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Jacob Rosenberg

Del La Soul: Lyricism will never go out of style.

Homo Erectus

From major label to indie label to Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030, Push Button Objects and the Gorillaz, East Bay rapper Del the Funky Homosapien has a theory: adapt or perish

By Spence D.

EVERYTHING will work out for the best."Given the overall political vibe, this universal mantra is being uttered a lot these days. But as trite as it may sound, there's actually quite a bit of truth to the saying. Hell, one need only look as far as the career of Del the Funky Homosapien. He'll tell you as much.

Since the early '90s Del has ridden a career arc that most folks would spend a lifetime navigating. He has had his highs and lows, yet he has managed all the while to remain relevant in the freakishly fickle world of hip-hop. As such, his existence is a perfect illustration of the times at hand and how to survive them intact: it's all about adaptation and learning new skills.

When Del burst out of the "sunny meadows" (the Oakland hills) with his 1991 debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, he was not only riding high on the crest of major label support from Elektra Records but was also indulging in a little strategic nepotism--his debut was produced by his famous cousin Ice Cube.

By the time his second album, No Need For Alarm, dropped in 1994, Del had shed his ties to Cube, and it was clear he was trying to prove that he could make it on his own. He recorded a third album for Elektra in 1996, but it was subsequently shelved. Del was released from the label and, at the ripe young age of 28, was essentially unemployed.

Like any person who finds himself suddenly out of work, Del went through the normal pangs of depression but was able to temper it with some perspective. "I used to get depressed a lot anyway 'cause I'm just kinda like that," he says in his characteristically laid-back drawl. "I mean my life hasn't been hella groovy and shit the whole time. So I'm kinda used to being depressed or upset about shit. So [getting dropped by Elektra] didn't really bother me like that, you know what I'm sayin'? It just kinda rolled off my back."

Del took a job at Leopold Records and moved back home with his mom in east Oakland. It was around this time that Del's sonic compadres, the Souls of Mischief, also found themselves "unemployed" (i.e., they were dropped from their label, Jive Records). In what was at the time a very brash move, Del and his Hieroglyphics brothers (Souls of Mischief, Casual, Pep Love, Domino) reorganized and began an all-out assault on the World Wide Web. They set up their own record label, Hiero Imperium, and began hawking their wares via modems and mail orders.

While profits from the Hiero Imperium figuratively kept the wolves at bay and put food on the table, it was an event three years ago that truly altered Del's vocational outlook and placed him at a crossroads in his career. He received a Barnes & Noble gift certificate from his mom and used it to buy the book How to Write a Hit Song.

"I bought it as a joke," he says. "But when I started reading it I was like, 'Damn! This book is dope.' The first page basically says, 'You've gotta be original over anything else, or else you ain't gonna make it.' When I bought that book, it was like the go-ahead for me. I used the information that I learned in that book to write the song ["Clint Eastwood"] with Gorillaz. That's the first song that I tried that stuff out on, and it went platinum. If I wanted my proof, it was right there. So I gave the platinum plaque to my mom, like, 'Here, you helped me get this.' She was like, 'How?' I didn't tell her right off the bat it was because she bought the gift certificate."

He Came Right

The book spawned more than a platinum hit for Del. It also created an insatiable thirst for knowledge, especially music theory. "I've been studying music theory for about the last three years. I'm pretty obsessive about it. Basically any book that's about music, I pretty much try to get it. So I study the blues, 12-bar, eight-bar blues, all the way up."

Ask Del to reflect on his long career, and he'll pause for a moment before replying. "I feel like my albums up to now have been like a steady process of me trying to sort out what it is I'm really gonna do. Now I'm at the point where I've pretty much figured it out. In between being dropped and getting our own record label and touring for hella years, that just brought me to a point where I had to really tell myself, 'If I really want to be in the music business, man, I better learn something.'

"In actuality, I don't really know too much about music. I got a good ear for it, and I'm lucky sometimes, but I was like, 'My luck is running out, I need to learn something.' Not just for myself, but also for the consumers that are buying my stuff, because I feel if they're gonna spend that 20 beans on my product, they're gonna want something tight or else they ain't coming back. And I feel like people have already given me a chance for me to even be around this long. So now I'm really, like, on fire and for the people that really have my back, I'm [finally going to] make my next album so y'all be like, 'Whoo Del, he came right!'"

Adaptation is the key to survival in any occupation, but especially so in the world of music. Just look at Bowie or Madonna--both are shining examples of how reinvention can prolong one's relevance within the confines of the pop music world. Del is no stranger to this practice. From major label prodigy to indie-label guru and, most recently, as an independent contractor for the likes of Handsome Boy Modeling School, Deltron 3030, Push Button Objects and the Gorillaz, Del has proven adept at adaptation.

Couple that with his insatiable desire to learn all he can about music, and you've got one rapper who definitely won't be staring at the tail end of the unemployment line for a hella long time.

Del the Funky Homosapien headlines the CaliComm Tour with People Under the Stairs, Motion Man and Lifesavas. The tour comes to Spy, 400 S. First St., San Jose, on Thursday (Nov. 21) at 9pm. Tickets are $20 and available through Ticketweb.

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From the November 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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