Not John Lennon
(Fucking) Neil Diamond thinks that songs should bring people together. He does as his “lyrics do without terms of abuse. Abusive language is an admission of weakness. It suggest that the author has a very limited lexicon and vision.” Dälek, a two-piece Hip Hop consortium that’s channelling a lot of raw energy, would fall on fertile ground with the minister of the department of smuk, sticky and pompous musical affairs. Unless we’re unable to detect or understand slang, Dälek doesn’t use hard talk every three steps.
Two laptops, a mixer and a mic, it’s all Dälek needs to build their hotchpotch of extensive Hip Hop. With a sensitivity for Krautrock, other psychedelic movements and blurry, dark atmospheres the Americans sail under the flag of innovation and, if you will, eclecticism. MC Dälek and Oktopus started their band eleven years ago, and forged a confrontation between their roots and the sonic world outside. In everything speaks an ongoing search for undefined settings. During those years they have worked with a variety of turntablists, the last one being DJ Still. The two-piece is, in between intensive touring, working on a new album for Ipecac. Last year’s Abscence brought them in countries all over the US and Europe.
The live-stylists of Dälek can be summarised in about four movements. Boldhead Oktopus rigorously moves his trunk and head from left or right, alternated with body-banging on the beat of the music. Dälek – heavy weight, round face, Brooklyn-cap and cultivated beard – hangs on his mic, eyes closed and furiously spitting out his lyrics. Other moments in the performance show him standing with crossed arms, grim-faced, nose in the air, … Anyway, we missed a lot of the visuals, as listening with closed eyes and partly cut down senses is the best way to sink.
At an April evening ’06 at Kortrijk’s De Kreun (Belgium), we spoke to MC Dälek. Afterwards we saw Dälek play a gig with an appetite for mercurial processes, blasting their way through the boundaries of hell – oops sorry, music.
Declaration of intent
Why Hip Hop?
I mean, why breath. That’s who I am. That’s what I grew up with. It’s my culture. It’s one of the first things I could remember. When I grew up, my cousins where DJ’s and while listening to them I heard Treacherous Three, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, Furious Five and all that stuff. I just emerged in that. Later in live, I took my own thing on it. That doesn’t necessarily answer the question “why Hip Hop”, but it leaves so many doors open as far as it could. It can influence you, sound-wise and sonically. It’s not just sound of course. It’s everything. It’s attitude, it’s the way you speak and how you dress, but it’s beyond that at the same time. It’s more of an attitude, a state of mind. It reflects where and the time I grew. It kind of defines who I am.
Do you think the band fits into the Hip Hop tradition?
(emphasis) I think it fits exactly into the Hip Hop tradition. Hip Hop always was about experimentation. It was about listening to all different types of sound and creating something brand new. To that extend I think we carry on that tradition to the teeth. The sounds that influenced me and the sounds that we choose to use as a palette might be a little different from other Hip Hop groups, but you also had Afrika Bambaataa listening to Kraftwerk. If he didn’t have an open mind, there wouldn’t be Hip Hop. I’ve been influenced by everything from Public Enemy to Rackim, to bands like Velvet Underground, Faust, My Bloody Valentine … So, it’s a different sonic palette. Still, what we’re doing is in the tradition of Hip Hop.
Dälek sails under the flag of innovation. How important is it for the band?
You always want to push yourself, and want to make records that are new and challenging. But at the same time we never thought, “let make this strangest, most out there record”. That’s not really the way we go at it. This is just Hip Hop that sounds right to me. The songs sound right to me. It’s less about trying to innovate or to be different. It’s more trying to write good songs. We approach it more from that angle. We’re heavy critics on ourselves. For every fifty songs that we make, ten will come out. We’re more concerned about bringing out the right songs, rather than make something crazy.
Playing the devil’s advocate: “We don’t see the flag of innovation if we look at Dälek’s live-performance.”
I understand what you’re saying, but it’s just the context I grew up in. I never wanted to be in a live band, having live musicians. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to play with live-musicians, but the format of Dälek is more natural to us. I mean, technically usually it’s just two turntables and a mic or whatever. We build our music with laptops and sound samplers. Honestly, it just makes more sense to us. It’s more a preference than us trying to make a statement or trying to keep it real. It’s more than that. It’s the simplest way to get our music across. Because it’s so compact, it’s easy for us to tour. We don’t have to carry around a drum set or amps. It’s easier for us in that matter.
Should a band floor itself on stage?
Any time you get up on a stage and people are willing to spend their heart and money to watch you perform, you should give everything you have, every night. Because of the shows that I have done in my live, that’s something I’ve promised to myself that I always would do. I’d never do a half show. If people see a show where my voice is breaking up and I sound like shit, than that’s all I have that night. I don’t want to say that every show we do is perfect by any means, but every night we play we’ve to make it the best show that we should possibly make. I don’t care if there are two people or two thousand people. You always try to put up the most professional show.
How wild at heart is Dälek?
This is it. This is who we are. This is what we do. We’ve never approached anything with a plan B. There’s no safety net. It’s either making it happen or fail if it can’t happen. If you fail, that’s it. It’s not even like giving everything that I have, it’s who I am. We have never tried to present ourselves in another way. It’s the music we write, it’s the music we like. We’re just regular people. We’re music-fans but my investment in the group… it’s all I got. This is what I always wanted to do. I’m lucky enough to make the right decisions that allow me to tour around the world and play my music. Scratching by barley pays my bills, but I know how many other people would kill someone to be in the position I’m in. I always consider that. I always appreciated what we’ve obtained. It’s everything. My emotional investment is my life. I slept on hundreds and thousands of fuckin’ floors for years. My broken back, that’s my investment (laughter).
What is your connection to your audience?
It’s almost odd that music can effect so many different people. We may not even have that much in common. But the fact that you can hear a song here, and I’m in New York writing it and it affects people from so many different backgrounds: that’s the beauty and the power of music. I’m always thankful that people are into what I’m doing. On the flipside, I don’t want to sound wrong, but I don’t write songs for anyone. I just write for myself. We don’t want to figure out what people like. That’s not what we do. We write songs that move us. The fact that songs that move me, also move other people… well, that’s cool. We definitely appreciate that. Also, I don’t have that much crowd-participation, like most Hip Hop shows have. That stuff already has been done. I don’t want to stand there and screaming “throw your hands in the air”. You pay an amount of money to get in, I’m the one who should be working. You shouldn’t have to throw your hands anywhere (laughs). I should be the one performing. So, to that extend, it’s not that I’m shutting out the audience by not speaking to them. It’s just that I want to put on the best possible performance with my music. It’s not about interaction, it’s more about feeling the songs and hearing the songs.
Is there also rejection?
No, not really. I look at the audience and say “thank you” now and then. If people want to talk to me afterwards, I’ll happily sit down, drink a beer and talk to you about whatever. But when I’m on stage. I’m supposed to play my songs and not having a conversation. I kind of try to separate that.
Is there transformation in a song when you perform it live?
For sure. I’ve always looked at, especially, the live performances and my music in general like therapy. It’s a very deep experience where I can take all the frustration and all the negative energy and put it out in a very positive way. Performing music and writing music allows me to be a normal person in other facets of live. If there wasn’t music I wouldn’t know what to do. It’s a catharsis.
The question never answered by Frank Zappa: ”Does humour belong in music?”
(determined) No, and I wish Mike Patton would stop with his humour (laughs). Not stop completely. Just with his humour. Mike is a very good friend of ours, but I’m not a fan of funny music and never have been. If I wanna laugh, I’m gonna listen to a comedian. It doesn’t mix for some reason with me, but again the other beauty of music is the fact that it’s so subjective. What I like and what you like could be the different ends of the spectrum. I think that makes music great.
A little variant on the previous: “Do politics belong in music?”
I think that opinions belong in music, that personal philosophies belong in music, but I don’t really believe in the preachiness of music. I have lyrics that deal with political issues and how I feel about social issues. But I don’t try to ram these ideas through people’s throats. If the rest of this world would think like me, it would be so boring. The difference of opinions is what makes this world interesting. I think conversation about politics and about everything belongs in music.
But it’s a small line.
Yes, definitely. But rather than what you say, it’s about how you say it. A good example is someone who is vegan. I think that’s great because it’s your personal choice. But when you start trying to push that on other people that’s where the line gets effete. Human beings are so similar. There’s only a small percentage of difference. That’s frightening for some people, but I think that’s something we should celebrate. Instead of trying to change everyone in what you believe in, you should just learn from different cultures, religions, …
Aren’t the answers given by hip hop, reggae and other artist on the global problems too linear causal inspired, too catch worded?
You’re talking about songs that usually run from two to ten minutes. They’re songs. If you really want to discuss politics you should write a paper on it. That’s how you really have that conversation. You can put but so much in a song and still have it be entertaining and also have a message. There has to be a balance of both. Some of it tends to be catch wordy, but I think at that point you should sit down with the artist and discuss about what his opinions and his beliefs are. He’ll have the material to acknowledge the backup the catch worded songs or he hasn’t.
Of course a band reaches a whole audience, but if you sit down with the artist it’s just one person who gets the explanation.
Yeah, no doubt. But again, I always make the analogy that a musicians is the person who points out that the house is one fire, but I’m not a fireman. I can tell you what is wrong with this world, but I can’t tell you how to fix it. I would give you the answers. If I had them, I would try to do something about it. However, you can’t belittle the importance of the person who points out that the house is on fire, ‘cause someone has to.
Do you see transcultural mechanisms in music?
I put up shows in Japan and people dig it, the same counts for Europe. Music is a very primal, instinctual thing. You just feel it. It’s not about where you’re from, but how it affects you. That’s something we take into account. A lot of times my vocals are more in the mix. The music can affect everyone. You can go back later and listen to the lyrics. But it’s the beat, the bass and the sound that moves people. That leaves the impression.
Music has no boundaries
Is it important to play with boundaries?
Yeah. Pushing boundaries in all aspects of life is what keeps the world moving and growing. Without someone crossing that line, you don’t get innovation, you don’t reach all these amazing things that we have. Without the person that everyone looked at like he was crazy, doing what he does, we would never get to where we are. Someone has to.
At the time, Punk mixed the musical-ethical benchmarks. Do you see the seeds of another movement with such impact?
Music and pushing ethical benchmarks is noble, but at the same time that can be taken to extremes where it doesn’t need to be taken to. For example: in Hip Hop you have people that go like, “wow, I’m into underground”, like the whole DIY-thing in Punk, “fuck that, I’m not signing to a major, …”. Sometimes people take that too far. Because you’re underground, that doesn’t mean that the music is good. There’s a lot of terrible underground Hip Hop, and there’s a lot of terrible mainstream Hip Hop, but there’s also a lot of quality in mainstream and underground Hip Hop. I don’t like those labels. It puts you in this little box. It’s ironic with Hip Hop, because it was always about listening to everything. It’s the DJ-mentality; they were always digging and looking for different kinds of records and sounds to make the next song with. But now rules have been set up. It distorts the music and the culture. Breaking boundaries shouldn’t be the goal.
What are the aspects of improvisation in the band?
We play electronic music, so in a sense it’s rigid in the way that some things are sequenced. There is but so much you can play with. At the same time, we use Ableton Live, which is a music program that gives you incredible flexibility to change things. During the set, we have sections in which we just let things happen. There’s definitely an element of improvisation, like in free-style and lyrics, but we also try to keep within the framework of the song. People have heard a song on the album, so you kind of wanna play that song for them. It’s a mixture of the two.
How often is the initial idea of a song the result?
There are rare occasions where you have certain things in your head and it comes out exactly that way. That’s John Lennon-like shit, and I’m not John Lennon (laughs). It has happened a couple of times where the initial idea of the song, after you finish mixing, is what you’ve heard. Music is a series of luck, of mistakes that sound right (laughs). Songs that just evolve from a general idea to the final thing, don’t necessarily sound like it was in your head, but you can be completely satisfied with how it sounds.
Are you as a musician most comparable to a photographer or a painter?
Both. We have songs that try to talk about what goes on in the world. I try to be a photographer on those. At the same time there are songs that are so open for interpretation and then it’s more like a painting. It’s capturing the feeling rather than the exact specific setting. Music has to be a mixture of the two.
“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”: Pablo Picasso said.
I kind of see that. I mean, we’ve been touring for about ten years. Most of my friends I have met through music, they played in other bands. This is just my observation, but I think music and the lifestyle keeps you young-minded. But you also physically look younger, because of what you do. In life, if you have to grind and have to bust your ass, that’s hard. Right now we’re building a recording studio back home. Me, Oktopus and a friend are literally building it from the ground. I have been working in construction for the last six weeks. I’m doing it because we’re really want that studio. Some people do it because it’s their job. When you have to do that, it grinds you. You have to get up at six o’clock every morning, and keep going. I think it’s hard to keep a positive outlook on everything when that’s your existence. My heart goes out to those people. It’s strange. In my opinion it’s pain, frustration and angst that creates art, but it’s also escapism. If you’re stuck in that all the time it can destroy you as well. The world is all about fine lines.
A trivial one to end. What would be the ultimate bill for Dälekstock?
Dälekstock, wow. (considered) The reunion of The Beatles. My Bloody Valentine should come back together, Public Enemy in their haydays. Boogie Down Productions with KRS One, Eric B. & Rackim. I would like to see Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash. I’ve just played with Faust a couple of days ago, but I want them there anyway (laughs). It would be a long festival. Hector Lavoe, we would have some salsa in there. It would be three or four days, and it would have like seven thousand different genres (laughs). It would be ill.
Interview by Peter, April ’06