D„lek: Postindustrial rap for de-industrialized America

By Matt Won

America is a happy place.At the very least, it’s a place where you’re supposed to be happy. The universal injunction to smile comes with America’s winner-takes-all consensus mainstream culture.

America is a place for fun. People with disagreements are quickly shot down, otherized, and psychologized (“What’s her problem?). Bringing up politics is so pass. The placid surface of white privilege and capitalist accumulation is not to be disturbed.

Avant-garde hip-hop duo D„lek make unhappy albums. Their music and lyrics are frustrated, angry and political (Whatever that means. See, aren’t eyes rolling already at the dreaded “P” word?).

Indie rock criticism has made self-seriousness and “trying too hard” the cardinal sins of personality and cultural production. This dominant attitude stems from the realization that all those high school years spent moping to NiN could’ve been spent much better.

This self-recognition is responsible for the above near-unanimous critical consensus. “Just have fun!” is the (now not so) new exhortation, and has been partly responsible for everything from the dance-rock explosion to the prominence of music criticism competing for finding the most banal pop song to analyze.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these phenomena. I loved DFA 1979, and cokemachineglow.com’s “This is Why I’m Hot” review is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read all year. But these preoccupations betray the white bourgeois (mostly male) faces behind all those Pitchfork bylines and hipinion avatars, and the above ideological and life imperatives spill over dangerously. “Have fun!” indie crit overlaps with America’s antipolitical happiness fetish, just as the related epistemology/movement of postmodern has fostered a careless malaise that can become capitalism’s best friend.

D„lek may have spent their youth listening to adolescent self-pity records like NiN (I doubt it), but they certainly had more to worry about than corralling the gumption to ask the redhead in Kiwanis club to prom.

The injunction to smile rings hollow for MC D„lek, a “bastard child of Reaganomics.” There’s a fine line between being a happy negro and being-well, listen to D„lek: “I know my n*****s gotta eat / But do we gotta play Sambo?”

This sounds at first like a typical underground rap refrain. There’s a lot wrong with indie rap: indie rap is still mostly about rap, which is what makes a lot of aggrieved underground rappers sound like the stag guy at prom. D„lek doesn’t drink the Kool Aid: he rejects the very centrality of hip-hop (especially the rap that has been so infiltrated by the black community’s greatest enemies) to black culture, a centrality that has undermined the community’s ability to organize itself when penetrated on this commodified axis.

D„lek is not a rapper. If he is a rapper, he’s a rapper smart enough to know rap ain’t shit. The Sambo line isn’t just for rappers, the way it would be on an undie rap record; it addresses cultural dynamics and dilemmas universal to people of color, while highlighting the ways that historical development has empowered it with a singular oppressive force against African-Americans.

D„lek’s dilemmas are too big for rap: the album is rooted in the lived experience of blackness in America, a negritude not determined by hip-hop. There is a crucial kinship and an empowerment accompanying each criticism. The “Sambo” line is passionate, anguished but not pleading, a rousing exhortation.

D„lek’s lyrics are not mere sloganeering: they articulate the most fully formed racial consciousness I’ve ever heard on a rap album. They are neither the nonsense of early Aesop nor the schizophrenic abstraction of Subtle. The situation surrounding the band is too dire for the lyrics to be apolitical or to take the easy escape of the nonsense of posturing postmodernists.

While not slipping into the racial determinism that brought the KKK & Nation of Islams together, D„lek lays out a nuanced and insightful tableau that assimilates everything from the systemic changes impacting blacks from deindustrialization, to the anguish of amputation from one’s culture that gave Malcolm nothing but an X with which to recall his ancestry.

The rhymes are inseparable from the music. D„lek’s weary but strong delivery is backed by music influenced by shoegaze, krautrock and industrial. But it all comes together in a distinct aesthetic that remains consistent within each album.

Unlike the jet-turbine dissonance of previous LP “Absence,” “Abandoned Language” is compulsively listenable, though as before it is imposingly dense. This album’s building, meditative, and often dissonant soundscapes weave an atmosphere complimentary to the tragedy and rage of D„lek’s lyrics. In a radical departure from conventional hip-hop production, D„lek’s vocals are often distorted or dropped low in the mix, taking a page from the shoegaze tradition.

After a split EP with kid606 and a full-length Faust collaboration, D„lek have proven the depth of their musical roots and passions. D„lek stand in stark contrast to Kanye’s rock crit pandering, Daft Punk sampling, and blond dike shuck & jiving.

They know they’re not going to save the game. All the same, they can’t sit by and watch while it’s thrown for a fix in a stolen stadium.