Don’t let Del the Funky Homosapien’s name fool you; if there are aliens among us, he’s one of them. The 44-year-old Oakland rapper shows no signs of aging, and is suspiciously difficult to track down. According to his publicist, it’s normal for Del to hole up in his studio, spaceship, whatever. After weeks of isolation he finally emerged, taking time out between practicing ollies on his skateboard and collaborating with producers Domino and 9th Wonder to talk to GT about his upcoming show in Santa Cruz.
Del’s career began at 19 when he released his debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here, with help from his cousin Ice Cube. In those days, he says, he was just “winging it,” but in the last 15 years Del has taken a more deliberate approach to writing.
“At this point, I don’t feel comfortable winging it,” he says. “As a professional, you’ve gotta generate on command. I’m always trying to strengthen my writing skills, strengthen my production skills.”
Del started studying music theory shortly before rapping on Gorillaz’ Clint Eastwood, and credits the song’s massive success to a book he was reading at the time, aptly titled How to Write a Hit Song.
The inimitable Funky Homosapien stands out with his innovative grooves, intuitive flow, quirky twists and quick wit, all adding up to unique rhymes that are sometimes goofy, sometimes mocking, always relevant. With themes that range from slamming bad hygiene to intergalactic rap battles, it’s not surprising that Del considers comedy integral to his music.
“I feel like humor is what makes my music accessible,” he says. “You can’t expect people to sit and listen to your music if you don’t entertain them. [When I write] I’m concentrating on comedy, mostly. I have a funny way, a strange way of looking at things. So I try to cultivate that.”
In fact, Del traces his rap roots back to comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor he grew up listening to in the ’70s.
“The reason I got into rap was because of humor. Rapping is a lot like performing comedy,” he says. “50 percent of comedy is wordplay, delivery.”
And he hasn’t stopped studying, these days researching to improve his lyrics: “The books I read are all technical or reference books. I’ve got books on cliches, idioms, books on comedy writing, books on Richard Pryor, books on black comedy.”
Some fans might be surprised that a rapper with such widely acknowledged gifts feels that he has to study up, but Del is all about process.
“If I can control it, instead of rolling the dice every time I go to make something, the outcome is better,” he says. This applies to producing music, too. “After studying music theory, now I know what I want to do, how to get it. I’ve got structures and styles that I can switch from.”
In 2009, Del released his Funk Man album online for free. What was a bold move seven years ago is becoming more common, as artists adapt to the music industry’s love-hate relationship with the Internet. He blames the decline in hip-hop sales on quality: “If you put out something, and it’s worth listening to, people will probably buy it. If it’s not good, they probably won’t buy it,” he says. “I think at this point the public has given up, because the industry has been bullshitting them for damn near 20 years! Puttin’ out the same garbage, thinking that people are stupid, and they just gonna buy it like they sheep. After 10 years, you’re like ‘damn, they still using Auto-Tune on every damn song?’ That shit is irritating.”
That being said, he does admit to downloading music himself. “If it’s floatin’ around, why not? But when Earl Sweatshirt came out with his album, I bought his record. Twice,” he says. “If it’s worth something to you, if it’s worth listening to, then you’ll buy it.”
As for what the industry will look like in the future? Del’s not concerned.
“I don’t even think about where the industry is going,” he says. “I’m thinking about, ‘What can I do to reach people?’ ’Cause that’s really what it’s about. When the artists start listening to the industry, doing what the industry tells them to do, that’s when they lose. It happened before with disco, and the industry crashed because of it. The public rebelled against it—you know, ‘Disco Sucks.’”
Info: 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 12 at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz. $25 advance.