There are two surefire album-fillers in hiphop: the song dedicated to God and the sex- and/or violence-themed skit. If a disc by your favorite rapper extends past the 60-minute mark, it’s highly probable that there’s a soul-searching rap ballad or some stylized audio pornography and/or mayhem padding out the proceedings.
The God songs are especially gratuitous. Most rappers have an encyclopedic knowledge of sex and violence, but they’re not exactly doctors of divinity. So why do they love to rock the Man upstairs? It’s simple: To ponder anything but a benign, open-armed Heavenly Father is an unhiphop way of thinking. Rhymes about chatting with a merciful deity or meeting a dead homey at the crossroad signify that an MC might be “deep”—or at least quaintly in touch with his childhood churching. Plus, chicks dig it.
But what about the spiritually aware rhymers who are skeptics and searchers—the ones who wrestle with nihilism and ambiguity? They’re few and far between. A few of hiphop’s well-read mainstream acts—De La Soul, for instance—might express suspicions about organized religion, but that thinking isn’t central to their agendas. The philosophical fire-starting is left for outsiders such as Dalek (aka Will Brooks), the New Jersey iconoclast whose second LP, From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, is a scorched mindscape unlike anything hiphop has produced in a decade.
Whereas most off-center rappers are happy with patently helter-skelter beats, Dalek pushes his songs to the verge of cacophony. To that end, the rapper/producer has worked with jazz experimentalists William Hooker and Ravish Momin, the krautrock outfit Faust, and chop-shop cut-master Kid606. Unsurprisingly, Dalek hasn’t exactly followed the usual hiphop path to success: His 1998 long-playing debut, Negro, Necro, Nekros, was released by New Jersey punk label Gern Blandsten, and Gods and Griots is on Ipecac Recordings, the indie imprint of Mike Patton, the alt-rock weirdo of Faith No More fame.
The new disc opens with a bit of wandering piano that’s quickly overwhelmed by a screechy, needles-in-the-red feedback sample. The song it introduces, “Spiritual Healing,” is like the first stomach-slamming jerk of a decaying wooden roller coaster. Dalek straps himself into the mix, delivering a series of husky-voiced queries: “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?” Even when it’s almost buried under all the noise, the message is clear: Secure your identity and do not wave your hands in the air—this is not a party.
“Spiritual Healing” spells out a few other basic rules of Dalek’s world, too. First off, despite its near-industrial initial burst, the song is deeply rooted in hiphop’s boom-bap past. And although Dalek challenges hiphop’s status quo with some complex theologizin’, he does it in plain language. The closest musical reference point is probably the metallic- funk-meets-political-broadsides of the long-gone Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But Gods and Griots finds more inspiration in the Bomb Squad-produced fury of Public Enemy’s peak output, as well as in the disorienting buzz of early Cypress Hill. Bleakness and brashness with a distinct purpose: It’s an idea so old it sounds new again.
As might be expected, that sort of exploration works best with more than one hand on the wheel. The name Dalek also refers to the rapper’s group, a trio that includes co-producer Oktopus and turntablist/
co-producer Still. The three put ear-opening ideas at the core of almost every cut. The dubby “Forever Close My Eyes” modifies piano and guitar sounds with shimmering echo effects as Dalek ponders a Great Beyond that may or may not be there. The instrumental “Heads” erupts into what sounds like the overamped soundcheck of an arena-rock drum kit. And “…From Mole Hills” is a blur of cowbells and shoegazerish effects, with unconnected turntable scratches flickering at the edges.
As a producer, Dalek isn’t afraid to let his trippy side drone into the ether. It usually serves his songs well, but the 12-minute “Black Smoke Rises” will test the endurance of anyone who’s not regularly immersed in skronked-out ’60s jazz and hippie-flick psychedelia. “Black smoke rises to a heaven I do not know/Slowly gaze to take in our sorrow,” Dalek says repeatedly, dodging dissonant keyboard doodles, hissy tape loops, and Hendrixian guitar squawks. After a while, it begins to sound more like the last gasp of a lonely stoner than the future of hiphop.
Dalek also shows a weakness for dwelling in mundane conflicts that have been fought elsewhere ad nauseam. If the issue at hand is metaphysics or social analysis, he’s almost always crisp. But when he tackles more commonplace targets—especially the much-lamented state of hiphop—he’s articulate but unchallenging. On “…From Mole Hills,” for example, he preaches about protecting the pillars of street-level creativity: “Now my thread of life’s come undone/Remember back when Uzis weighed a ton?/Now
every kid’s got one,” he rhymes, adding later, “I remember hiphop, that’s my Mount Zion.”
The underlying sonics—especially Still’s fluid turntable work—actually do a better job of conveying the message than Dalek’s verbiage. Indeed, on just about every track here, the music more than makes up for any lyrical shortcomings. A case in point is “Speak Volumes,” on which Dalek asks the world’s DJs, MCs, and graffiti artists, “Yo, what the fuck happened?” as if he were the first rapper ever to ponder how urban culture has developed and mutated over the last two decades. The words may be as commonplace as they come, but the backing groove is a world unto itself: Two-thirds through, the noise subsides and a spacey slide guitar line wafts around a rock-solid rhythm built on kick drums and snares. The move is so effective that it transforms Dalek’s chest-beating diatribe into an honest-to-goodness elegy.
Let’s hope that Dalek has gotten the savior-of-the-culture stuff out of his system with this album. He and his sidemen obviously have more than enough juice to take on a whole new set of topics the next time around. And that’s what makes From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots such a trip: Every detonating sample, every subterranean bass line, and every pounding drum beat sounds like the work of people who are in it for the long haul. Like the West African storytellers referred to in the disc’s title, Dalek wants to be an enduring source of knowledge and soul. If that’s overly noble, at least it’s better than simply saying “word to God.” CP