Happy 25th Anniversary to Del the Funky Homosapien’s debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here, originally released October 22, 1991.
For the last five years, the city of Oakland has celebrated Hiero Day. The concert takes place in Downtown Oakland on Labor Day, with the city closing down a few city blocks. The event has grown so much that it has necessitated as many as three stages to accommodate all of the performers. Hip-Hop, R&B, and jazz artists, along with DJs of all musical stripes, show up to showcase their skills in front of crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. But the stars of the show are, of course, the Hieroglyphics crew.
Hieroglyphics is comprised of many artists, including Souls of Mischief, Casual, Del the Funky Homosapien, Pep Love, and Domino. Souls of Mischief are arguably the most recognizable off-shoots and most public-facing members of the group. The inaugural Hiero Day was held on September 3, 2012, or 9/3, as in 93 ’til Infinity, the title of the first Souls of Mischief album. And in fact, the second Hiero Day in 2013 was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of their debut LP.
However, before there was Souls of Mischief, there was Teren Delvon Jones, more affectionately known as Del the Funky Homosapien (formerly stylized as Del tha Funkee Homosapien). And it’s safe to say that without Del, there would be no Hieroglyphics. Without his debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here, which was released 25 years ago this week, there would be no 93 ‘til Infinity or the dozens of other albums that members of the Hiero crew have released over the years. And without Del, there certainly wouldn’t be Hiero Day.
When he first debuted, Del was a different type of Bay Area bred emcee. All rappers from the Bay Area are ostensibly the children of the original Oakland hip-hop legend Todd “Too $hort” Shaw. He was the first rapper to put the Bay Area on the hip-hop map and has influenced the sound of every Bay Area rapper that came after him. Through the ’80s and the early ’90s, many Bay Area rappers sounded like a combination of Too $hort and N.W.A (due to the Bay’s proximity to Los Angeles), releasing music steeped in the gangsta rap tradition.
Del certainly has the gangsta rap pedigree, given that O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson is his cousin, but his music career has evolved from a decidedly different mold. I Wish My Brother George Was Here functions as the diary of an outsider in the world of Bay Area hip-hop: a quirky “weirdo” in a city tragically known for violence, much more interested in playing video games and reading comic books than doing anything “gangsta.”
Del sounded nothing like Ice Cube, but his cousin helped shepherd his career while this album was being made. Del was one of the O.G. members of Cube’s Da Lench Mob camp, and signed to Elektra Records through Cube’s Street Knowledge management. His first appearance on record was calling in to say “Fuck the Radio!” on Cube’s “Turn Off the Radio” from his debut solo LP AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990). He also wrote lyrics for Yo-Yo’s first album Make Way for the Motherlode (1991) and helped Cube write a verse on his classic “Jackin’ For Beats.” Cube executive-produced I Wish My Brother George Was Here and provides ad-libs and vocals on at least four tracks.
It’s never been clear if it was Ice Cube’s influence or Elektra Records’ push alone that gave I Wish My Brother… its somewhat split personality. Part of the time, Del is positioned as a teenage Dr. Funkenstein, transmitting live from the Mothership to save hip-hop and the funk from the dastardly Sir Noses running amok in the industry, unaware that their time has come to pass. But for an equal-sized chunk of the album, Del plays the role of the everyman, a recent high school graduate “fresh from the meadow with a mellow attitude,” caught up in daily headaches that we all face. Both halves work extremely well, and manage to come together to make a coherent and outstanding album.
I Wish My Brother George Was Here is boosted on the production side, with Ice Cube, the Boogie Men (DJ Pooh, Bobcat, and Rashad), and Del working behind the boards. The soundscapes for the album rely heavily on funk, particularly P-Funk, as the beats frequently sample artists like Funkadelic, Parlet, P-Funk All-Stars, and even James Brown and The Meters. Some tracks occasionally edge towards a jazzier feel, but there’s always the backbone of the funk. It also provided the blueprint that the Boogie Men would follow while producing Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album, which would be released a week later.
Del starts things out on his “saving the funk” mission with “What is a Booty?,” anchored by rollicking keys and a George Clinton sound-a-like figure spinning twisted nursery rhymes. Del warms things up with a single 16-bar verse, declaring that he’s “wet behind the ears from the tears of his peers.” The track “Dr. Bombay” is a similarly overt yet goofy and funny ode to Parliament-Funkadelic, with its re-interpretation of the “Rumpofsteelskin” chorus and Del’s frequent name checking of popular funk song titles and catchphrases.
Del also goes into Funkadelic’s “Let Take it to the Stage” mode, dissing those who he feels are faking the funk in hip-hop. On “Pissin’ On Your Steps,” he goes after “hip-hop John Travoltas” a.k.a. rappers better known for dancing than rapping. Or, more specifically, he targets MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, who were everyone’s favorite targets in 1991. “Same OI’ Thing” is a slower tempo track that takes aim at stagnation in hip-hop, in which Del and the Boogie Men (the only “guests” that appear on the album) launch salvos at rappers who rehash the same well-worn subject matter over and over.
Del channels P-Funk’s more mellow side with “Sunny Meadowz,” a breezy and psychedelic ode to higher consciousness and smoking good green. Here Del imagines himself as a wise-beyond-his-years Starchild, dispersing wisdom and enjoying a wondrous world where humans and nature co-exist. Over a lazy horn loop and placid guitar plucks, Del describes sleeping on a bed of rose petals and reclining on a hippo while “teaching all the pupils proper scruples.”
The album’s “every-man” portion is equally entertaining, as Del is particularly adept at creating scenes and stories that most can easily relate to. The “Wacky World of Rapid Transit” goes into the bizarre and often grueling process of relying on the bus as the primary means of transportation. Del describes the sights, sounds, smells, and other minutiae one experiences on a cross-town bus ride, from scrounging for fare, to the crushing boredom of waiting through delays, to unsavory characters trying to start shit, to the lost transfers, to the simple fear of the guy sitting next to you with a head full of afro sheen falling asleep on your shoulder.
The bumping “Hoodz Come in Dozens” shows Del’s unique take on dealing with the height of the era during which people were seemingly getting robbed right and left for their Air Jordans. Whereas many a rapper would record the song from the perspective of jacking someone for his/her valuables, Del speaks on behalf of the victim. Del advises the listener that when you’ve got a gun in your face, discretion is the better part of valor: “You better throw up your hands like a fan and surrender / Nigga, don't be a pretender / You ain't the Hulk, G / Give up the cash and all the big bulky jewelry.” It’s not that often that any rapper would honestly tell someone not to put too much value in material possessions and to never risk their own life, even if it means getting punked out.
Sometimes the funk backdrop and the every-man subject matter come together to intersect to great effect, often with Del channeling his personal frustration into lyrical form. On the lead single for the album “Sleepin’ On My Couch,” Del puts a crew of unwanted long-term houseguests on blast. With the backing of nouveau Brides of Funkenstein songstresses, he lambasts the couch potatoes for taking permanent residence in his den and eating the last of the Apple Jacks. “Mistadobalina,” the album’s second and most successful single, serves as Del’s uptempo dis to fake friends and those who are not true to themselves.
“Ahonetwo, Ahonetwo” features Del at his most introspective. It’s one of the best tracks on the album, both through the subject matter, as he delves a bit into the thought process of living as a bit of an eccentric misfit within hip-hop, and in execution, as he displays a unique flow and varies his rhyme patterns. Over a piano sample from Eddie Harris’ “It’s Crazy,” Del raps, “I chiseled up a sculpture to compliment my culture / Thoughts of silly Nubians are prone to give me ulcers / Hanging with the brothers who are tribal in their ways / For this is how I like to spend my days / And it pays to steal a sample from the archives/ Use my mental staff to eliminate apartheid / Still gather papes like my man Michael Forbes / Pondering my life as I like into my orbs.”
The album finishes with the all-too-brief “Ya Lil’ Crumbsnatchers,” which, if nothing else, serves as the template for the direction Del’s music was headed. It’s definitely the most straightforward battle-oriented track on the album, with Del exercising his lyrical muscles. He starts the track with lines like, “Del made a pact to be well natural / Back from the wishing well to sell actual / Funk from the fungus grown in the trench / It's getting kinda heavy so I gotta pinch an inch / And it's a cinch, to let my hair grow like a plant / Eliminate the fat gold chains and the diaper pants / Trade ‘em for a pair of Girbauds / Never make friends with the fraudulent foes.”
With the B-sides and remixes Del recorded for I Wish My Brother… it became obvious he was favoring recording more songs in the vein of “Ahonetwo” and “Ya Lil’ Crumbsnatchers,” rather than “What is a Booty?” “Burnt,” the B-side to “Mistadobalina,” was the first Hieroglyphics posse cut, featuring verses from Casual, Tajai, Opio, and A-Plus. On his third single, the B-side “Eye Examination” is a dark and trippy tale of paranoia that’s the polar opposite of the cheery A-side “Dr. Bombay.”
When it came time to record his second album No Need for Alarm, Del completely dumped the p-funkisms and settled into his outsider identity. He stuck with the everyman subject matter, but threw in a heavy dose of battle rhymes, which the now burgeoning Hiero crew was becoming revered for. He also ended his business relationship with Ice Cube and Street Knowledge, with members of the Hiero clique handling nearly all of the production for the album. However, the music was clearly less accessible and No Need for Alarm did not enjoy as much commercial success as its predecessor.
As the early ’90s turned to the mid ’90s, things soured for Del at Elektra Records. His third album Future Development was shelved by the label. Similarly, Hiero crewmembers Souls of Mischief, Casual, and Extra Prolific were all dropped from the Jive Records roster. However, the clique quickly rebounded, and became one of the first hip-hop crews to build and maintain a strong Internet presence, connecting with their fans and distributing new and unreleased material. The group created the Hiero Imperium record label, which eventually distributed Future Development, as well as Del’s fourth solo album Both Sides of the Brain. Soon after, Del hooked up with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz, and appeared on their widely acclaimed 2001 debut single “Clint Eastwood.”
Del and Hiero continue to put out music these days, and the emcee who once forged an identity as an outsider has successfully graduated to trendsetter and onward to elder statesman. Much like Too $hort, the Bay Area, and even the larger worldwide hip-hop scene is filled with descendants of Del and the Hieroglyphics. Their influence remains squarely intact, and they’ve got the holiday to prove it.