Artist Spotlight: Dälek

Dälek 1 make the harshest, most unforgiving rap music in existence. Hailing straight outta Newark, New Jersey, they construct explosive tracks filled with feedback squalls, distorted vocals, waves of sheer white noise, walls of impenetrable static, and the odd sample of actual note-based music. Over this racket, MC dälek (born Will Brooks, lead vocals and production) spits some of the most despairingly pessimistic political verses ever written in a resigned monotone. This recipe results in what can only be considered some of the darkest and bleakest hip hop music ever made – critics, at a loss as to what to make of this mess, have labeled them everything from “industrial rap,” to “noise rap,” to “rapgaze.” Other hip hop collectives produce beats – Dälek assemble dense sound collages that are more akin to musique concrete than standard boom bap.

Formed in 1996, the group originally consisted of Brooks 2 and DJ Oktopus (born Alap Momin, production). With the assistance of producer Joshua Booth, their constant steady hand in the studio, they assembled the five-track debut Negro Necro Nekros (1998, B) on the Gern Blandsten label. “Public Enemy meets Throbbing Gristle” is a pretty apt description at this point. The music sounds a bit more grounded and organic here than it would become, with spare, skeletal beats interrupted by abrupt cuts and samples. “Three Rocks Blessed” could almost pass for normal underground hip hop of its era, at least until the part where it lapses into four-and-a-half minutes of Eastern strings and auxiliary percussion. The lyrics are very abstract and psychedelic, almost philosophical, and delivered in a relatively soothing tone. There are definitely jarring blasts of noise here and there, but it’s not the main focus, and there’s more emphasis on switching gears multiple times mid-song on these expansive, experimental tracks. This is probably the most chill album that Dälek would ever produce, while still containing far more sonic weirdness than probably any of their contemporaries.

From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots (2002, A-), released on Ipecac Recordings, is where Dälek’s true identity began to take form. The emphasis of this album’s tracks, which would turn out to be the group’s most potent inspiration, is on “beauty meets ugliness.” While Negro Necro Nekros had ambience for days, the longer tracks seemed to lack direction in places, seemingly exploring random snippets of disconnected music and noise without any intent to settle on a consistent aesthetic. By comparison, these 11 songs hone the group’s exploratory tendencies to a razor-fine point, crafting a cohesive, refined sound that bangs righteously as it disturbs the ears with onslaughts of strange frequencies and hissing drones, and yet somehow also inexplicably finesses the soundscape into pure sonic ear candy, a sort of proto-ASMR-inducing effect that buzzes and hums like a chant from beyond space and time. It really must be heard to be understood. Meanwhile, Brooks has abandoned psychedelic musings in favor of radical pro-black rhetoric, decrying the state of American race relations and the institutions that still guarantee an unfair system. The resulting stew is a jumble of swirling, disorienting noises that resist categorization just as it rejects complacency.

A sound this novel and distinctive could easily fuel any average group’s entire career, yet their second LP on Ipecac, Absence (2005 A-) pivots into pure harshness instead, cranking up the cacophony and coming angrier and darker than ever. The effect is overpowering, and renders this Dälek’s least listenable record. Not for the faint of heart, to say the least. However, this is also some of their most layered, interesting and rewarding production work. If you’re a new fan, don’t start with this one – it’s not wholly representative of them, and it’s an endurance test in a way that most of their other albums aren’t. However, once you’re become inundated to their sound and developed an appreciation for their wildly unconventional approach, this stuff plays like goddamned holy writ. A better entry point might be Abandoned Language (A), released on Ipecac in 2007. Dälek’s towering achievement, Abandoned Language allows the production to become more lush, and dare I say, gorgeous than ever, while maintaining the group’s chaotic sonic assault and sour portentousness. From the instrumental coda of the 10-minute (!) title track3 to the free jazz horn expansion pack of “Starved For Truth” to the nightmarish aural wasteland of “Isolated Stare” to the wonderfully infectious pitch-manipulated scratching on “Tarnished”, Dälek serve up hit after hit of hyper-imaginative sonic extremity, busting open the boundaries of hip hop until they slide comfortably alongside Krautrock4, industrial, shoegaze, dream pop, doom metal, and even post-rock. While the tracks remain darkly beautiful, Brooks’ lyricism has grown more incensed and inflammatory than ever, vividly describing the racist policies and systemic injustices that have built a society that imposes an abhorrent standard of living on all but its elite class. What keeps it from becoming a shrill, didactic affair is two things: the richly-detailed tapestry of the music, and the genuine emotional devastation that Brooks expresses in his rhymes. He’s not up there telling us to “Fight the power” – he’s saying “We are already defeated, and have been for some time.”

Hydra Head Records issued the rarities/outtakes compilation Deadverse Massive Vol. 1: 1999-2006 (B+) in 2007, collecting one-off and out-of-print material, along with unreleased tracks from the group’s career. Included are their collaborations with the likes of Justin Broadrick’s Techno Animal, Kid606, and Enon, along with their 2004 Streets All Amped EP. With most bands, this would be where you’d expect to find their more adventurous or incongruous departures (or, less charitably, tracks too weak to make an album cut), but Dälek are such a weird, diverse group already that it turns out their outtakes aren’t any more bizarre than their studio LPs. Some of these songs even end up sounding pretty damn normal by their standards, as on the instrumental “Vague Recollection” which finds them drowning a bright, spacey synth melody under their usual mountain of trippy fuzz that gradually overtakes the track. Toko Yasuda’s vocals on their remix of Enon’s “In This City” surely constitute the prettiest singing they’ve ever produced, and the echoey keys and strings follow their suit.

In case anyone thought that the election of a black president in the United States would soften the group’s tone, Dälek helpfully put the lie to that notion on the intro track to Gutter Tactics (2009, B+). “Blessed Are They Who Bash Your Children’s Heads Against A Rock” consists of some righteously anti-American sentiment from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, over a seething sizzle of noise. Dälek have not lost one bit of their bitterness over the years. One interesting development seems to be the slightest hint of a sense of humor – the track title “A Collection Of Miserable Thoughts Laced With Wit” suggests a certain self-deprecation, fused to one of their most beautifully hypnotic beats backing up an almost optimistic set of lyrics. Otherwise, this record is pretty much business-as-usual for Dälek – they still produce walls of sound so thick and layered it feels like you need a few extra sets of ears just to take it all in – very good stuff, but not as challenging sonically or conceptually as their previous records have been.

Untitled (2010, B), was the first album the group recorded without the production of Joshua Booth, and it turned out to be a truly singular release, even by their standards. A single, continuous 43-minute track, the album weaves and winds its collection of disconnected sounds one after the other, samples, static, cuts, glitches, persistent drones, eerie noises, sporadic rap verses, distorted-beyond-recognition drums, and unmistakable notes of actual music stacking up on top of itself like an endless game of Jenga. It’s essentially a Dälek album done in the style of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but even more stark and harrowing. At its best, this approach feels like the culmination of everything Dälek has accomplished so far. At worst, whole minutes pass by with very little to latch on to, especially with the de-emphasis on vocals. The material for the album was actually recorded in 2005, and shelved for the remainder of the decade before finally seeing release on Latitudes. With the group’s roster down to two, the creative alchemy they had developed splintered somewhat, and Dälek went on hiatus in 2011.

Brooks and Oktopus spent the next few years on newer projects (Iconaclass, BKGD Audio, Third Culture Kings)5, until in 2015, Brooks hooked up with DJ rEk and Mike Manteca, who had collaborated with them in earlier years, and they released a new Dälek album, Asphalt For Eden, (B-) in 2016 6 on Profound Lore. In interviews, Brooks stated that he became interested in recording music as Dälek again because he “missed the noise,” but this is some of the group’s least noisy, most unbusy music they’ve produced since Negro Necro Nekros. The beats are still dark while being possessed of a strange beauty, but there’s almost no ugliness to be found, bringing the group closer to normal underground hip hop than anything they’d done since the debut. Even when there is noise, it is nowhere near as deep or druggy as on previous albums. Melodies like “6db” are almost comforting to hear in this context, but it’s hardly the Dälek of old, who would prefer to shake you to your foundations, rather than ever provide a modicum of comfort.

Endangered Philosophies (2017, B+) a homecoming to Ipecac, marks a much truer return to form for the crew. The beats may still not be anywhere near as diverse or bottomlessly detailed as they were in the heyday of Oktopus, but they’re much closer to the “classic” Dälek sound than anything since Gutter Tactics. In many ways, it does sound like the true followup to that album, as certain tracks take the scant rays of light found there and expand on them, creating an almost positive overall hip hop experience, that is still laced with venom and raw power. No matter what far-off path of sound and atmosphere they’ve explored, it is this power which Dälek has always harnessed, and that spark has sustained the group through a 20+-year axe grind, during which time America has slowly turned itself over to reveal a side darker and uglier than most of us ever thought possible. Dälek knew all along, though, and we can’t say they didn’t try to warn us, in their lyrics, their incendiary sound, and their entire approach to challenging the norms of their genre and the expectations of their audience. We must upset these things, they seem to be saying, because otherwise the underlying rot which threatens to poison all aspects of human life will fester. Perhaps there is no better time than now to discover this music. They may yet have more wisdom to teach us.