Published Mon, February 22, 2021 at 3:30 PM EST
*editor's note: this story was originally published Feb. 22, 2021
Del The Funky Homosapien wasn’t always funky — but being funky was his destiny.
Growing up in the Bay Area, his childhood was wrought with abuse and confidence-shattering moments that would break any kid. However, he ultimately persevered and wound up becoming one of underground Hip-Hop’s most revered MCs alongside his Hieroglyphics brethren.
But Del’s journey was arduous and there were many times when he could’ve fallen victim to the drug and gang-ridden neighborhoods of Oakland. Fortunately, he was enthralled with music, which proved to be his saving grace. Around the time his father, an abstract artist, introduced him to jazz, he stumbled onto funk and was immediately intrigued.
“Funk was the shit, and I started to study [it],” he says, “Anything funky, I wanted to be part of it.”
The young Del was also mesmerized by party and comedy records by comedians such as Red Foxx and Richard Pryor, “because they knew how niggas talked.”
“This was third grade or some shit,” he explains. “I had a friend Tenisha Carter. She peeped I fucked with Pryor. We were not even supposed to be listening to this shit. She told me, ‘Hey if you dig Richard, you should peep Paul Mooney. He writes for him.’ I'm like, 'OK shit, I gotta peep then.’ She gave me a cassette, like the old school, funky ‘80s purple trim Memorex. After that, I was hooked.”
Unbeknownst to Del, the foundation for Del The Funky Homosapien had started to form. Once he discovered Too $hort, who was “spitting that funky shit” on albums such as 1987’s Born To Mack and 1989’s Life Is Too Short, his interest in rap skyrocketed.
“From that, I got into the art of Hip-Hop, basically because it was more of that nigga shit,” he adds. “But it was constructive and something I was good at. Well, constructive to me, I guess marking up walls was against the law, but that's partly why I liked it.
"I was bad, but I wasn't that bad.”
At this point, his cousin Ice Cube had found success with the pioneering gangsta rap group N.W.A and a career in music seemed like a very tangible possibility. With the help of Dr. Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx — who mentored Del — Cube finally started taking notice of his talent.
“Honestly, he never really paid me too much attention,” he admits. “I think he thought I was just a weirdo. He in South Central where niggas bang, the whole nine. I’m a super nerd pretty much, younger than him and I ain’t even really fuckin’ with girls. I’m on video games. I actually think he thought I was gay. He usually wasn’t around when I came up there or he’d find a way to split, so I happened to meet Jinx next door playing with remote control cars.”
Jinx had a crew called Bizzie Boy Productions and quickly picked up on Del’s lyrical prowess. One day, Cube looked up and Del had nearly finished an entire album, one he thought was “kinda fresh.” Soon, Del was ghostwriting for Da Lench Mob and sharpening his pen game every day.
Behind the scenes, his situation at home wasn’t improving. While writing his 1991 debut I Wish My Brother George Was Here, he was being bombarded with constant criticism — from his own mother.
“My mom’s was beating me up or some shit, making me do everything around the house, threatening me, thinking I was a loser, telling me she can’t wait for me to get outta her house,” he says. “And yes I was fucking up, but shit wasn't too cool at home. My mom had her own problems I guess, but I don't think she could see outside what she thought was right even if she was wrong. Kids are never right to her.”
By now, Del was cutting school every day but would show up to classes he liked and had friends in, rapping along the way. But he says he was a “loner” for the most part.
"I was angry and had a chip on my shoulder from life at home and just Oakland in general.
“I started fooling with girls, but they were hoodrats. I guess the way my mom treated me had something to do with what I put up with outta girls. I had little supervision, so I was pretty wild but not stupid. I knew what was up.”
Anchored by the single “Mistadobalina,” the heavily Parliament-driven I Wish My Brother George Was Here became a commercial hit for Del and Elektra Records, but it also marked the end of his collaborative relationship with Cube. When No Need For Alarm arrived in 1993, Del had asserted his creative license and introduced several members of Hiero — including A-Plus, Domino and Casual — without Cube’s help. But looking back, he realized he fell victim to caring too much about other people’s opinions.
“That was actually a reaction to some cats at my school who tried to clown my record,” he explains. “Like, "He's rhyming over P-Funk. Only gangsters do that. This ain’t the truth.’ I was upset about that. It was peer pressure, so I guess so my reaction was No Need for Alarm. In reality, I had a blast doing that first album. Cube making Uncle George happen was just too crazy. Only when folks at my school tried to clown me did I have a different opinion about it. It took some years just reflecting before I finally narrowed it down to that, too. Of course, I felt like that was stupid. Who give a fuck? Clearly, they was hating.”
After a five year hiatus and an unexpected collaboration with indie rock band Dinosaur Jr. for the Judgement Night soundtrack, Del returned with the cassette-only release Future Development in 1997 but without Elektra. A month before the project arrived, the label terminated Del’s contract, something he doesn’t blame on anyone but himself.
“It was my fault for getting dropped,” he admits. "I was gassed I guess. Long story short, I was being difficult. [Music executive] Sylvia Rhone offered other production from DJ Premier or Pete Rock. I was like, ‘Why? I do what they do.’ I'm sure she was thinking, ‘Well, you ain't selling like they are, so I'm trying to help you out patna!' After that, boom.
"I ain't mad at nobody. Everybody at Elektra treated me great. I have no complaints.”
Through Del’s relationship with Handsome Boy Modeling School’s Dan The Automator, Del was introduced to Kid Koala — who he calls a “fucking genius” — and together, the trio devised one of his most innovative, conceptual projects to date, the critically acclaimed Deltron 3030. Sewn together using Robo anime and Megaman/Megaman X, the title played off having 20/20 vision, or as Del puts it, “beyond perfect vision.”
“Working with Dan, we fleshed it out more conceptually beyond just emceeing with techno jargon,” he says. “The 3030 became the basis of the world everything takes place in and there it is. The content is basically how I view things socially, just put in a different frame, where usually I'm coming from a street frame.”
The title was almost prophetic, but Del likely never had the vision to predict a career-defining collaboration with the London-based animated band Gorillaz. In 2001, Gorillaz co-mastermind Damon Albarn recruited Del for the single “Clint Eastwood” from their self-titled debut album. The project was ultimately certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and catapulted Del from a skateboard-loving, backpack rapper to international MC.
“My involvement was through Dan,” Del explains. “Good looking ‘cause that paid for my house [laughs]. But yeah, so I wasn’t onboard for the putting together of it all. I was like a lyrical clean up man. It just worked out — I guess the Automator, he knows!”
With Del’s signature often comedic, laid-back rhyming style now exposed to an even bigger audience, his notoriety grew and suddenly he was Hiero’s “breakout star.” But he says that never really caused any internal issues with the other members — at least he doesn’t think so.
“If so, I was too dumb to notice,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve been misunderstood sometimes because I'm a complex person. You may not know what I'm on because I don't really speak much and I be on the under. Plus, I don't carry myself as some big star, regardless of what I've achieved. That shit don't mean nothing."
"You can still get jacked, you can still get popped—if you’re out here trying to act like you better than people."
“The way I talk shit when I'm rapping is not how I be when you meet me. That bullshit is for entertainment. I try to respect everybody and what they gotta do. I think there has been a problem with maybe cats needing my input when I wasn't like present, and that may have caused a problem or a misunderstanding. It's a learning curve though. I ain't mad at basic shit. Life is hard enough already.”
Del suffered a monumental setback in 2018 while on tour with the Gorillaz in Denmark. During his performance, he fell off the stage and was unable to get back up. He wound up stuck in a Danish hospital for months as he healed from seven broken ribs and a punctured lung. While laid up, he had a lot of time to think.
Del Tha Funkee Homosapien performing on stage (Photo by Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns/ (Photo by Jim Dyson/Redferns via Getty Images)
“It brought up a lot of repressed memories from childhood that kinda fucked me up ‘cause I thought shit was normal, but I realized why a lot of shit was happening,” he says. “Plus, it was just one near death experience too many. I’ve had a few of them. Performing was just not on my mind after that. I felt very played by the people who handled that concert ‘cause they tried to lie and say it was my fault — not the Gorillaz crew but the people who worked that particular spot. I actually ended up having to get medication due to my anxiety being too much to handle after that. I was fucked up for real. I’m very lucky to be alive. I look at shit a bit more seriously today. I’ve always been serious anyway, but now I’m just more aware of boundaries and shit like that.”
Throughout Del’s 30-year career, he’s remained a student of the culture, analyzing battle rap religiously and pumping out lyrics like a madman. Meanwhile, Hiero has become synonymous with Bay Area Hip-Hop and has one of the most recognized logos in the rap history.
Is Del ready to slow down at 48-years-old? Simply put — hell no. He recently appeared on Logic’s new mixtape Planetory Destruction alongside Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, Buddy, and Top Dawg Entertainment’s, Punch, and is also cooking something special up with Kool Keith.
“Kool Keith is one of my favorite people to just chill and do shit with..."
“He’s just fun to be around and he know a lot ‘cause he’s cut from the same cloth. I am a huge fan of his music and his production because it's very macabre sometimes and just fits my personality. He did the beats in like a week and I was so juiced, I wrote the whole album as soon as I got them that night. I just went in spazzing. I'm ready to do some more shit with Keith. I feel like we the team supreme.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its rampage across the globe, Del is sidelined like any other artist but taking it all in stride, talking to a therapist and locked in the lab until the world opens back up again and touring is an option.
"I'm just trying to stay out the way,” he says. “The dummy is up out the White House now, so I'm not blacking out everyday, mind-blown by the outright lies and shit like before. I’m just trying to connect with folks who are working and trying to get shit moving. I like to be part of a community, so I try to stick my neck out. I got a young energy so I tend to be around folks younger than me. I've stepped my production game up, so I'm eager to get some content out.”
Del may be an enigma to some, but give him a skateboard, a pair of headphones, and some music and his soul is at ease. When Del arrived on the scene, he gave countless Hip-Hop enthusiasts permission to be themselves and, in turn, inspired a whole generation of “weirdo rappers” to follow in his footsteps.