakland's Too $hort was dropping his dirty rhymes about pimping and cruising through Oaktown in his Benz, hip-hop has had a steady presence on the underground circuit in Northern California. A regional sensation well before becoming known nationwide, Too $hort put out several records on his own label before issuing his first official album on Jive in 1988. His success helped expose the hip-hop scene in Northern California that has since been overshadowed by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and other rappers from Southern California.
Although the San Francisco Bay area's crossover success stories -- Digital Underground and MC Hammer -- fell victim to overchoreographed routines and silly gimmicks after their initial successes, San Francisco has continued to nurture an ensemble of hip-hop acts that emphasizes poetic lyrics while producing fresh beats. Ever since the early '90s -- when such turntable geniuses as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and DJ Shadow started scratching -- the Bay area has been the source of as much inspired hip-hop as New York and Los Angeles. Along with Del, Blackalicious and Encore (all of whom will be in town on Tuesday, June 20, for a show at the Galaxy) represent a scene that's home to indie labels such as Bomb, Quannum, Ark 21, Nu Gruv Alliance, Om and Hieroglyphics. Encore maintains that if rappers from Northern California haven't gotten their due, it's simply because the press has been reluctant to embrace them.
"A lot of people outside the Bay area -- I don't want to say that they're hating -- but I think it's easier for people who write about hip-hop to overcriticize the Bay area than it is for them to critique LA and New York," Encore says by phone from his home in Milpitas, Calif. "I feel like it's weird. I look at some of the reviews that some of us get in the major magazines, and they're overcritical about some things we do. And I'm like, 'Why don't you say that about such-and-such in your own hometown?' I think we have the potential to blow up, but we've had that for a long time. It's just a matter of time for people to recognize us."
Encore, who works in the technical-support department at Yahoo! and had to wrangle a reprieve from his employers in order to tour, went to the same high school as his producer Architect but didn't start collaborating with him until after both had graduated. Initially, the two formed a group called the Vinyl Miners, but that disbanded when one of its members moved to LA. Inspired by Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow and the Sugarhill Gang, Encore and Architect continued working together and released a number of singles on small labels such as Stones Throw, South Paw and Certified. But Encore says he learned a valuable lesson from one of his first singles, "The Essence," which faded into obscurity not because it wasn't any good but because Encore didn't understand the nature of releasing a single.
"I was making songs that weren't single material," he admits, "more along the lines of the beats per minute. I was doing stuff that I liked, which I don't necessarily regret. I put out 'The Essence,' and (Bay area rapper) Rasco put out 'Twisted,' and his is a classic. My song is like 85 beats per minute, and when I recorded my song, there was an actual fight outside of my studio in San Jose. It was kind of crazy and threw off the focus. I was in the booth, and the engineer and the producer were trying to stop this fight. My vocals aren't mixed right. I would have done it a lot different if I had known. It probably should have been a little faster."
After releasing several singles (all of which feature smooth raps over laid-back beats), Encore started to get comparisons to Rakim. "Waterworld," a track that revolves around a beat that crackles like the sound of a running stream, did nothing to discourage the comparisons. The song, which was produced by Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, appears on the Handsome Boy Modeling School (a collaboration between Prince Paul and the Automator) record So ... How's Your Girl? It even included a sample of Eric B and Rakim's "Move the Crowd." And throughout the songs on his full-length debut, Self-Preservation, Encore flows with the same smooth delivery that gave Rakim the reputation as the world's best rapper.
"I love Rakim," Encore says. "I'm not going to deny the influence. Once people start hearing more of my songs, that will wear off. It's an easy comparison. People tease me about it. I don't claim to be Rakim. I don't think I sound like Rakim on every song."
Like Encore and Architect, Blackalicious's Chief Xcel and the Gift of Gab met while in high school. Although Gab was originally from Southern California, he went to high school in Sacramento and thought his skills on the microphone surpassed those of anyone upstate. But he was shocked to realize that the level of talent in Sacramento, which is a couple hours inland from San Francisco, was so high.
"We had an economics class together," Gab recalls when asked about the first time he was introduced to Xcel. "When we first met, we weren't feeling each other. We were ego-tripping with one another. He was from Northern California, and I was from Southern California. We would have debates about who was better, Ice T or Too $hort. We had our first down-to-earth conversation when we heard 'Top Billin'' by Audio 2. We both thought, 'This is just the dopest shit I've ever heard in my life.' From there, we discovered we had a mutual love for the music. I had another DJ at the time named Maestro K, and he wanted to do R&B, not hip-hop. I called X up one day, and I was like 'Yo, I need a DJ.' It's been on ever since."
Blackalicious released their first single, "Swan Lake," on Solesides (now Quannum), a label run by DJ Shadow, Latryx, Lyrics Born and other Bay area rappers. It took almost two years to deliver the group's most recent record, Nia (named after the Swahili word for "purpose"), but Nia is one of the best hip-hop records of the year. It features guest appearances by Shadow, Lateef and Lyrics Born and plays like a spiritual journey that climaxes with "Finding," a two-minute outro that offers words of encouragement for struggling African-Americans.
"There's a poem at the beginning and at the end, because the album is about purpose," Gab says. "The song 'Deception' touches on it. 'Shallow Days,' to an extent, touches on it, as does 'Making Progress.' It's about keeping your focus on your destiny. When you get that sense of purpose, it's about not letting things deter that. You're here for a purpose, and there's a lot of temptations that might pull you away from that. There's a lot of things that can tempt you.
"'Deception' is about an artist who gets blinded, which is the case with a lot of artists," Gab continues without naming names. "You can hear the hunger in their voice and even their level of creativity. But they get comfortable and lose that hunger and that eye of the tiger, and, boom, they fall off."
Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Blackalicious and Encore perform at the Galaxy on Tuesday, June 20; St. Louis' Bits n' Pieces open.