Goin' Back to Cali

The re-emergence of Del tha Funkee Homosapien heralds a renaissance for Bay-area hip-hop

Rapper Del tha Funky Homosapien is somewhere on the road, speaking from a cell phone that's crackling and popping with enough static to make you think he's calling from an underground bunker. Actually, Del himself is confused as to his exact location.

"I don't know where I am," he admits. "I'm on my way to the next spot, somewhere near D.C."

For Del, who has just released Both Sides of the Brain, his first studio record in seven years, the last few years have been rough going. After two records (1991's I Wish My Brother George Was Here and 1993's No Need for Alarm) on Elektra Records, Del's third album, Future Development, was finished but shelved because the label dropped him. Del eventually released it over the Internet, but getting back in the rap game has been a struggle. Rumors surfaced that Del had disappeared because he was addicted to drugs.

Del tha Funkee Homosapien: His re-emergence is just one sign of the hip-hop renaissance taking place in the San Francisco Bay area.
Del tha Funkee Homosapien: His re-emergence is just one sign of the hip-hop renaissance taking place in the San Francisco Bay area.

"Motherfuckers all said I had a (drug) problem," Del says. "I tell you one thing, my main problem is drinking. Straight up. Because when you get hella drunk, you don't know what the fuck you doing. As far as the drugs go, I've never done enough to be addicted. I was on probation and shit, and I couldn't do weed or any psychedelics, but the dude (his probation officer) told me it was OK to drink. That's pretty much where my problem started. He thought he was helping me out, but that's near worse than everything else."

Del admits that he has experimented with hallucinogens but maintains he never had a habit.

"I do that shit more when I'm playing video games, because I like the visual aspect of it," he says. "To tell you the truth, nowadays I don't do shit that often, but I might take a quarter-piece of X and listen to some music, 'cause now it's active listening and I can figure out the construction of a song. I used to do that, but not as deep as I can do it now. But I don't like relying on shit like that. I'm the type of person who gets bored of shit quick. I can't get too hooked on it, 'cause I get bored of it. If it ain't working no more, might as well do something else."

Though Del breaks out with some clever raps on Both Sides (in the three-part song "Pet Peeves," he disses "fair-weather associates," "shit-talkers" and "followers" who "claim they got game"), little on the record compares to I Wish My Brother George Was Here. At the time, his debut, which was produced by his cousin Ice Cube and released when Del was only 17, was criticized for not being hard enough. But in retrospect, it stands up as well as De La Soul's classic Three Feet High and Rising. DJs such as Kid Koala (who plans to collaborate with Del and the Automator in a group called 30/30 -- "'cause it will be released in the year 3030," Del jokes) have included the cut "Mistadobalina" as staples of their DJ sets.

"A lot of these fools, underground niggers, didn't like the album," Del says when asked about Brother George. "When I did the shit, I liked it. It was hella fresh."

Drug and alcohol problems notwithstanding, Del's re-emergence is just one sign of the hip-hop renaissance taking place in the San Francisco Bay area. Ever since the mid-'80s, when Oakland's Too $hort was dropping his dirty rhymes about pimping and cruising through Oaktown in his Benz, hip-hop has had a steady presence on the underground circuit in Northern California. A regional sensation well before becoming known nationwide, Too $hort put out several records on his own label before issuing his first official album on Jive in 1988. His success helped expose the hip-hop scene in Northern California that has since been overshadowed by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and other rappers from Southern California.

Although the San Francisco Bay area's crossover success stories -- Digital Underground and MC Hammer -- fell victim to overchoreographed routines and silly gimmicks after their initial successes, San Francisco has continued to nurture an ensemble of hip-hop acts that emphasizes poetic lyrics while producing fresh beats. Ever since the early '90s -- when such turntable geniuses as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and DJ Shadow started scratching -- the Bay area has been the source of as much inspired hip-hop as New York and Los Angeles. Along with Del, Blackalicious and Encore (all of whom will be in town on Tuesday, June 20, for a show at the Galaxy) represent a scene that's home to indie labels such as Bomb, Quannum, Ark 21, Nu Gruv Alliance, Om and Hieroglyphics. Encore maintains that if rappers from Northern California haven't gotten their due, it's simply because the press has been reluctant to embrace them.

"A lot of people outside the Bay area -- I don't want to say that they're hating -- but I think it's easier for people who write about hip-hop to overcriticize the Bay area than it is for them to critique LA and New York," Encore says by phone from his home in Milpitas, Calif. "I feel like it's weird. I look at some of the reviews that some of us get in the major magazines, and they're overcritical about some things we do. And I'm like, 'Why don't you say that about such-and-such in your own hometown?' I think we have the potential to blow up, but we've had that for a long time. It's just a matter of time for people to recognize us."

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