Photo: Michael Patras

Interview: dälek – “The world has always been on fire”

Ahead of the start of their European tour this week, Todd Dedman caught up with dälek to talk about the state of things, their new record, and dream collaborations

With their new album Precipice, hip-hop duo dälek (Will Brooks and Mike Manteca) have created a body of work that speaks to our times. It’s a pulverising mix of harrowing aural soundscapes and astute lyrical observations.

Prior to a European tour to promote the record, I caught up with Will Brooks, aka MC dälek, from one side of the Atlantic to the other to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the new record, other projects moving forward, and a love for Tom Petty.

Talk me through the process of writing the songs for Precipice.

I think it’s obvious we put a lot of work, and a lot of ourselves into it. I mean, we try on every record but with the record we started pre-pandemic. The way I usually start is it’s like a constant process – it’s not really working on one album. I just constantly work on ideas for songs, and lyrics and beats and I just keep saving them and then basically when it comes time for me and [Mike] Manteca to sit down and we decide we’re going to work on a new album it’s more about going through the folders and finding a group of songs that work well together, almost like jumping off points. A lot of times, these songs are ideas that aren’t fleshed out, whilst others are.

So, for this record, me and Manteca narrowed it down to, like, 50 tracks, and I’m not exaggerating. From those 50 we sat down again and worked on them until we had something like 20 songs, then 17 and we decided that would be the basis of the album. Joshua Booth – dälek’s secret weapon – got involved at that point and he’s like always listed as our musical guru, so we had him come in and do some overdubs, bits of guitar etc. Then we narrowed it down even more to 14 tracks and then COVID hits and all of a sudden, well…

How much of an impact did the pandemic have on your state of mind when working on the record? Could you find a way to keep working?

The only silver lining is that we had planned to stay home in 2020 regardless – we weren’t going to tour, we were just going to work on the album. Unfortunately, it turned out we couldn’t even work on the album because the studio shut down. Everything came to this grinding halt.

I ended up taking a few pieces of equipment home, just a handful of gear so that I could keep working and have a little set up at home. From that, just to have a little human interaction, I started DJing on Twitch. From those DJ sessions, one day on a whim I decided to create live beats while I broadcasted and the people that tuned in were like ‘Yo, where can we buy that?’ and I was just, like, shrugging. One thing about dälek as a collective is that we have never been very good business people. Nothing that we have ever done has been with savvy business intent. Selling it didn’t even cross my mind but it happened to coincide with Bandcamp Fridays and that sparked this idea with me because our income ground down to nothing.This was a way to bring in a little extra cash and also a way to focus myself, to give myself a reason to get up in the morning. Without working on the record I was thinking what the fuck am I gonna do?

From that, the whole MEDITATIONS series sparked and I started imposing deadlines on myself which was really interesting because I’ve never done that. With any dälek album we take our time and we’re really meticulous so to give myself a month to not only write and record, mix, and do the artwork and release everything that immediacy was really dope because I was able to tackle shit that I was feeling like on a daily basis and things that were happening in the world as they were happening. This was a whole new thing to me. I did seven volumes of that – from original stuff like just beats and then on to the later ones which were fully realised tracks. I think some people think they are just instrumental joints, and some are, but there’s a whole lot more going on – like there’s full dälek songs that were thrown in, some spoken word pieces, there’s verse-chorus joints, a collaboration with Dev-One. They were organic, and were just a reflection of what was going on at the time.

When we got back to the studio once we could, we listened to what we had for Precipice and I just said to Mike ‘this isn’t heavy enough, this isn’t sad enough, this isn’t angry enough’. Some stuff stayed, but we tore it down and rethought about what we wanted the record to be. Mike came with two tracks which are wholly his – “Lest We Forget” and “Devotion” – I just added a few subtle bits but those tracks just captured the whole feel of what I wanted the album to be. “Lest We Forget” captures the whole emotion of the pandemic in one song. It captures the loss, the heaviness of everything, the death that we witnessed.

It’s an amazing thing when an album starts falling into shape like that as it can feel like you’re not even in control of it, things just happen as they’re supposed to happen.

Is there any particular order in which the songs fall into place? Do you usually start with the beats, an idea, the lyrics?

Sometimes the lyrics come last, sometimes they’re the jumping off point – there’s no rhyme or reason as to how we do it. My philosophy is always whatever works works. How we accomplish things is irrelevant, all I care about is the end product sounds the way it’s supposed to sound.

With this album, I want to say it was something like between two weeks to a month that I had to straight up record the vocals by themselves and they all just kind of fell into place. There’s lots of layers going on, like little subtle things like ad libs in the background or textured things on the lyrics that are subtle and you may not hear but on multiple listens they become a little more clear. I’ve always been a big fan of albums like Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and I’ve been listening to that record forever and a couple of years ago I heard this little piano lick that I’d never heard before in this one song and I’m just like ‘How the hell did I miss that?’ and now it’s like every time the song comes on that’s all I hear. I love that about music, man. There’s always these little details that you discover later on that the artist put in there. We play a lot with psychoacoustics and how different frequencies interact with each other and things often become something different every time you listen to it.

My organisation system is really rudimentary. I keep things in folders on the computer by years. And then a folder with like ‘used’ and ‘not used’ on it. And some might have ‘to use’ on them. The system is not good! I try not to lose the tracks that I’m really feeling, and it’s weird because some tracks initially I’m feeling them, and then I go back to them and whatever I was hearing that night isn’t there anymore. Other tracks that I think aren’t that great I revisit a year or two later and all of a sudden I think like it’s the greatest thing. Like, music is weird, man.

How does a politically-minded rap group react to what was going on while you’ve been mildly inactive?

You know, the fucking world is on fire. I’m 46 years old and I’ve come to realise that maybe the world has always been on fire, so, as bad as it seems, I feel that humanity always figures out a way to keep going so that’s my sort of silver lining kind of hopeful thing. The Trump years were fucking heartbreaking, man. The weird thing is I thought the pandemic was going to be like this moment where he actually did something to pull people together which would have been, like, ‘man this sucks because if he does that we’re going to get another four years of this asshole’ but at the same time I was like maybe that’s what this country needs to be brought together – I don’t know, probably not. It’s so tough. I would never root for that dude but I root for regular people and I want to see people stop hurting, even the ones that despise me – I want to see them stop hurting, too. He had a golden moment to do that, and he didn’t. Which didn’t surprise me because he’s been a charlatan and a piece of shit since I was a little kid. Being from the New York area we’ve known that. He’s like comic book rich – gaudy, disgusting. Who the fuck wants a gold toilet? Man, come on!

Trump’s legacy is one of fanning the flames of racism and intolerance, right? How did it feel to live in that environment?

That was tough. Things like the immigration policy, and the emboldening of people. I’m lucky, though, because I live in Union City which is probably about 85% Latino so I don’t really have to deal with any of that shit on a regular basis. Even like the police presence where I live mostly tend to be Latino. I’ve lived here a long time and I’ve only been stopped by the cops once, which is like a huge difference to when I lived in Newark and I was getting stopped on a regular basis by white cops.

But just watching the shit that was going on in the world with the police killing people, what people have to understand is that Black and Latino communities have been dealing with that for my entire life and more. The only difference now is that there’s cell phones and now there’s cameras on every corner and social media and that’s the difference. The reality of it is that this shit has been going on forever. The rest of the world is finally seeing it but it’s heartbreaking to me that you need video in order for people to believe you. It’s a hard thing to swallow. How can you expect communities of colour to keep dealing with this and not react, and not boil over? There was this footage just the other day of a cop shooting this kid in the back of the head. That shit boils my blood, man, and I’m lucky because I have music to help me get my anger and my angst out.

I’ve always said that dälek is my therapy, it really allows me to be a normal, decent person when I’m not on stage because I can get all the shit out that I need to get out but there’s a lot of people in this world that don’t have that and when you don’t have an outlet for that anger and that frustration then ugly shit happens and it’s heartbreaking.

Social media is useful for the cameras, but doesn’t it also just embolden people’s racism as they can hide behind a keyboard? I live in the UK, a place that’s rightfully bleeding hearts over Ukrainian refugees while the government recently announced that other asylum seekers are going to get shipped off to Rwanda.

Same shit in the US, man. Listen – what’s happening in Ukraine is heartbreaking, of course. 100%. 1000%. But what kills me is that you have refugees from Haiti that have been begging just for, like, scraps, and they’ve been turned away on a daily basis for the last 10, 20 years. That shit ain’t right. If you’re going to help people, then help people. Or just call it as it is – just be like, ‘Yo, we’re racist. We ain’t bucking with anyone of colour’. Just be real about it, because this whole two-faced shit like ‘Oh no, it’s different’ – how is it possibly different? You’re gonna make heroes out of kids that travel across Ukraine by themselves with just a phone number and you marvel at that but then when a kid travels from Central America to the United States you put them in a fucking cage. So where’s the justice in that? It’s hard to look at that and not be angry. It’s not about if you’re a person of colour, if you’re a decent person then that shit should really upset you. It’s about humanity, man.

And that’s all stuff you were rapping about 20 years ago on Spiritual Healing.

The topics on this new album are not new. I’ve been talking about this shit for over two decades and I’ve been seeing this even before I started rapping, ever since I was a little kid. There’s lines on the album about this, about how long I’ve been saying this but also people that I look up to like Chuck D, KRS-One, they’ve been saying it before I ever did and I learned it from watching them. I’ve been trying to be the voice to carry their message on and when you’ve been doing it for 20-plus years you wonder if anyone’s listening or if anyone even gives a fuck.

What do you think the current state of hip-hop is? Chuck D once said that rap was the Black CNN – does that still map out today?

It’s a double-edged sword situation. When hip-hop started, much like when punk started, it was an underground music that belonged to the culture that started it. When big business and capitalism sees that there’s big money to be made then it gets taken over and the lowest common denominator factors tend to be pushed to the forefront. Whatever’s going to sell more records regardless of whether it’s beneficial to the culture or not is what’s going to be pushed the most.

I don’t have an issue with violent hip-hop or mainstream hip-hop, but I do feel that there needs to be more representation of conscious hip-hop. But, to say that conscious hip-hop doesn’t exist isn’t true – it’s there, it’s just not what’s on the radio, and the reason why I have this weird relationship with the whole thing is that I remember when I was growing up and I remember then people in general would tell me that hip-hop wasn’t music, and fuck that shit as it’s not going to exist and it’ll die out in, like, five years and now I look around and every facet of society is influenced by hip-hop. A part of me loves that so much that, to me, it’s the ultimate hip-hop thing to do. It’s the ultimate ‘Fuck y’all!’. It’s like you didn’t think we were music and now we influence everything from McDonald’s commercials to the clothes you’re wearing, to the way you speak, to the music and the movies you watch. That side of it I think is fucking phenomenal, with like people like Jay-Z being billionaires.

But, the balance is off with the representation, definitely. I’d say that right now – 2022 – I’m probably the happiest I’ve been about where hip-hop is going and what is out there that are doing things that are not only pushing the culture forward but are groundbreaking and experimental. There’s just so much dope shit out there. Anyone in my age bracket who says music was better back in college or whatever, I’m always like ‘You must have stopped listening, then’ because there’s so much amazing music that I have a hard time keeping up with it all. That’s the problem I have right now.

I went to Chicago the other day just for a little trip and on the plane ride home I listened to a bunch of records and one artist in particular was Fatboi Sharif and that dude is one of the illest – his word play is ridiculous. Cats like billy woods and Elucid, like their Armand Hammer joint stuff is fucking brilliant and I don’t think you can get better than that. Moor Mother, on everything she’s doing she is killing it. I love everything that I hear coming out because they’re raising the bar and I have to keep readjusting and I have to keep figuring out what I’m going to do next and that’s the competitive nature of hip-hop that I love. Like, battling is important and it has its time and place, but to me the important thing is the competition between artists where we try to elevate each other and make better and better things. I want to see everyone shine, man. I’m really humbled to still be a part of all of this.

You’ve got a broad range of influences, so what outside of hip-hop have you been listening to recently?

I’ve been kind of obsessing over a couple of bands and artists recently and I’m going to speak this into existence – I want to work with Sufjan Stevens. I’ve been listening to Carrie & Lowell on repeat. I love that album so much. Then there’s this band from Montreal called SUUNS and that stuff is… I’ve got to work with them, too. I feel touring with them would be amazing and I feel like collaborating with them would be amazing, too. My man House Shoes has a label called Street Corner Music and I’ve been listening to a lot of the releases on his label. Like, that dude is just a genius curator. Everything he puts out is just dope. I’ve been listening to BIG | BRAVE, I love their stuff. And when I need to deafen myself I listen to Dreamcrusher, they smash it.

You’ve collaborated with so many great artists – like Zu, Kid 606 and Faust – and Adam Jones from TOOL is on the new record. So, how do these come about – do you reach out to them?

A lot of those were someone that we knew in common. Like, with Faust we shared the same booking agent for a while. He was a German booking agent and liked our line on the record we did with Techno Animal that said ‘How many MCs know who Faust is?’ and they were intrigued about it and wanted to meet us. We went to Joachim’s house and me and (former dälek member) Oktopus told him he was like our musical father, which he always got a kick out of, but it’s true that bands like Faust are the reason that we exist as a group. I very distinctly remember him telling me when we were hanging out in his basement drinking copious amounts of wine and at one point at, like, 3 in the morning and he turns to me at one point and said ‘You guys are just like me – you make great music which means you will never have any money!’ He was absolutely right.

Would you swap that? Would you dilute your product to make more money?

Nah, man. I wouldn’t change one thing. Honestly, I’ve been doing this 23, 24 years…something like that, maybe longer. I wouldn’t change a second of it, man. I’ve travelled the world, I’ve met countless idols some of which I consider to be like family now. People may feel like I’m just saying this shit but when people approach me and tell me that my music really means something to them then that shit really touches me and it really humbles me, man. When I had dreams of doing this right at the very beginning never did I think I would achieve what I have achieved. I’m never going to make serious money out of this, but I get to do it for a living which is enough. I realise how lucky I am.

And how much of an influence has your label boss Mike Patton been on your career?

So, like, that was weird. I was fairly non-plussed about signing with Ipecac when they told us they wanted to put out our records, but thankfully Oktopus persuaded me. I was kind of nonchalant but Oktopus was right on it. I was like ‘Who’s that Mike Patton? The white boy on MTV where he’s rapping with that fish flapping around?’ and now I’m really happy that Oktopus changed my mind for me! It’s funny how little things like that, little thoughts and decisions, can really change your life.

But Mike brought out us out to Europe for the first time. If memory serves me right, which it rarely does, we played some shows first time out with him with Fantômas or maybe Tomahawk – one of those two, anyway. In Belgium I do remember he was like ‘What’s it going to take for me to put your album out on my label’ and that’s where I was like ‘Nah’, but Oktopus was up for it and we then just decided to do it. That was fucking life changing.

You’ve got some live shows coming up in the UK and Europe soon, and Mike will be playing as a member of your support in Holy Scum – is he getting double time for it?

We’ve got two or three weeks in the EU and then a week or so in the UK. A few shows are being lined up in the US but touring over here is tough right now because there’s been like this bottle neck and so right now you have a million bands getting out and trying to play the same stages so it’s tough. I’m hoping we’ll do more festivals but it’s challenging right now because nothing is back to being 100% yet.

But Mike is just trying to get a double cheque. I’m onto his scams! But they can only play the UK dates as my understanding is that it’s much tougher now for UK bands to play in Europe so they aren’t coming out on the EU dates with us which is a real shame. Nothing has changed for us with Brexit as we’ve always had to get working papers but it’s harder now for British bands to play some places which seems tough. The UK dates fall in line with the record release for Holy Scum so that works well for them.

So what’s up next? New album out, live dates soon – are you already thinking beyond this already?

I can’t say too much about this at the moment but I’m trying to work on an album that I produce but don’t rap on, like a ‘dälek and friends’ kind of thing. I’ve lined up a few things already and I’m reaching out to others to get involved so that may be the next thing we release, but it may take a few years to get everyone I want so if that’s the way it is then that’s the way it is. Dev-One has already put something down, as has Moor Mother, so it’s started and it’s shaping up real nice right now, but it’ll be done when it’s done. Watch this space!

dälek’s Precipice is out now on Ipecac (read our review). Catch them on Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Live dates:

May 27 Nantes, France – WNWH Festival/ Stereolux
May 28 Verona, Italy – Colorificio Kroen
June 1 Tourcoing, France – Le Grand Mix
June 2 Strasbourg, France – La Grenze
June 3 Dijon, France – Un Singe en Hiver
June 4 Brussels, Belgium – Magasin 4
June 5 Ottensheim, Austria – Alter Bauhof Ottensheim
June 6 Vienna, Austria – Werk
June 7 Prague, Czech Republic – Fuchs 2
June 9 Preston, UK – The Ferret
June 10 London, UK – Electrowerkz
June 11 Birmingham, UK – Centrala
June 12 Manchester, UK – White Hotel
June 13 Newcastle, UK – Cluny
June 14 Bristol, UK – The Lanes
June 16 Glasgow, UK – Bloc+