Lest We Forget: A conversation with Dälek
More than just a genre of music, hip hop is an entire culture. Not defined merely by it’s rhythmic musical form of vocal delivery known as rapping, hip hop is all about the attitude towards life and music, the fighting against prejudice and racism, the clothing, the turntablism, breakdancing and beatboxing, as well as the community. And community is perhaps its most important aspect, as ultimately, hip hop can be truly defined as a way of life, and anyone not a part of it will keep relegating it to its most basic aspects. Over the years, more than a few artists within hip hop have dedicated their lives into changing the public’s perception of hip hop and one that has been succeeding in that mission on not only a sonic, but also a lyrical level, is Will Brooks, the MC behind Dälek. And while some would consider the music of Dälek to be experimental or even industrial hip hop, due to the group’s knack for introducing musical elements and stylings analogous to metal, noise and ambient music, Brooks has always refered to the group’s music as purely hip hop. His reasoning is understadable; as mentioned above, hip hop is a culture and it’s the conjunction of a myriad of elements, and not just a fraction of them, that makes hip hop what it is.
This year, Dälek released a tremendous new record, Precipice, and are currently touring Europe in promotion of said record – you can check out the remaining tour dates here. Earlier in May, we had the tremendous pleasure of chatting with Will Brooks about the creative process behind Dälek’s brand-new record, Precipice, as well as the group’s origins, their currently-running European tour and what it is like touring with rock and metal bands.
Starting at the very beginning, what was your first contact with music and what was about it that made you decide on pursuing a career in it?
It’s funny, in my immediate family I don’t have any other musicians or anything, but my parents were really big into music. When I was a kid, I remember them always having records on; my parents were big Beatles fans, they listened to a lot of salsa as well. You know, the radio was always on, that kind of thing. But what really sparked me were two of my cousins, who I basically grew up with. They were DJs early on, so I was a young kid kind of hanging out with the older kids. And they were there from the beginnings of hip hop, so I kind of grew up with that all around me. That was the beginning of my love for music, you know, wanting to be like my older cousins. I started as a DJ and I didn’t really start MCing until… I probably started DJing at like, thirteen; I didn’t start MCing until I was maybe like, sixteen. So, there were a couple of years where I was just concentrating on DJing. As far as wanting to do it for a career, I would say that was KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions; when I first heard Criminal Minded, that album completed changed my life. At that moment, I knew that that’s what I want to do, you know what I mean? No pun intended, but that was the blueprint; I owe it all to KRS-One and the music that he’s made, for real.
“(…) When I first heard Criminal Minded, that album completed changed my life. At that moment, I knew that that’s what I want to do, you know what I mean? No pun intended, but that was the blueprint; I owe it all to KRS-One and the music that he’s made, for real.”
What is the origin of Dälek? What were some of the initial goals you had for the project?
I remember being in high school and being in neighbourhood hip hop groups. Again, I started as the DJ and then eventually, I guess around sixteen or seventeen, I started MCing. You know, terrible runs at first as everyone has; no matter what anyone says, no one starts being fly, at least not in my experience. But yeah, I started rhyming, I was a senior in high school, I knew that this was I what I really wanted to do. I got to college, I was going to go for music engineering, but at that point, I already had my bedroom studio; I was already producing, I was already kind of doing what I wanted to do. So, again, the college, the most important aspect of that was just the people that I met. That was where I met Oktopus, that was where I met Angel Fernandez, a taxman who introduced me to The Labteks, I met Joshua Booth there from All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors. So, that’s kind of what cemented the foundation of Dälek as people know it today, it was those relationships. You know, it started as a solo project that Oktopus was recording and then, through the sessions of me and him just hanging out, conversating, building, drinking and playing each other the music that inspired both of us. He introduced me to shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine; again, another group and Loveless, another album that completely changed me at a molecular level. Through all of those moments, that’s kind of what gave genesis to this group and it really became a group, it became a partnership through myself and Oktopus. And we started producing stuff together, brought in Joshua Booth, who has played guitars and has been our musical guru from the beginning as well; he has helped with arrangements and whatnot. So, that core was what sparked this whole thing. I mean, now, obviously it’s myself and Mike Manteca, and Joshua Booth still is the secret weapon, you know what I mean?
Does the name Dälek come from the Doctor Who series or does it have another origin?
No, it has nothing to do with Doctor Who. [laughs] I hate to disappoint the Doctor Who fans, but I wasn’t really up on that until the first time we played Europe and then I got those questions constantly. When I played the UK the first time, everybody was like, “oh, you’re a Doctor Who fan”, and I was like, “I have no idea what y’all talking about”. Obviously, now I know all about it. I’m cool with it, I’m like, yeah, we’ll take the Doctor Who fans too. But really, it was my tag early on; I just wanted a different way to spell “dialect” and I just happened to choose that spelling, for better or worse. [laughs] At this point, I embrace it, man; if the Doctor Who fans want to check out the records, I’m good with that.
You mentioned a few of your influences and the music of Dälek itself as always been a mixture of hip-hop and other musical styles such as industrial, noise, ambient and rock. But despite this, you’ve stated in the past that you consider the group’s sound to be hip-hop in its purest essence. Is this a view you still hold?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, philosophically, and just the central tenets of what hip hop is, that’s what it’s all about. It’s always been about finding your own sound; it’s always been about taking everything around you and creating something brand-new with it. And if anything, the most important thing in hip hop was always to have your own voice; the worst thing you could be in hip hop was a biter, when I was growing up. You know, taking someone else’s style or trying to copy someone else’s style, that was a taboo, you know what I mean? So, finding your own voice and your own way to do things was what hip hop was all about and, to that end, that’s exactly what Dälek is. I’ve never said that I feel like this is the way all hip hop needs to sound, I just feel that this is the way my hip hop sounds. So yeah, to me its hip hop, that’s undisputable.
It’s not just the sound, but also the attitude towards it.
Yeah! See, people forget that hip hop is a culture, you know what I mean? If hip hop isn’t your culture, you wouldn’t know that; you would just think that it’s rap music, but it’s much more than that. It’s the attitude, it’s the way you talk, it’s the way you carry yourself, it’s the clothing, it’s the graffitis and DJing… There are elements, you know, the five elements of hip hop. So, it’s more than just someone rapping over a beat; that’s part of it, but that’s not all of it. I think when people listen to myself and go, “that’s not hip hop”, they are basing that off of the rap music they hear on the radio and that’s a fraction of what this culture is, you know?
Since the release of Dälek’s first record, you have toured with not only a handful of hip hop names, but also with quite a few rock and metal groups. Did you find it difficult to sort of engage with the rock and metal scene crowd during those tours? Did you draw any sort of criticism for being a hip hop group touring with rock and metal bands?
Well, that’s a multi-layered question. Did I find difficulty? No. To me, every show was about getting out there, playing our music and finding the people that we connect with. From the beginning, I knew that my music isn’t for everyone, that’s a given, you know what I mean? This isn’t bubblegum pop music, like, I know that. But all you can do as an artist is be honest to your art form, make a statement and whoever it resonates with, it’s going to resonate with; you find your tribe. And that’s kind of what we made a career out of. We’ve played with all types of bands, groups, musicians and artists, and from those audiences, we find the people that our music resonates with. It will never be 100% of the audience, there will always be people that either they are feeling it or they are hating it, and honestly, I’m fine with that too. A visceral reaction like that is great, either way, either love it or hate it, I’m good with that. I like getting that kind of reaction out of people, that’s what art and music should be about.
As far as the other question, I mean, I think there is always a degree of criticism, but that comes with the territory. You have to have thick skin to be a musician and to be any kind of artist, to put yourself out there. I’ve always been fascinated with music critics or just art critics in general because it’s very easy to critic something, you know what I mean? It’s much harder to create something and put yourself out there. So yeah, you’re always going to get people that don’t feel it or that have an adverse reaction to what you do, but you kind of have to roll with that, that’s part of it.
Going into your brand-new record, how was the creative process like for Precipice and what were some themes and ideas that you wanted to explore this time around?
We started working on Precipice pre-pandemic; probably started to some degree shortly after releasing Endangered Philosophies. I mean, I’m just kind of constantly working on tracks, putting them to folders, and then me and Manteca, when it comes time to work on a record, we sit here and listen through the ideas. Some of them are just sketches, other ones are more fleshed out, but we’ll kind of pick the ones that we feel will fit together on an album, and we kind of whittle down from there. We kind of started with, let’s say in the neighbourhood of probably fifty tracks or fifty ideas, narrowed that down to twenty something. From that, I think seventeen, we decided that those were the ones we were really going to work on. Me, Manteca and Joshua Booth worked on those, Joshua came in to had some guitar overdubs, and me and him worked on arrangements. And then, the pandemic hit and put the brakes on everything. We basically just stepped away from the album and I did the Meditations series on Bandcamp. By the time everything reopened a little bit, we reconvened and listened to what we had; not that it was bad, it was good, but it just wasn’t really speaking to me, it wasn’t really saying the things I wanted to say as far as everything that we have been through. Not only the pandemic and the isolation, but also the police killings, the social upheaval, especially in my country.
So, there were a lot of things that I wanted to address that I didn’t feel the tracks were doing per se, so we kind of went back to those seventeen tracks and took away some of the tracks. You know, some of the tracks just didn’t make it to the album at all, other tracks were kind of stripped down and rebuilt to fit more with the idea that I wanted to convey. And then there were tracks like “Lest We Forget” and “Devotion”, those were two tracks that Mike Manteca brought and they were pretty much finished. I think I added bass and keyboards to one, maybe synth to another, and then bass and lyrics to “Devotion”, but the basics of what that track were really more him. But when I heard “Lest We Forget”, I was like, yeah, that’s more the vibe. I knew that was the opener to the record when I heard it, it kind of captured the sadness that I wanted the record to convey. And then, songs like “Boycott” just had more of the energy and anger that I wanted the album to have. And then, you know, we added newer tracks; I think “Holistic” was one of the new ones that I added. So, it was a mixture of ideas that were pre-pandemic and then reworked, and tracks that were actually written during the pandemic that got fleshed out afterwards. The album has a very “of the moment” feeling, it just kind of captured the anger, the frustration, the isolation, the sadness, the loss, everything that we have gone through on the last couple of years. I’m very happy with the direction the album took and how we were able to do it. Obviously, the album got stripped even further as far as track numbers because we went from like seventeen to ten, but that’s usually our process; to me, less is always more. I want to refine the record until it sounds the way it needs to sound.
“The album has a very “of the moment” feeling, it just kind of captured the anger, the frustration, the isolation, the sadness, the loss, everything that we have gone through on the last couple of years. I’m very happy with the direction the album took and how we were able to do it.”
Touching on the lyrical aspect of Precipice, you mentioned wanting to speak more not only on the pandemic, but also about the racial issues that have increasingly plagued the world, especially in the US. With that in mind, do you feel like your music, or music such as yours, could be used as an anthem in combating these issues?
It’s tricky. I think what music does is it speaks to an individual; it doesn’t necessarily change the world, I don’t think it does that. But what it does is, it can change a person and it can at least open a person’s eyes to different things. And if it’s a person who hasn’t been through similar situations, then maybe their eyes open to things that are happening and that they didn’t know were happening or at least, they didn’t know where I’m coming from on certain issues. If it’s someone who has been through stuff, they hear another voice that’s speaking to their experience. And both are powerful, you know? I don’t know necessarily the idea of an anthem; I think I have a line somewhere where I said, “I don’t need a fucking anthem / I need change”, you know what I mean? It’s not about that, it’s not really about the music, it’s just more about opening eyes, opening ears and inspiring people. That’s really the most you can do, you know? To change the entire planet, that’s a heavy lift, but to open one person’s ears or one person’s eyes, that is doable and it’s important. It’s a first step and from there, it can snowball. Again, I don’t feel that all music needs to be political, but I feel that political music needs to exist. There is room in this world for party music and there is room in this world for socially-conscious music, and sometimes, it can be both, you know what I mean? But the beauty of it is that, without sound cliché, music is a language that resonates with everyone regardless of where you are from or regardless of background or country or anything. It’s powerful in that sense, as it really does strike chords deep in humanity.
Going back to the sound of Precipice, and in good Dälek fashion, this new record is densely-layered and expansive sonic-wise. When composing a specific song, do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the sounds that are being created?
Not overwhelmed. Not every song that we try, works; I think that’s something people don’t understand sometimes. You get to hear the songs that we released because we were somewhat happy with the results, but music is trial and error too. Sometimes you try things, you have ideas that at the moment you think, “oh man, this is great”, and then you come back and you listen to it the next day, and you’re like, “what the fuck was I thinking?”. So, there’s tons of tracks like that, where maybe the idea came from a great place but you weren’t able to bring it to fruition. And that’s how the idea of an album with seventeen tracks ends up with only ten; sometimes, those seven other tracks either didn’t work for themselves or didn’t work within the context of the other songs. I’m never discouraged when things don’t work, it’s a process. With our music, I look at it a lot of times like sculpting marble; it’s like this monolith of this densely-layered sound, so we kind of chip away at it and sculpt it in a way to make it into the song. And I’d love to take credit for every nuance, but sometimes, there are things that happen, like, there might be two sounds that we liked and we added, and those two sounds, the harmonics between them create something brand-new that we weren’t even expecting. And to me, that’s the most beautiful part of it, it’s when, for lack of a better term, these accidents happen that are even better than the intended initial idea. At that moment, you kind of step back and you’re just listening and you’re like, “wow, where the fuck did that come from?”. I mean, I work on music and I make these albums primarily, I’m selfish, I do it because I love it. I genuinely love working on music and I genuinely love sculpting these tracks and writing these lyrics. You know, I’m happy and humble that people still want to hear what I’m doing and it’s been dope to be able to do for a career and to continue to do it. But really, I do it more for myself. Like I’ve always said, this shit is like my therapy, it allows me to be a normal person in regular life, you know?
Those songs that you just mentioned you left out in the cutting floor, do you usually go back to those when doing a new record or do you just leave them be?
You know, in my mind, I always say, “oh, we’re going to come back to these”, but then, by the time we work on a new record, I have another fifty to start with again. [laughs] There’s folders on this computer that go back probably, I don’t know, at least 2010, if not maybe a little earlier, like 2007 or 2008. Then I have folders by year of just track ideas that, like I said, some of them were ones that it to the first round of album ideas and other ones were more… You know, there’s definitely tracks that just didn’t make it onto Precipice that are really well formed, but just didn’t make it for whatever reason. It’s funny, the other night, it goes with these crazy ass times to celebrate the release of the record, I did this virtual broadcast on Bandcamp, and I can say, the whole first thirty to forty minutes, I was just spinning those instrumentals and they sound great, I’m into them right now! [laughs] Like, I always think, “yeah, we can come back to these and release more of these”, but like I said, by the time we start working, I’m already working on something else and there’s already like a whole another folder of another, at least twenty tracks at this point, that I’m messing with. So, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to really flesh them out. Maybe releasing them as instrumental records later on, like some sort of archive or something like that, it might be cool.
Kind of like your Meditations series, but just purely instrumental and unreleased material.
Yeah, maybe! There’s always a possibility for that, the tracks are there. To me, all these albums, the reason I love them is because they always capture who I am in a moment in time. By the time I’m working on the next one and I start listening to tracks that I wrote three or four years ago, I hope that I keep evolving, I hope that they don’t really fit with the next thing I’m doing. That’s kind of been my goal, to just keep pushing and to keep trying to grow and trying to see where I can take the sound next, it’s nuanced. It’s funny, speaking of critics and all that, I read reviews and I understand that to people that aren’t into this kind of thing, they go, “oh, he is still doing that same noise”, and I’m like, “yeah, I guess so, I guess you can say that”. But to people that know the group and to people that know our music, you know that’s not exactly true; it’s been evolving and it changes. Our music is about nuance and it is about layers and it is about technique, and how we’re sampling and how we’re trying things and how we’re layering things. To me, when I listen to Precipice and I go back and listen to From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, they are completely different records. And they should be because one was made when I was in my 20s, and when the other is made, I’m 46. If the records weren’t different, in my mind, I feel like there’s a problem there because I’m a completely different person at this point, you know what I mean?
Precipice features a guest appearance by Adam Jones of Tool fame on the song “A Heretic’s Inheritance”. How did all this collaboration come to be and how was it working with him?
We toured with Tool, I think it was in 2010, and that point, it was just myself and Oktopus in the group. We were actually already on hiatus but they had asked us… They asked us, I think a couple of years before that, to tour with them but we had a European tour already booked, so we couldn’t back out of it. This was the second time they asked and this time around, we were already on hiatus, I was at home, Oktopus was living in Berlin at the time, and we hadn’t played in like, a few months at least, if not more. Finally, got a phone call from the label, saying that they wanted us to tour with them. We apologized, we were like, “hey, we are not going to be able to do it, we’re not going to tour”. And so finally, with all this back and forth, I get a phone call from Adam and I didn’t know him at the time, and he was like, “hey, this Adam from Tool, what the fuck is it going to take to get you guys to tour with us?”. [laughs] And I was just like, “yo, it’s not that we don’t want to”. I was like, you know, explaining the whole situation. He really wanted us to come out and I really appreciated that, so I was like, “yeah, we’ll try to make it happen”, and he facilitated it, man. You know, to save on travel costs, we toured around on his tour bus, which was so gracious of him, it was crazy. And from them to invite us into that world, it was so dope. You know, we’re not an arena group, that’s not what we do, but to be able to see that world and to be able to play in front of arena audiences, it was dope, man. It was definitely an experience and we really had a great time, and just hit it off for that. They are all really good dudes, they all really embraced us. We would be the opening act but then they would also bring us during their set and do a collaboration together. It was crazy, man, it was a really good time. During that whole time, since we were hanging out with Adam the most because we were on his tour bus, we conversated a lot; not only as friends but also just talking about music. And this whole idea of us working on a song together someday kind of came out of that.
After we did those dates, we kind of just stayed in touch and I think like a year or two later, they came out to New Jersey. I hit him up and I was like, “I see you are playing here, I’ll come out to the show”, and he was like, “you want to get up on stage and perform with us?”. At first, I was like, “man, I’m home, I’m on vacation”. But I was like, “yo, when am I going to get another chance to play in an arena in my home state”, you know? I had to take advantage of that. So, I did that with them and again, we always talked about working on something. But unfortunately, and understandably, they were working on their album and they were touring, we were touring and working on our albums, and the schedules just never lined up. And then, fast forward to working on Precipice, that song, there was a version that was done without him. One night, I was listening to it here in the studio, and I was just like, “man, Adam would sound really good on this”. I just had this thought of like, “man, his guitar would sound dope on this”. So, I hit him up with the idea, he loved the idea, he was like, “yeah, send me the pieces”. So, I sent him the track and he was like, “give me like, two days”, and he literally locked himself in his studio, and then sent me this Pro Tools session with so many ideas and so many parts; synths, guitars, guitar noise, feedback, all this shit. He was like, “yeah, use whatever you want to use”, and I was blown away, man, it was just dope. So, that’s how he ended up getting the whole intros really, what he had been working on. The funny thing is that I see some people ask where is his guitar solo, and the thing is, I didn’t really want a guitar solo for that song, I didn’t want it to be like, “oh, here is a Dälek song and here is a guitar solo from Adam Jones”. I didn’t want to just lay his guitar solo on top of our track, that seemed just kind of cheap to me, you know what I mean?
You wanted it more to be a part of your own sound.
Yeah, I wanted it to be more like his sound in our universe, which is exactly what it ended up being. Truth be told, there is a guitar solo, he did send me one. We just chose not to have it in the song, which cracked him up. [laughs] Because he was like, “wait, let me get this straight, you are not using the solo?”, and I was like, “I don’t need solos, I need everything else”. And he was like, “alright, it’s your song, cool”. But I think I might be the only person that has had Adam Jones on a track that turned down his guitar solo. [laughs] I think it works out, man, I think all the other guitar parts that he had sound dope. I love it, I feel like it works perfectly. But he also made it clear that this doesn’t count as us working together; this is just him being in one of our tracks. We still have to work on something together, so that’s still in the future.
Later this month, Dälek will be touring Europe for the first time since the worldwide pandemic started. How is your morale when it comes to returning to live shows and what are you most excited about performing again after so long?
Just being able to come back to Europe and the UK, I’m super excited. Even though everything looks to be happening, knock on wood, but I can’t help that a part of me is like, “is it really going to happen”, you know what I mean? It’s just so hard to tell in this world. Hopefully, everything stays the way it’s supposed to be and we are able to do it but it’s definitely nerve-racking, man. It’s dealing with, not just the pandemic shit, but then you’ve got the Ukraine war; this is like, so many levels to travel at this point. And just the expense of it to travel now, you know? Everything is more expensive in the world, it’s just very difficult. We’re so happy that a couple of festivals have invited us and these clubs are having us back. We want to make it happen, so I’m hoping that it happens without any problems. It will be the first tour we’ve done since pre-pandemic, really. We played the Cold Waves festival in Chicago last year, but we literally played one show; we flew in to Chicago, were there for two days, played one show and came home. I mean, it was great, I’m glad we did it, but again, it was also nerve-racking. And that was early in shows coming back, so, everyone had to wear the masks in the club, you had to wear masks backstage. The only time we didn’t have a mask on was during the hour we were on stage. So, there was just so much you had to do just to make it happen, but that one hour on stage, as soon as we got up there, it was probably one of the best shows I’ve ever played in my life. Having not done it in almost two and a half years, it was such a cathartic feeling to be up there. And again, being in front of people and playing this music, it was a lot, it was overwhelming. So, I’m looking forward to playing again, especially going to Europe and playing a lot of new songs, I can’t wait, man. It’s definitely exciting.
“We’re so happy that a couple of festivals have invited us and these clubs are having us back. We want to make it happen, so I’m hoping that it happens without any problems. (…) I’m looking forward to playing again, especially going to Europe and playing a lot of new songs, I can’t wait, man. It’s definitely exciting.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Harry Huncken