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Bump 'n' Grindcore

The Hip-hop Dälek and the Metallic Isis Speak a Similar Language

By Tony Ware | Posted 10/23/2002

On a stage at any of Dälek's and Isis' current tour stops, guitars, amplifiers, a bass, and drums sit cramped together and humming next to a turntable, a row of pedals, and a rack of warming sequencers and samplers. A contrasting crowd--suspended particles half hardcore, half hoodies--mill about, waiting for the first of two headlining acts to emerge. From the equipment that's been laid out, it wouldn't be far-fetched to assume any manner of ill-conceived hybrids was about to take place.

One of the night's performers, Boston quintet Isis, freshly explores equilibrium-jarring metal; the other, Newark, N.J., trio Dälek (pronounced dial-ekt), takes an old-school attitude toward heady hip-hop. But of the two acts, neither is rap rock, nü metal, or anything so ill-advised. From their first crushing notes, both Isis and Dälek show no signs of sheepishly curtailing to fashion.

Caustic and cathartic, Dälek and Isis share a propensity for density. It could almost be a mantra. Dälek sounds haunted, tumbling through steely tunnels; Isis sounds drawn-and-quartered, slowly rent asunder by violent exorcism. But within their respective dynamics, both groups leave themselves open to airy passages and air their grievances.

"Dissonance and atmosphere is important in both of our musical output," observes Isis guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner. "We both have a lot of open space within the composition, atmospheric texture within the music that's maybe not totally overt but lends a lot to the overall character of the music."

Dälek (real name: Will Brooks), the hip-hop group's co-producer/lyricist, also cops to an affinity for noise. "To me, there's such a beauty in something so harsh," admits Dälek. "When it's loud and noisy enough, it washes over you to the point that it's almost peaceful. Like when you're in Manhattan and shit is so loud and there's always stuff going on, there's always background noise. But when you step back and that noise isn't there anymore, you can't sleep. That noise, I need it."

Turner says, "It's almost like a shamanistic, ritualistic experience. . . . You have to sink into the spectrum, from the loud and aggressive to the minimal and melodic."

Both groups have been working toward harnessing their East Coast unrest since around 1997, each releasing debuts in 1998. While Dälek began its constant touring schedule and released remixes and split singles, Isis captured its metamorphosis on EPs. Today the two groups continue to approach music from different directions but navigate similar territory, from submerged to wind-swept.

Partners since a brief university stint, Dälek and co-producer the Okt0pus (Alap Momin) drew contrast from the bleakness of Newark, still crumbling from decades-old riots, and their proximity to the cradle of hip-hop and the squats of punk rock when creating 1998's mini-album Negro Necros Nekros. Dälek has been using samplers and performing with hip-hop acts since he was 14, and the Okt0pus was a well-known producer in the area's indie-rock scene, but the combination of their experiences was a Molotov cocktail whose fuse they were originally hesitant to light. The group viewed Nekros as nothing more than a 40-minute studio experiment, but it was soon convinced that their release's bombed-out-of-its-mind DIY deconstruction of hip-hop was a welcome cluster-fuck. (The implosive EP was eventually released on River Edge, N.J.'s Gern Blandsten label.) Philadelphia's DJ Still (Hsi-Chang Lin) later hooked up with the duo at a college show.

"I grew up with hip-hop," Dälek reveals. "My cousins were DJs when I was a little kid, spinning disco breakbeats and shit, so I watched it grow from the B-boy block parties. I grew up listening to shit like Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul. You name it, I was buying the tapes or the vinyl. When I met Okt0pus he was already recording indie and punk bands and had given up on hip-hop, but I'd play him the first Nas record and early Wu-Tang, the remnants of what was good at the time. At the same time he was introducing me to Jeff Buckley, My Bloody Valentine. We already had cats like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Slayer in common. Maybe because I was a traditional hip-hop DJ before an MC . . . genre was never a deal to me. If it sounded cool, good enough. You picked records because you knew people dug 'em."

If Dälek's hiss-hop beat poetry represented the mangled, murky, metallic lurch of the inner city, a clang at times so claustrophobic it choked speakers, Isis explored more isolation-induced but equally weighty introspection with a monolithic stagger.

Like the sudden scattering of dozens of doves toward the dome of an abandoned auditorium, Isis shifts in a flurry of fretwork from relative lilting to deafening lumber, then retraces without ever backtracking.

"We quickly felt we'd reached the limitations of how heavy we could be," Turner recalls. "We'd written the heaviest riffs we could and needed to grow beyond that. We never wanted to find a formula and stick with it. We expand each time we attempt to do things. We listen to tons of ambient, glitch. Bands all the way back to Pink Floyd with lots of open passages. We feel a kinship with Dälek because we want to stretch instrumentation, use more loops and e-bow, and we're thinking about getting a partial electronic drum kit, currently inspired by groups like Main, Seafeel, Nurse With Wound, Coil."

Despite being based only a few hours apart, often even playing each other's areas, the two groups weren't properly introduced before both signing to Mike Patton's Ipecac label, a preserve of sorts for bands looking to explore and erode the fringes. Dälek would release 2002's From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, a shrill, visceral beatscape that should come issued with Dramamine, as its disparate drifts more accurately capture the group's live presence, where DJs regurgitate and force-feed sounds scraped, seized, and strangled underneath Dälek's stern syllable slants. Isis would put out its second full-length, 2002's Oceanic, which surfs sparse riff reefs and plows through bullish sludge for its most precise post-hardcore plod to date.

Once the two groups did get together, an instant connection was made over mutual influences like the Melvins and the industrial grind of Godflesh. Catch this crew at your local magazine rack and it's not unthinkable they'd be fighting over the last issue of British experimental bible The Wire instead of separately flipping through copies of Metal Maniacs and The Source.

All potential road rage aside, both groups have nothing but respect for the other and, despite appearances, consider themselves perfectly matched. "Some of the toughest tours we've done have been hip-hop tours," Dälek says. "I'm a huge fan of, say, Cannibal Ox, but I don't necessarily think it's a no-brainer that their audience would be into us. On a lot of levels it's similar because we try to hold to what hip-hop was and should be, which is that hip-hop is an experimental music, a revolutionary music, the angst- ridden voice of [the] young.

"I just think I fell in love with noise a long time ago," he continues. "And the abrasive aspect of our music may be too much for the average hip-hop head. I'm just doing what every other MC has ever done, which is to take your influences and make them your own. Mine just happen to lean on the Velvet Underground, Faust--the sounds are different, but the ethics are the same."

Turner concurs. "Despite coming from different backgrounds, there are actually more parallels between what the two groups do than we felt with several other bands we've toured with--more strict metal bands like, say, Napalm Death," he says. "We both use music as therapy to cope with insecurities, love, loss, frustration, gratification. I think the first thing we talked about was our mutual love of heavy, gritty industrial textures. We're both doing a different bastardization of it. A lot of our sounds stem from the fact that we're interested in music beyond hardcore and metal, and their definition of hip hop is a much more pure, all-inclusive one." The two are now even discussing collaboration, using Isis' Oceanic as manipulable source material.

Sharing a stage night after night, the two acts have found crowds to be equally receptive to their interpretations, showing that even if two groups have pronouncedly different dialects, they can still speak the same language.

Dälek and Isis play the Ottobar Oct. 26 with Keelhaul and Oxes. For more information, call (410) 662-0069 or visit www.theottobar.com.

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