Over the last two decades, elements of the emerging style known as rap have been combined with traditional sounds from every other genre in the pop-music canon, with wildly varying (but usually low) degrees of success. The truth is, most of this shit rings hollow. The best hip-hop is provocative and revolutionary, and combining it with other stuff - no matter how catchy or interesting - seems to dilute its power; the result almost always sounds like a fabricated attempt to cash in, rather than organic innovation.
Of course, it doesn't help that such experiments almost always are fabricated attempts to cash in.
Some exceptions come to mind. Almost all of them involve marrying rap to something as primal and atomically heavy as it is. A Linkin Park tune sounds lightweight because it's safely targeted and mixed like a Britney song. But if The White Stripes wanted to back Nas on a couple of tracks, I'd want to hear it. And I don't think anyone can argue with either Rage Against The Machine's massive, militant groove or Public Enemy lifting liberally from the best of the best, including Slayer's gnashing sonic misanthropy.
(Lil Jon did the same thing just last year, and it fell flat. Coincidence?)
Those two particular examples have something else in common, as well, something often found in close proximity to the most enduring hip-hop: unflinching worldviews, and a commitment to expressing them.
"Social awareness goes hand-in-hand with hip-hop just because of where it came from originally," says Will "Dalek" Brooks, MC for the groundbreaking Newark, N.J., crew that shares his nickname. "And we've lost a lot of that just because hip-hop has become so big."
Obviously, Dalek the man and Dalek the group aren't the first folks to take culturally aware hip-hop in new, more musically eclectic directions. They are, however, among the few to do it both incredibly well, and with a startling amount of originality.
This isn't rap-rock; it's much closer to the true spirit of rap, but blended with a visionary beat-building aesthetic. By mixing the dense, rhythmic waves of PE's Bomb Squad production with a postmodern ambient/industrial throb and a grab-bag of rock-band influences ranging from My Bloody Valentine's feet-thick wall of fuzz to Joy Division's bleak austerity, Dalek builds ocean-size slabs of mood that provide much more than just an aural backdrop for Brooks' lyrics.
It's so downright musical that fans don't know whether to consider them a band or a crew. That's OK, though; the members themselves don't really bother making a distinction.
"We think of ourselves as musicians more than anything else," Brooks says. "We just happen to be musicians that are in a hip-hop group.
"The three of us are fans in general. We listen to everything. I think that, by itself, just kind of put us on this path to making our music more complex. We just challenge ourselves, and try to make music that we like."
That open-minded self-awareness has led Dalek to be embraced by players and listeners of all stripes, and frees the combo up to tour with whoever's interested in teaming up for a road trip.
"We've played with any group that'll have us," Brooks confirms. "If Lil Jon offered us an opening slot, we'd take it. It's not about getting paid, it's about getting our stuff out to the masses. We're not going to change what we're doing musically; we just want kids to know we're here. We've played with everyone from KRS-One to De La Soul to Isis to Kid 606 to indie-rock bands. We've played with [rising emo act] Finch, for Christ's sake. We've always been about walking into hostile territory and trying to walk away with some new friends."
Like many underground hip-hop acts that refuse to follow blinged-out mainstream rap-scene trends, Brooks, producer Alap "Oktopus" Momin and turntablist Hsi-Chang "Still" Lin often find themselves playing to a crowd that's decidedly more white and indie/hipster than krunked and clubby.
"We would hope that we didn't, but unfortunately, you definitely have that happening nowadays, where a majority of underground hip-hop's audience tends to be Caucasian rather than black or Hispanic," says Brooks. "Which is a shame, really. Part of that is marketing, and what you have as far as images pushed so heavily on a daily basis - that's one of the main problems with hip-hop right now."
Brooks sees mainstream rap as dishearteningly one-dimensional these days, but isn't out to turn the FM airwaves into a medium for his own personal crusades. While many below-the-radar hip-hop artists would like nothing better than to see vapid party styles abolished completely in favor of more thought-provoking fare, Dalek just hopes for a return to the variety that marked rap's salad days.
"I'm not one of these underground rap kids that thinks everything is fucked up and it's got to change," says Brooks. "I mean, I'd like for it to change, but not all of this stuff has to disappear. It's all got its place. I'm realistic about that. My main objection with what's going on in hip-hop today is the lack of diversity on major airwaves and video stations. If we had more of a balance, like it was in the late '80s and early '90s, where the stuff was more available, you could listen to all sorts of stuff, if you wanted. You had a gamut to choose from, you know what I mean?"
For the moment, it's doubtful that music like Dalek's amazingly literate and listenable new album Absence is going to find a place in heavy Clear Channel rotation - it's just too maverick a sound. But the group is steadily bringing adventurous fans around, through their own material, collaborations with similarly iconoclastic artists (legendary Krautrock ensemble Faust worked with them most recently), and highly praised remix and production work, not to mention constant touring with all manner of standout acts. It's all gravy for these musicians, who really only started doing it as an outlet for their own talents and frustrations.
"When we started this, we had five fans," Brooks remembers. "To be quite honest, I really don't give a fuck what anyone thinks. I can't afford a psychiatrist, and this is my therapy.
"Don't get me wrong, I appreciate that people buy the records. But if I started worrying now what people thought about me, what's next? A Britney spears record? Fuck that."