During my mid-teens in London there were two sorts of hip hop: UK Hip Hop and the stuff people actually listened to (Eminem, 2Pac and the like). UK Hip Hop was also split into two distinct types. There was the literate, sample-heavy species characterised by the creative lyricism and crisp beats of artists like Jehst, Foreign Beggars and TaskForce, and then there was the stuff knocked out in my music class at school. Educated by teachers who didn't really understand the music they wanted to make and lacking samplers and recording equipment, pupils were restricted to trial-and-error improvising with music sequencers. The results were sometimes basic (and often, to be honest, shit) but there was an audible excitement borne from realising just how easily music could be made on a computer.
Although singles like Roots Manuva's “Witness (1 Hope)” occasionally threatened to break into the charts, UK Hip Hop never really gained the recognition it deserved outside of its own enthusiastic community. While I remember some arsehole in the NME reviewing a Skinnyman gig and claiming there were too many white people in the audience for the scene to be credible, the simple fact is the lyricism was often too political and the music not always catchy enough to attract a wider audience.
This was not the case with Grime. Here, the beats were brash, the choruses memorable and the lyrics full of violent hyper-realism that echoed successful US rappers. Dizzee broke through, went Pop, and paved the way for Chipmunk and friends. The occasionally crude but always energetic tracks reminded me of what I'd heard at school, yet I still hankered for some of the original UK Hip Hop's finesse to complement the bombast of its grimier younger brother.
Big Dada, who have long been searching for someone to combine progressive ideals with commercial success, are hoping DELS could be the answer. Last year's spectacularly squelchy single “Shapeshift” is the perfect marriage between Tinie Tempah's “Pass Out” and “Witness...”, and Manuva himself righteously represents over the lurching march of “Capsize”. Yet while that track's political focus (“ Cameron better steer clear of my arse!”) sets it far apart from beanie-hatted bellends N-Dubz, the blaring “Violina”, produced by noted Grime enthusiast Micachu, owes much to more recent British rap tropes.
Yet even “Violina” descends into a gentle xylophone-led coda, and such sonic unpredictability pervades the album from start to finish. Opener “Hyrdronenburg” morphs from synth-heavy railing against employment to minimalist introspection complete with delicate chimes, while the closing title track breaks from the depressing subject matter of the songs preceding it - “DLR” (homelessness) and “Droogs” (rape) – to deliver a spirited message of self-preservation: “I won't be swallowed by the gob / swallowed by the darkness / swallowed by the fog”.
However, DELS' forte isn't verbal dexterity; it's exemplary taste. While his delivery is smooth, his lyrics are rarely memorable. But by choosing Micachu, Kwes and Hot Chip's Joe Goddard to produce the music that showcases them, DELS has ensured a début of astonishing musical breadth and imagination. While I would've restricted Goddard's vocal appearances (his laconic, low-key delivery is at odds with the record's energy) there's no doubting his ability behind the mixing-desk, and Kwes' contributions easily equal his previous work for The xx and Damon Albarn. There are obviously no overt egos involved either as the album always sounds like a single vision rather than conflicting personalities vying for attention.
The result is an album that successfully bridges both ends of the British rap spectrum, and is experimental, engaging and consistent enough to compare favourably to most contemporary Hip Hop of any origin (admittedly a clapped out 1932 Ford Coupé with a burst tyre is more consistent than the average Hip Hop LP). Does he have a chance of joining Tinchy Stryder and pals on the hit parade? Maybe not. But with “Shapeshift” receiving mainstream radio play, and a large posse of talent on board, there's a chance DELS could be the man to satisfy all British Hip Hop aficionados.
Kier Wiater Carnihan