Gutter Tactics (Ipecac, 2009)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
For an outfit so volubly invested in the purity of hip-hop, Dälek suddenly seem out of touch with the way hip hop gets things done. Even as they continue to expand the parameters of the rap genre, the duo – eponymous MC (hereafter with a lowercase D) and producer Oktopus – have hunkered into a pretty conservative relationship to the culture at large. Gutter Tactics, Dälek’s fifth album in about twice as many years, turns a lot of blind eyes: to the details of the grind, to the mixtape market and the YouTube beefs, to the weird way the rap microeconomy has of mainstreaming reprehensible but morbidly fascinating things. The music is progressive as hell, but this feels less and less like the right thing to be concerned with.
Surely some of that is the point. Dälek’s interest in recalling a time when rap was more straightforward and more iconoclastic is nothing if not consistent. (It’s telling that dälek’s style as a rapper is almost never compared to that of anyone post-Public Enemy.) Rhetorically, the group is all about a hip hop that’s “authentic,” subversive, gritty and uninterested in glamour: hip hop that’s righteously angry, hip hop as an instrument of change, hip hop meant for the downtrodden – and to hear dälek spit it, the only thing more downtrodden than hip hop itself is America – hip hop that needs us to need it.
If authentic hip-hop has fallen off, though, it can’t be its own savior, much less all of ours. Dälek’s desire to take rap back to a simpler and more purposeful place is linked, implicitly and rightly, to a desire to stir something political. But their approach, in all its old-school obstinacy, refuses to engage in the sort of discourse that mobilizes and uplifts us these days: where are the first-person stories, the ad hominem indictments, the postmodern self-doubt? Where’s the insight into gang territoriality, the refutation of crack-slinger economics, the proof of allegiance to a real live community? What good are gutter tactics when niggas got G5s now up in the PJs? To and for whom are Dälek preaching?
There’s a reason Dälek don’t sell records like, say, Nas – who beneath all the excess and drama isn’t all that different. Both have a big-picture purview, considerable rhythmic skill and typically interesting production, and a hell of a messiah complex. But even when he sounds like kind of an ass, Nas confronts demons we can relate to and name – racism, censorship and Fox News, to draw just from his last album. Dälek deal in historicist abstractions, stoking a dull ire, distilling into the occasional witticism what we already know, what already makes us angry. (Turntablist Still used to scratch in lectures about the prison system and stuff, but he’s been gone for two albums now.) Nas praises Marcus Garvey and Huey Newton and criticizes the establishment; Dälek carp obliquely about a culture in which, basically, too few people do what Nas does. Neither one is all that useful, maybe, but it’s easy to see which is more empowering.
And maybe Nas didn’t get Obama elected either, but at least he’s not hawking tactics that belong to a bygone era. If Dälek are rejuvenating hip-hop music by their example alone – which is probably true – they leave the next step undisclosed. Gutter Tactics has no fight the power moment, no it’s bigger than hip-hop, pretty much no injunctions at all, whether to rock the vote or fuck tha police. When dälek addresses this on the unusually laid-back and lucid “A Collection of Miserable Thoughts Laced With Wit,” he remains cagey vis-à-vis his responsibilities: “Don’t give a shit if you find me mildly entertaining / Look around, we got enough minstrels in training / My verses pertain to that truth we all feel at gut / World’s corrupt... so now what?”
It feels worse, in a way, that Gutter Tactics is so much more than mildly entertaining. Nobody else can do what Dälek have been doing for a decade, and they remain as essential aesthetically as they should be politically. If this record is not as exciting as 2005’s dazzling Absence, not as hard as its predecessor From Filthy Tongues of Gods and Griots nor as nuanced as its follow-up Abandoned Language, it’s still an exceptional piece of sonic work, an outlier in hip-hop taxonomy. Oktopus is indispensable, erecting massively satisfying walls of noise borne by simple, evocative beats (as is customary for some reason, the hottest cuts are clustered at the end of the album, between the ruthless title track and the fuzzy head-nod “Atypical Stereotype”). The group’s evolution has slowed and certain tracks barely sustain their length, but the sound does exactly what it means to, bludgeoning and somehow sensitizing in a way the lyrics never have.
It’s so tempting to let that be enough, to let the pleasure of this group’s textures and anti-pop innovations outweigh the problems with its martyrdom trip – but Dälek take so seriously their place in hip-hop, their place as hip-hop, that holding them to their intent feels more important than letting them off the hook. In January 2009, at the end of a national nightmare and the beginning of a long uphill struggle, when we need nothing so much as collective work and sacrifice, Dälek’s prophetic but undirected indignation goes down just like that of Jeremiah Wright, from whose post-9/11 sermon the album takes its epigraph: it’s at once necessary and insufficient, cathartic and unproductive.back