When it comes to long-deferred dream records finally seeing the light of day, 2013 is shaping up to be a banner year. In addition to the sudden appearance of My Bloody Valentine's near-mythic third album, and the first (almost) reunion effort from the original Black Sabbath lineup in over three decades, music fans should at last be able to get their hands on the sophomore release of local sci-fi hip-hop heroes Deltron 3030.
S.F.-based producer Dan the Automator, East Bay lyrical heavyweight Del the Funky Homosapien, and Toronto turntable wizard Kid Koala were all well-established artists when they first merged Voltron-like for the supergroup's eponymous 2000 debut. Following the Automator's collaborative model for the landmark Dr. Octagon project (where he worked with MC Kool Keith and DJ Qbert), Deltron 3030 pushed the conceptual hip-hop envelope even further. Del's vision of a dystopic future found alter-ego Deltron Zero engaging corporate overlords and otherworldly MCs alike in battle over some of the Automator's most orchestral and cinematic beat creations, all peppered with Kid Koala's melodic turntable punctuation.
While initial rumblings of a follow-up to the critically acclaimed album first surfaced in 2005, it wasn't until last summer that Deltron finally emerged with new material. The group also unveiled an ambitious new live presentation, featuring a 23-piece orchestral ensemble with strings, horns, and choir for a handful of festival shows in Canada and Rock the Bells 2012. So what was behind the long delay leading up to the forthcoming release of Deltron Event II?
"I was ready to go, and Eric [San, aka Kid Koala] did the scratches, but Del just wasn't in the place to do it, so we didn't do it," Dan the Automator explains over a recent lunch of Vietnamese noodles in the Mission District. "When you make a record, it should be easy. And it wasn't coming naturally. So we just kind of waited."
Discussing the long gestation of Event II from his Richmond home during a phone interview, Del made it clear that it was the preparation, more than the actual lyric-writing, that slowed the process. "Basically, writing Deltron is a pain in the ass," Del says with a laugh. "It takes a lot of research, a lot of looking up references and shit. It's almost like doing schoolwork. It took a long time for me to want to do that."
The gap may have actually helped the Automator refine new studio methods, a project that began with the Handsome Boy Modeling School album White People, where he collaborated with fellow hip-hop maverick Prince Paul. Long renowned for his creative sampling ear — how many other beatsmiths would have heard the hook to Dr. Octagon's "Blue Flowers" in a Bartók concerto? — the producer began recording real musicians instead of mining dusty vinyl. "It had gotten to the point where we were paying so much [for samples]," says the Automator. "No one is going to realize it, but on the new Deltron record, there are no samples besides drum sounds."
The songs on Deltron Event II prove the chemistry between the musicians remains as vibrant as ever: A spoken-word intro sets the stage of a world spiraling into chaos from economic calamity. Then "The Return" unfurls its majestic, string-laden overture, with Kid Koala scratching descending trills of violin and Del rhyming a tale of righteous renegades navigating a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Whatever challenges preparation for the album presented, the MC rises to the occasion with a mind-bending barrage of complex lyrics detailing Deltron Zero's subversive battle against the interplanetary 1 percent and corrupt government overlords.
For his part, Dan the Automator reaffirms his status as a beat-maker of the highest caliber throughout Deltron Event II. Fuzzed-out guitar fuels both the swaggering anthem "No One Can" and the pugilistic battle rhymes of "Melding of the Minds" (with an angry couplet spat by Zack de la Rocha anchoring the chorus), while "Talent Superceeds" offers a triumphant, galloping groove that pushes Del to tempos rarely visited by MCs since the '90s. The producer's deft touch shines just as brightly on mellower tunes, several of which feature guest vocalists. Rich orchestrations and Kid Koala's tuneful transformer scratches swirl around actress/singer Mary Elizabeth Winstead's mournful cries on "Look Across the Sky," and lifts the dubbby reunion with Damon Albarn on "What Is This Loneliness."
With Deltron Event II not hitting store shelves until the fall, this weekend's Stern Grove concert offers a rare chance for fans to preview the new songs. Bringing his lush musical vision to life onstage conducting the expanded Deltron ensemble for a hometown show should be a momentous occasion for the musician who got his start playing violin at age 3. "I prefer conducting in some ways, because I think it's funny," Dan the Automator says with a smile. "Not funny ha-ha, but maybe funny in the sense of 'See, Mom? I'm doing classical music!'"