Hip-hop is one of the hardest genres to critique. In some cases, critics note lyrics and production skills, these are the two most important aspects of a hip-hop album. Then its the rapping, the vocal work. Last but not least, and in my opinion the defining characteristic of the genre, instrumentation. So we're led to an album that's not primarily hip-hop. It's the work of a production legend, a scratching genius, and an underground rapper. Alternative hip-hop tickles me in many different areas. It includes artists like The Roots and Gorillaz, who are of course the knife to Deltron 3030's fork. It’s not common for hip-hop albums to sound ageless, almost too fresh. The artists behind Deltron 3030 are talented, in their own specific. They have a role to play in the overall product, and when it all comes together on this album, there’s no wonder why Deltron 3030 still stands as a masterpiece in the hip-hop genre.
The founding fathers of Deltron 3030 came together in the late 90s, with an idea of creating a concept album, one of the first rap concept albums in fact. To quote a splendid 2011 Wikipedia entry, Deltron 3030 is: "A concept that tells of the fight by Deltron Zero (Del's alter ego) against huge corporations that rule the universe. The lyrics were written in less than two weeks and are characterized by extravagant allusions to futuristic outer-space themes." It's the outer space theme that catches the audience. Deltron 3030 is a good mix, from the well-produced beats of Kid Koala to the enigmatic flow of Del the Funky Homosapien, the puzzle fixes itself. It's completed by producer Dan the Automator, who's crisp production compared Deltron 3030 to the alternative sounds of Damon Albarn's Gorillaz. The trio worked tirelessly finding the right instrumentals, leaving Del to write the entire concept lyrically. Great samples are used in the right places, they are often used for the chorus', splitting up Del's rhythmic rhymes. Some outstanding tracks like "3030", "Things You Can Do", and "Positive Contact" kick the album in to motion. "Positive Contact" being one of the early favourites and long-standing turn to track. These early tracks outline what Deltron 3030 is all about - solid beats with well introduced samples, a clear project rather than an underground rap album.
"3030" is the long, centre piece of the album. It's the welcome track after Damon Albarn's guest introduction. Del outlines the future, telling the story of a dystopian world and how it's turned upside down. This track excels in telling the story without needing to branch our musically. The simple refined retro beat sounds crisp, natural, as if the essence of hip-hop has been plucked out of the 80s and dumped in to the future word, in outer space. And Deltron 3030 never looks back after "3030". The fourth track "Things You Can Do", features a vocal sample of The Poppy Family. The lyrics: "Things you can do, some can't be done," fit Deltron 3030's theme of a dystopian corrupt world, with Del's job to fix errors in this world. It's not often rap albums focus on politically aligned lyrics with focus on the abnormal. They even stayed traditional by inserting short skits in to the final piece. Some link the album together, others are just general pieces of sounds replicating ideas, and themes of the world Deltron 3030 have created.
"Virus" is an exceptional track. The sampled strings are ear-catching, with the typical flowing lyrics fans of Del should be used to. This is one of the slower tracks on Deltron 3030, featuring some of the milder instrumentals. Kid Koala's scratches are used to an extent, however the main focus is clearly on the heavy, deep beat and Del's vocal delivery: "The last punks walk around like masked monks." Del raps about cleansing the population of errors and miss-directions the public have suffered from in this dystopian world. He manages to rap about it, keeping his lyrics both in with the theme, and within the context of reality - as with the following track "Upgrade": "Real artists are few between, you better lube your screen" / "Hey, I reduce the game, when I boost my brain." This track is about upgrading, or taking on higher intelligence through brain cells, as the refrain goes: "Upgrade your grey matter, cause one day it may matter."
Listeners can dive deep in to the world of Deltron 3030, because the entire album and concept is so bizarre. It's extraordinary to find tracks like "Mastermind" and "Madness", the two singles placed in the middle of the story. They're often considered the best tracks, and that’s down to the finely crisp beats brought together by Dan the Automator. And Del pays homage to this in the opening lyrics of the former: "Who fuses the music with no illusions, producing the blue prints clueless? Automator - defy the laws of nature, electronic monolith throw a jam upon the disc. The futuristic looper with the quickness, hyper-producin' hydrogen fusion liquids keep your distance." Then "Madness", the second vocal sample of The Poppy Family, this time it's "Of Cities And Escapes". Lead vocalist Susan Jacks has her voice sampled, to be used as the tracks refrain: "I'm caught in the grip of the city... Madness." The strings have also been sampled, to great effect. it actually feels like a re-work of The Poppy Family, rather than a few short samples looped.
It's time to get low, low, low, and low - with Damon Albarn. "Time Keeps On Slipping" is a five minute long funk-esque, heavy bass and relentless percussion track. It features Del's faultless rapping with Albarn melodically singing in the background. This of course acts as the chorus, with Albarn singing: "No one knows the time, pass me by." It has an immense structure; with Albarn's ludicrously sexy backing vocals and Dan the Automator's extensive lounge like beat. Damon's inclusion itself is an achievement, this album wouldn't have received as much acclaim or be as welcomed if the guest spots were not filled. Del's guest spot on Albarn's Gorillaz project, along with Dan's production on that debut album, must have turned on the light in Albarn's brain - he's never looked back.
The most thought-provoking track "Turbulence" is introduced by a short 50 second skit, featuring Icelandic vocalist Hafdís Huld. It's a sly play on the confusion and futuristic language, lifestyle the people of 3030 live with - "The News (A Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Microsoft, Inc". "Turbulence" really opens the eyes and the ears too. It grabs the listener with its real references to the US government and life as a citizen in the US. Del waves through verses, without any emphasis on any particular lyric. Some of these lyrics tell the extremity of the 3030 government: "Senior citizens are disposed against their wishes." Other lyrics rely on corrupt figures and dictators for influence: "No president, we have a ruler, 'You are to be inside by 9 o'clock or we will shoot ya'." Deltron 3030 peaks at this moment, right when the listener is becoming comfortable - Del throws the listener off-guard with the following track "Battlesong". It's preluded by a 3030 futuristic advertisement for a rap battle. The rap battle, as portrayed in "Battlesong", is an epic story of Del's rapping success. Working as an MC in 3030, Deltron Zero tells the listener about his journey through space, winning important rap battles to become the champion. "Love Story" follows with the repercussion of Del winning the rap battle in the previous track. It's a cool down, the rest before Del's 3030 finale.
Sean Lennon is the guest vocalist on "Memory Loss". He sings the refrain: "Lookin up the sky is red, city's burning up over head (flame on baby.) We can make the best of it Del: (rock that,) In this post apocalypse (right on.)" Responding to Del's lyricism with references to Oakland, California - where Del is originally from. Del compares his dystopian world to the Oakland of today and its desolate landscape: "Plantations is man labour for five bucks for hourly intervals." Using minimum wage as standard slave pay in the year 3030. There’s a focus on Lennon's chorus, especially when he sings: "Lookin up the sky is red, city's burning up over head," a way of informing the listener about how their world has gone to shit. Albarn ends the album with a reprisal of the opening track. This time with scratches, as if the transmission is losing signal - fitting with the theme of "Memory Loss".
Deltron 3030 is a modern classic, and with time it'll become an even greater individual stand-alone album in the alternative hip-hop genre. Del has written a story fit for a king, and Dan has written the music fit for a legend. People speak of Deltron 3030 as an underground album, I beg to differ. The production quality and assured single-esque tracks make Deltron 3030 one of the best hip-hop albums ever made. From start to finish Del never loses touch with his past, and writes it into the future. Gorillaz are the popular version of Deltron 3030, and even then, the best tracks on Gorillaz self-titled debut album feature Del as a guest vocalist. It's an hour long and quite frankly, not long enough. Picking out favourites is difficult because the whole piece, except the skits, work as standout singles. "3030" introduces the listener to the classical sampling and perfect production skills of Dan, while "Mastermind" outlines the quality of Del's rapping. Deltron 3030 is a unit, it's the work of three great individuals coming together to create a conceptual masterpiece.