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Escape Velocity

Happy Nightmares: An Interview With DELS
Joe Clay , November 20th, 2012 04:31

London-based rapper DELS has just released his latest EP, Black Salad, a darkly psychedelic tryst inspired by dreams and altered states. He meets with Joe Clay to discuss darkness in music, spontaneity and last year's debut album GOB

On my way to meet DELS on Bethnal Green Road, I stumble upon a shop selling beds called 'Happy Nightmares'. That seems a fitting enough description for the music contained on Black Salad, the forthcoming new EP by the Ipswich-born, London-based MC. On his debut album GOB, released to much acclaim in certain quarters last year, DELS, aka 28-year-old Kieren Dickins, showcased two very different musical styles – upbeat, party electro-pop, produced by Hot Chip's Joe Goddard, and dark, psychedelic tracks with beats provided by the more esoteric talents of Micachu and recent Warp signing Kwes.

The music on Black Salad is from the weirder side of the DELS oeuvre. Woozy productions that ooze oddness, with Dickins' twisted, stream of consciousness flows taking in magic realism and his preoccupation with dreams and mind states. "I'm just listing all these ways I'm dyin' in my thoughts… these dark dreams keep me awake," he raps on 'Bird Milk', the stand-out track on the EP, produced by Kwes. And if that all sounds a bit heavy, he's always got his tongue in his cheek. "Some say I'm just anxious," he ponders, followed by the payoff - "I just think I need to eat cheese less."

I put the "happy nightmares" theory to Dickins in E Pellicci, the lively, family-run café in Bethnal Green he has chosen for our meeting. The EP has a narcoleptic vibe, with his languid, but paradoxically urgent, delivery weaving its way through the otherworldly backing tracks provided by his collaborators.

"I get that," he says. "I wrote most of the lyrics late at night. I used to live in Brockley with my ex-girlfriend and there was this little space where I used to write, but I had to wait until she went to bed because otherwise I'd annoy her with my mumbling. And there's something about being really tired that makes all those awkward thoughts pour out. I'm at my most creative at that time of the night."

In one of his enjoyable rants for The Guardian, columnist Charlie Brooker said "Everyone knows two things about dreams, namely 1) other people's dreams are dull and 2) they're going to tell you about them anyway." This is a view shared by many, but it hasn't put Dickins off sharing his night-time fantasies in verse. "Dreams have a massive effect on my music," he says. "It's something that I embrace rather than disregard. I always try to latch it on to something real, but then twist it. I'm trying to get the things that I'm into visually to come through in my music – like old David Lynch movies. I used to be obsessed with Tim Burton's first films. Dark stuff really. I want people to see pictures when they hear my music, but it doesn't necessarily have to be weird. I'm not trying to be a weirdo!"

As a graphic design graduate, imagery is important to Dickins. He is currently funded not by record sales (steady, but unspectacular), but by graphic design jobs. He also designs all his own artwork. "I've done the cover for the EP, which is just a simple typographic piece, and I directed the short animation that went with 'You Live in My Head'. It was inspired by Oscar Fishchinger. I saw his work when I was studying in Ipswich, and I always wanted to make something that represented sound but using simple graphic shapes. The video is an homage to his work."

'You Live in My Head' is one of the more extraordinary hip-hop tracks you'll hear this (or any) year. When hip-hop is described as being psychedelic it is usually in the hippy-dippy, flower-power sense of the word (think De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising), but in the case of 'You Live in My Head', this is the proggy, druggy kind of psychedelia. It is deep and oblique, graced with a stuttering trip-hop beat, rumbling bassline and twinkling keys, while its creator sounds somewhere between half-asleep and stoned out of his mind.

"I was really, really tired," Dickins explains. "James Spankie (a producer from Ipswich) sent me a beat and I and thought, 'I'm just gonna write whatever comes in my head right now.' I recorded the vocal on my phone, so that's why it's so sparse. When you're writing raps you can be there for hours putting in different lines and punchlines, but I wanted this to feel natural. And when I woke up in the morning and listened to the recording I thought, 'Woah, I'm gonna leave it like this.'"

Many artists would bridge the gap between a well-received debut album and their second offering with something accessible and chart-friendly. Get Goddard back in, go for the radio playlists. Not DELS. "I'm not on a major label, and that was one of the reasons that I signed with Big Dada," he explains. "I knew that they were going to let me develop as an artist. They weren't going to be asking me to churn out hit after hit every month."

It's just as well. UK hip-hop is in a funny place at the moment. The dominance of grime has pushed it into the shadows again, with many unable to grasp that the two are completely different forms of music. Even the MOBOs combine the genres into one award. This leaves artists such as Dickins – who are definitely not grime – stranded in a weird hinterland. While Radio 1 DJs such as Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens will play his music, BBC 1Xtra don't. "There's no UK hip-hop scene any more. Not underground, anyway," he says. "When I started making music I anticipated that I'd be part of something. But now I feel like even if here was something they wouldn't let me be part of it. I don't need to worry about fitting in, I'm just going to do whatever I want."

Dickins has, he says, always felt like an outsider. "I've always had that mentality. That's how I am amongst my friends. And that's how I was when I came to London to go to university [in Kingston]. People have always made me aware that I'm not from this city. I take that into what I do musically."

It was at university that he first hooked up with Goddard, who had discovered the rapper on MySpace and got in contact. The pair combined for his first release, 'Lazy', which came out on Moshi Moshi in 2008, but there was a three-year gap before the release of GOB, during which Dickins completed his degree. Going even further back, he had an early taste of the industry thanks to a fortuitous encounter with John Peel. In the very early 00s, on the cusp of turning 17, DELS was part of a garage collective called The Alliance. The Radio 1 DJ was one of only a handful of punters in an Ipswich club to see the collective perform and, impressed, he invited them to record a session for a Radio 1 showcase." I don't know what he was doing there," Dickins chuckles. "We were playing to nobody but he was just in there. We were lucky. I've got a recording and some footage with us all in there messing about. I don't want anyone to see it because the music isn't that good. It was an important experience, but I don't think it will do anything for my career if people see it."

The Alliance was put together by a friend's dad to give DELS and his occasionally troublesome friends something to focus on, but music had always been part of his life. "Looking back I had a happy childhood, though my parents broke up when I was very young and that was hard for me to take. Music was always around the house, even though nobody's musical. My parents used to listen to a lot of jungle. My dad was DJing drum & bass and house, my mum was a big bashment/dancehall fan, and my stepdad built his own soundsystem and played dub records all over the country. We're all just massive fans of music."

A love of music soon transformed into an obsession with hip-hop, starting with the West Coast superstars of the early 90s, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, and their respective masterpieces, The Chronic and Doggystyle. But his mum would only let the young DELS buy the "clean" versions of the albums, so he had to guess what the swear words were. He has taken this Tipper Gore-friendly approach into his own music – you'd be hard pressed to find an expletive in his raps, and even the solitary "fuck" that appears in the sung vocal hook on 'Bird Milk' is disguised. As somebody whose formative years were spent listening to the laidback flows of the West Coast rappers, his delivery is suitably relaxed, though his wordy, ingenious flows bear comparison with Kool Keith, something Goddard was quick to pick up on. "DELS has something in common with Kool Keith," he said, during the rounds of press for GOB. "He has a great imagination and a willingness to talk about subjects other than money and his own prowess."

The early brush with Peel and the single with Moshi Moshi laid the groundwork for GOB, a stunningly accomplished and fully realised debut album, which was critically-acclaimed and led The Times to describe DELS as "the future of UK hip-hop." It also found favour with the indie-heads at Radio 1, but a lack of support from 1Xtra means that he has yet to cross over to the urban scene. GOB was also heavily tipped to make the Mercury shortlist for 2011. "I was getting tweets from Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens saying it was going to be nominated. It was weird. So many people had told me it was going to happen that I believed it," he reveals. But to his disappointment, GOB didn't make it, with contemporary Ghostpoet, and chart-botherers Tinie Tempah and Katy B making up the urban contingent on the shortlist. Another opportunity for Dickins to reach a wider audience missed. There's a potentially huge market to be tapped into, but the breaks need to come his way first.

"Exactly," he says. "I'd be really interested to see what the people who like Tinie Tempah would make of my stuff. Maybe they'd hate it, but I'd still like the chance to play my music to them. People are always moaning about UK hip-hop all being the same and then somebody does something different and they don't get any attention."

But the one thing Dickins won't ever do is compromise on his vision, despite the possible riches on offer were he to take the Tinie/Dizzee route into overtly pop-leaning music. He is continuing to plough his own furrow on the second album, which should be released in the spring of next year. "I'm working with Kwes, Joe [Goddard] and Micachu again, and some other people that I can't name yet. I don't want to jinx it. Since making GOB and playing loads of shows, I've started to think differently about how I structure my music. I understand what it means to be an MC – like a mic controller. I supported MF Doom recently, and I'm learning every time I play a show. I like to see how other MCs approach it. GOB was very insular. It was mostly me talking about myself and that came across in the performance. I'm not like a party MC, my performance was just me in the middle doing my thing on my own, with my band behind me. On this album what I'm learning about being on stage will hopefully come through in my music."

Black Salad is out on Big Dada on Nov 26th. DELS plays Shacklewell Arms on Thursday 22nd November.

Photo by Alessia Dal Santo Rose