Dalek is hip-hop, but the group’s interpretation of the genre is unlike any other’s. Dalek — composed of the emcee by the same name (it’s pronounced “dialect”) and producer Oktopus (a third member, DJ Still, is no longer with the group) — is hip-hop taken to sonic extremes: stretched out, distorted, turned into a rumbling symphony of decaying breakbeats, piercing high-end wails and lyrics that ruminate endlessly on the brutal contradictions and inequalities of this American life. On the band’s MySpace page, the members describe their sound as “the soundtrack to the urban apocalypse.” That’s not label hyperbole or the trying-too-hard declaration of a pandering music critic. That’s the truth.
So what better place for the duo to play live than BB King’s Blues Club in Times Square, the epicenter of America’s cultural decay? Located on once infamous but now homogenized 42nd Street, surrounded on all sides by over-sized, glowing chain stores and restaurants, BB King’s is New York City’s most surreal music venue. The establishment’s booking — which in the span of a weekend can include Cannibal Corpse, a gospel brunch, Air Supply and Ghostface — can be read as a metaphor for the dizzying diversity of the city. Or, more pessimistically, as a symbol of capitalism’s relentless impulse to milk people of every race, color and creed of their money. To put a price on every goddamn thing that can be possibly be sold, for as much as possible, while convincing you that you’re getting a bargain. This, after all, has been the neighborhood’s M.O. since the dawn of time, whether the product being offered has been a blow job in a urine-soaked alley or a Hello Kitty pencil set. It’s all the same.
And so here comes Newark-based Dalek, wading through this muck, taking the stage past midnight as openers for industrial icons Meat Beat Manifesto. The crowd is a mix of aging, jackboot-wearing Wax Trax aficionados and tourists who have been seduced by the welcoming images of B.B. himself above the venue’s façade. They have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.
Oktopus assumes his stance behind two PowerBooks. Dalek, the emcee, stands front and center, looking more like a linebacker than a rapper, wearing a T-shirt commemorating the Newark Riots of 1967. He clears his throat, spits, screams. The audience doesn’t even get a hello. “Ever Somber,” from last year’s Absence, kicks in. Loud. And that’s the point: for the sheer volume to overwhelm idle conversation, background noise, even the listener’s own thoughts. To the uninitiated, it sounds like pure chaos: Dalek’s furious rapping subsumed by an even more furious avalanche of white noise.
But listen closely: In the same way there is beauty to be found in the bombed-out streets of America’s forgotten cities, there is beauty to be found in this music. The My Bloody Valentine and Glenn Branca references Dalek has been saddled with begin to make sense. Avant-garde orchestral sensibilities collide with classic hip-hop beats and some of the most socially aware and overtly politicized lyrics ever composed. And it’s fucking loud.
The whole of Dalek’s forty-minute set is composed of songs from Absence. Such overwhelming music doesn’t allow for much of a stage presence. The tempo stays largely the same: Dalek hardly moves, and the audience is left either captivated or alienated. For me, the highlight of the set is the three-minute instrumental section that closes out “In Midst of Struggle.” Dalek steps to the side as Oktopus constructs a slow-building, head-banging opus of epic proportions. With this as the backdrop, it’s easy to imagine the faux-opulent surroundings of BB King’s slowly dissipating. Outside, the skyscrapers crumble to the ground. Neon lights fade into pitch-black. This is the urban apocalypse, and these are the images Dalek creates. Each time they take the stage, Dalek and Oktopus set out to destroy the world, forty minutes at a time.
Dalek Web site (includes audio/video)
Ipecac’s Web site