It’s been nearly 20 years since Dälek formed in Newark, New Jersey, crafting an idiosyncratic blend of ambient metallic noise and pungent, declamatory raps. The trio, led by rapper, producer and engineer Will “Dalek” Brooks, seemed too quirky for the rap kids, and too left-field for the metal dudes. But thanks to excellent, ground-breaking work such as 2002’s From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots and 2005’s Absence, the iconoclasts have carved a singular path, anticipating the crop of contemporary noise-rap experimenters like Clipping and Death Grips in the process.
After a lengthy hiatus, Brooks reformed Dälek in 2015 with guitarist Mike Mare and DJ Rek. The group has since turned productive, releasing the well-received Asphalt for Eden in 2016 and, due September 1st, the bruising yet melodic Endangered Philosophies. During an interview, Brooks discusses his immigrant history, his love of George Carlin and why he doesn’t “give a fuck” whether mainstream rap accepts him or not.
Back in 2002, there was a conversation around whether Dälek and other indie crews like Definitive Jux and Antipop Consortium would be accepted into the hip-hop narrative. But now, it seems like you have built your own lane. Are you satisfied with that?
To be honest, I’ve never really given a fuck. I continue to give no fucks. Being in a position where, like you said, we’ve created our own lane, our own sound is a position that any band would want to be in, if they really thought about it. This music is very personal to me, so when people are into it, I’m humbled by that. I appreciate the fact that people are digging what I’m doing. But at the end of the day, I’m trying to create music that appeals to me and makes me move and makes my head nod. On top of that, to me it doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks because hip-hop is my culture, man. That’s what I came up on, that’s what I am. My brand of hip-hop may not be for everyone, but what I create is hip-hop, period.
On “Battlecries” from Endangered Philosophies, you pay tribute to a fellow Newarker, Amiri Baraka, who passed away in 2014.
That’s our poet laureate. I feel like if you’re truly a lyricist, truly a hip-hop head, you have to pay respect to the people who came before you, and the people that paved the road. In my mind, Amiri Baraka is one of those people, a very important lyricist, poet and writer in my lifetime.
You also have a track called “The Son of Immigrants.”
My parents emigrated here from Honduras in 1971. I am a son of immigrants. The irony in that whole conversation is that everyone in this country is [an immigrant] at some point, some of us more recent than others. But that song is a recollection of things that have happened in my past, some of my earliest memories, and just my feelings on that. I’ll be damned if someone’s going to tell me that this isn’t my country. I’m American, and this is where I’m from. What people need to understand is that we’re not going anywhere.
Has the increasing rancor around immigration affected you personally?
Yes, absolutely. When I’ve gone on tour, I’ve never been concerned about coming back home. Now, all of a sudden, coming back home is an issue because of the color of my skin. If I travel to Arizona, if I don’t have my driver’s license or my passport with me, Border Patrol can question where I’m from just because of the way I look – in my country, the country I was born in. So yeah, absolutely, that has an influence on my daily life.
On “Sacrifice,” you say, “I miss the mind of George Carlin.”
Yeah, I’m glad you caught that. George Carlin is one of my favorite comedians, but more so than comedians, his mind, you know what I mean? I was born in ’75, so I remember watching his HBO specials in the Eighties. His outlook on this country, on the world, and the human experience in general was so insightful. I think he brings even more truth today than it did when he was releasing those. I almost see them as prophetic. Sometimes I find myself wondering what he would think about where we’re at, because he kinda called it. I’d love to hear his perspective on all this.
It’s crazy that your lyrics are so well-considered, yet they’re often nestled within the noise and maelstrom of your music.
It’s a struggle to figure out what’s the right balance. In the past, we’ve gone more with using the voice as an instrument, and having people try to decipher what I say. For the last two releases, we’ve started going the opposite direction where we’ve been putting the vocals a little more in the center, at least by our standards. We’re letting people in as far as the lyrics are concerned, and letting people hear them more clearly and concisely on the new mixes than we did in the past. It’s definitely an aesthetic choice. I don’t think one is right or one is wrong. Because it’s not just the lyrics, it’s also the emotion that the music invokes that’s important. So it’s a balance of the two. It’s the song as a whole. It’s not just about the lyrics I’m spitting, it’s also about the sonics around it. The trick is finding out how we keep the impact of the music, the heaviness, the layers, and also have the lyrics be as strong and poignant. Since the technology has gotten better, it’s gotten easier to find that balance.
How do you create your sound? Do you do it with instruments, or do you sample, or both?
On Asphalt, we did a lot of the guitar work ourselves. The same could be said for Absence, Gutter Tactics and Abandoned Language. With this new one, we did that as well – we played a lot of the stuff ourselves and re-sampled. That’s kinda our thing. We play a lot of things, then we treat it like source material – like the way I would treat a piece of vinyl – go back, re-sample it and then recreate the new melodies and parts from those samples.
But with this new record, we went a step further. We had a bunch of bands and musicians who have reached out to us through the years, telling us, Yo, if you ever want us to play on your records, we’ll play, or we’ll send you parts. I don’t want a guitarist that I like to come in and do a guitar solo on my record. That’s not the kind of group we are. But what we ended up doing is have a lot of musicians and bands that we know send us different elements and parts, and we treated that like our source material. Metz sent us some guitar parts that we used and manipulated in some of the songs. Chris Cole from Third Eye Foundation and Movietone sent us some cellos and different sounds that we messed around with. … Dave Witte from Municipal Waste sent us some drum parts that we used. David Obuchowski from Publicist UK sent us some guitar stuff.
What are your thoughts about current hip-hop?
That’s a loaded question, because … here’s my issue with that question. When people say “hip-hop” now, what you’re really talking about is pop music, because hip-hop has become this mainstream thing. So if you’re asking me how I feel about mainstream pop music, I feel like it serves its purpose for the masses. I find it very stale, and it just doesn’t interest me that much. But if you’re asking me about hip-hop as a culture, even as a musical form, there’s so many branches and so many things going on, especially in the underground that I think there’s amazing stuff going on.
I feel like right now, our current time, is an amazing time for music in general. I feel like there’s unbelievable music going on in all genres. I’m hearing stuff from so many different genres that I’m loving. … The Solange record has been on repeat in my studio since it came out. I think that record is genius. I don’t consider that hip-hop, but more R&B or soul. But it’s new music being created that’s amazing. Pretty much everything that Ka has released, that shit is some of the best lyrical work I’ve heard ever.
How do you hope folks will receive Endangered Philosophies?
In a weird way, I feel like it’s one of our most accessible records. It’s still left-field. I have no illusions of thinking this stuff is for everyone. But I think a lot of different people can get into this.