Genre classifications are our tools for organizing music. We sequester sounds to distinct buckets in order to make sense of it all. Eventually, expectations arise—rock music should have guitars and a 4/4 beat; hip-hop should be an MC rapping over disco and R&B samples; and so on. Obviously, music doesn’t always (or even usually) fit so neatly into our self-made criteria. The innovators and provocateurs among us are constantly ignoring our classical delineations—as well they should, we wouldn’t be very far without them. In order to keep up, our genre system proliferates into subgenres, and sub- subgenres, and other strange amalgams of sounds like ‘grave wave’ and ‘math core’. Considering said provocateurs, that proliferation is a trend that will likely continue on in perpetuity. Dälek is one band ensuring that it does.
Dälek (pronounced ‘die-a-leck’) emerged from the New Jersey DIY scene in the late ‘90s. In rare fashion, the group combined the heaving industrial warmth of shoegaze and the caustic commentary of hip-hop outfits like Public Enemy. Alongside co-producer Oktopus, the project’s brainchild MC Dälek (aka Will Brooks) quickly established the band as a force. Their music—self-dubbed noisy hip-hop—garnered much acclaim, and Dälek’s 1998 debut LP, Negro Necro Nekros, was named one of FACT Magazine’s 100 best albums of the ‘90s.
On April 22, Dälek released Asphalt for Eden—the band’s first full-length since 2009. Brooks got the itch to revisit the Dälek sound while touring in Europe for his personal project, IconAclass. His partner, Oktopus, was in a different place stylistically and opted not to join, but he gave Brooks his blessing to reignite the project. So Brooks pushed ahead, collaborating with longtime Dälek affiliates, DJ rEK and Mike Manteca. Ultimately their efforts resulted in Asphalt for Eden. The new record—like many of its predecessors—continues to challenge our notion of what hip-hop is (the track “6db” is a smoldering instrumental that conspicuously lacks a vocal part).
I spoke with Brooks on the phone a few days before the band’s record release show at The Bell House. We talked about the new-look Dälek, the lost mystery of vinyl crate digging in an age of Internet immediacy, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the value in having an unprecedented amount of music at our fingertips.
What are the origins of your musical life? When did you first decide that music is what you wanted to do?
W. Ah man. When I was growing up, two of my cousins were DJs—I’m talking when I was like eight, nine years old. I would be the little kid watching them DJ. That’s where the start of my passion for music came from, and I started DJing when I was 13 or 14 years old. So yeah, you know, neighborhood DJ for a long time. Started DJing for local hip-hop groups and actually became an MC by accident. I was in a local hip-hop group that had two DJs and two MCs and one day one of the MCs quit. The other MC was like, ‘yo, you ever think of rhyming? You’ve got a good voice for that.’ And I had never really thought about that. I started writing terrible rhymes back then and it kind of took off from there.
I was involved with music throughout school. As far as deciding to do it professionally, I think by the time I was in high school I kind of knew that this is what I wanted to do. But I didn’t really know the exact steps to take…college is when I decided that this is what I wanted to do full-time, just immerse myself in it.
So what were the kinds of music you were DJing when you first started? What were the sounds you were sampling?
M. I started by basically spinning the stuff that my cousins had passed down to me, so I was spinning early hip-hop, disco, break beats, things like that. From there I moved into doing straight-up hip-hop. Also did Latin freestyle, deep underground house. I really just kind of spin everything, man. My record collection was very eclectic. I had rock records. Had metal records. I had everything—just digging through crates and picking out stuff. Back then, if you saw a cover that you liked on an album, you’d just pick it up regardless of what genre it was—you just picked it up because it looked cool. And you would go home and discover whatever that music was. I miss that about digging, where now you can sample everything. You can hear what it is before you pick it up, but back then you were flying blind. You knew certain labels put out good stuff, you knew certain bands, but then other stuff you just kind of went with if the artwork looked cool, or if the names sounded cool, you know?
Yeah now everything is incredibly immediate—there’s no guesswork anymore.
M. Yeah there are benefits to that, of course. I’m definitely not that old man crying about how everything’s changed [laughs]. As a consumer, I love Apple Music—the fact that you have all this music at your fingertips. As a musician, I just wish they paid us more. [laughs]
You can definitely hear the breadth of music taste in your music. You guys have been long been described as a combination of My Bloody Valentine and Public Enemy, and in an interview you said: “I also feel that music in general is more of a blend of genres, across the board, mainstream or underground.” I know you’ve said that your music is strictly hip-hop because that’s what hip-hop’s about—looking for all kinds of music in crates, looking at album covers, etc.—do you think that’s changed at all since you first started, that coalescing of genres?
M. I think that’s happening more now than it ever has—I don’t think it used to be like that. In the last 10 years, everything that’s out is kind of a blend of all different types of styles—be it dancehall, or electronic…even mainstream music is a combination of everything now, which I think is a new phenomenon. I think it’s cool. I’m into that. If more people are open-minded to hearing different things, that only benefits bands like us. I really feel like there’s more of an audience now than there’s ever been.
I agree. Today you hear your new album [Asphalt for Eden], and you think it’s cutting edge, but you guys have been sounding like this for awhile. It seems like a lot of other bands have just gotten to where you were a long time ago.
M. Yeah, you know, I hate using the term ‘ahead of our time.’ That’s kind of a cheap way of putting it—I just don’t have that big of an ego to say that [laughs]. But I definitely feel that there are always band that. And we’ve been lucky enough to meet some of them, bands like Faust, This Heat—there are always bands that. When they come out, they don’t really sound like anyone else, and then later on in their career there’s definitely more of that sound in music. It isn’t necessarily that these bands influenced everyone—of course they’ve influenced a lot of people—but other bands just come out that have that same mentality, the same way of melding sounds. It makes more sense later in time.
I guess, to a degree, we fall into that category. When we came out, there were a few heads doing what we were doing—bands like New Kingdom, bands like Techno Animal—but I feel like there wasn’t really a scene for it. There wasn’t even a name for it. We were just doing what we felt. And I feel like now—not that it’s mainstream music by any stretch of the imagination—but we definitely have more bands out there now that are doing that kind of thing. And that’s good. I’m into that.
Was that evolution in any way responsible for you coming back and making this album? It’s the first album since 2009—did you start hearing something in the air that made you think it was time to come back?
M. I mean yes and no. I don’t really think that that was the catalyst for it. I was working on another project that I still have called IconAclass. I was doing a few tours in Europe for that, and on one of the tours I thought, just for fun, we should play some Dälek songs that fit into the set—like the less noisy, hip-hop based stuff. Just playing those joints…I hadn’t even listened to those songs in so long, and to play them live and get that feeling again. It was like, you know what man, I kind of miss doing this, and I’d like to do some more in that noisy world. So it’s really as simple as that. It wasn’t like, ‘oh it’s time to capitalize on this shit’—it wasn’t like that. It’s funny, in the grand scheme of things, noisy hip-hop is still a very niche market [laughs]. It’s not like there’s a billion fans that are into what we’re doing. It’s not that kind of thing. It just felt right to do. The climate definitely felt right as far as getting back out there and playing some shows. More than anything, I think it was just—when we first decided to redo it again and we started playing a few shows—I wanted to gauge what the crowds would be like and just how it felt being on stage doing this stuff. And once both of those things felt really good, making an album was just natural.