Mastermind: How Deltron 3030 Predicted The Future

23 years after its release, Will Hagle dives into what makes Deltron 3030's self-titled album so timeless, as it contextualizes the then-present-day by pushing techno-futurism to its wildest outcomes.
By    August 22, 2023

Album cover via Deltron 3030/Discogs

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Will Hagle sometimes hears DMX in his head when he’s looking for things.

As the new millennium approached, Del the Funkee Homosapien was on the precipice of a breakthrough that no Y2K doomsday evangelist could have foreseen. The 90s brought a decade of steady growth and development. On his 1991 debut, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, Del established himself as the West Coast analog to Native Tongues, the bizarre Bay-based 19-year-old cousin of Ice Cube. But the ex-N.W.A member’s control over that first LP constrained Del’s off-kilter creativity from reaching its full potential.

The familial limitations were shaken off on Del’s 1993 follow-up, No Need for Alarm, but it failed to produce another undeniable hit like “Mistadobalina.” By the late ‘90s, the Oakland-raised rapper and his Hieroglyphics crew pushed themselves to new dimensions. No outside influence or industry was necessary. At the turn of the millennium, Del released Both Sides of the Brain, a logical continuation of his previous sound: lyrical showmanship indebted to freestyling roots over dusty homemade beats, including another hit in “If You Must.”

What came next was nothing short of visionary. In May 2000, a month after dropping his first album of the year – as America slipped deeper into a new era of technological progress and encroaching doom – Del took a trip into the outer realms of sound. You could say it was a hard left turn, but directional descriptions are meaningless in the vast void of space. Over Dan the Automator’s beats, with the assistance of Kid Koala’s scratching, Del dropped Deltron 3030: a timeless classic of dystopian sci-fi music.

At the fin de siecle, Dan the Automator was coming off the success of his and Prince Paul’s Handsome Boy Modeling School. Both Kid Koala and Del had featured on their 1999 debut So… How’s Your Girl?. Teaming up was natural and effortless. Dan was from across the Bay, and on Kool Keith’s 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, his production proved to be well-suited for genre fiction. Whereas the good doctor went for absurdist shock and horror, Del leaned all the way into dystopian sci-fi.

The sound befit the times. As meaningless as the numbers on the Gregorian calendar are, changing from 9s to 0s sent many more people than Ron Livingston’s Office Space co-workers into a tizzy. The Matrix came out in 1999. Cyber-punk futurism was in full effect. Society was moving into an age that the William Gibsons and Isaac Asimovs of the past had envisioned. Science fiction was becoming reality. In the greater Bay Area, technocrats rallying back from the dot com bubble welcomed this change with money-grubbing cyborg arms. Everyone else sensed we might be doomed, despite not knowing how dystopian it could really get. Deltron 3030 was a soothsayer’s warning. The album transported listeners way past the millennium, contextualizing the then-present-day by pushing techno-futurism to its darkest, and funniest, possible outcomes.

Like the previous LPs, Deltron 3030 demonstrates how Del’s grey matter is so naturally upgraded that he raps like a maniacal nose-and-lip-ringed Energizer Bunny floating somewhere in deep space. Dan the Automator’s production and Kid Koala’s scratches offered the perfect accents for this particular project. They open up a new, more sonically-intricate lane for Del to demolish. The album’s conceptual framework gives him—to reference Asimov again—a foundation to expand upon.

In the trio’s 2014 RBMA oral history, Del mentioned that he spent the 13 years between Deltron releases studying the craft of science fiction storytelling so that the follow-up didn’t sound “like techno-babble.” The first LP can be described as such. At times it feels like Del is showing out on the mic per usual, and enjambing in sci-fi terms into multi-syllabic rhymes. But “techno-babble” isn’t as derisive as the MC may believe. By grounding his lyrics within a theme—albeit a theme as open as the vast universe—his always-exceptional lyrical construction and delivery is both easier to latch onto and that much more impressive.

Deltron 3030 isn’t a traditional, hero-overcomes-odds-and-triumphs-over-oppression linear narrative. It’s a story told in fragments of specificity. Even if they didn’t readily connect to a logical storyline, lines like “Underground chillin with the Mole Man, and his whole fam” or “Drift by a star, absorb it, and store it” made more sense coming from a character in an invented futuristic universe than if Del—in all his bizarre glory—had said them on another record. Del’s weirdness was easier to digest when the sci-fi form called for it. The genre fit him and vice versa.

Deltron 3030 built a world vaguer than 1984 or The Giver, but goofier and realer and more enjoyable to revisit. The LP has a loose concept a la Sgt. Peppers (what the hell is that album even about?), but the general gist is easy to track from the few exposition flashes. It is set in the “Global Apartheid” era of the 31st century, when everybody wants to be an MC, a DJ, or a producer. The narrator Deltron Zero is the lone resistor against all the oppressive keywords: monopolistic corporate capitalist totalitarianism. Because enterprising wise men think more capitalism is wisdom, and imprison all citizens empowered with rhythm, Deltron Zero fantasizes about deploying a devastating virus to bring dire straits to your environment.

We get the idea that we are in a dystopia from the recognizable tropes, and we fill out the narrative in our heads. The story we hear might be different every time, depending on when and where we’re listening. Skits flesh out the invented universe Del and co. did intend, in which a Microsoft, Inc. subsidiary delivers the news and the 1983 film Strange Brew is for some reason mandatory viewing. It makes sense even when it doesn’t. Damon Albarn and Sean Lennon are there.

The concept of Deltron 3030 could have been as simple as: Del, Dan, and Kid Koala were so far ahead of the competition they might as well have seen the future, and traveled back to the present (which is now the past), to musically eviscerate it. The album would be worse off if it did have an obvious storyline. “Battlesong” is the closest to a “Guilty Conscience,” “We Cry Together,” “Children’s Story,” etc. etc. art-of-storytelling style. The concept of a Galactic Embassy-sponsored rap battle on Mercury, Pluto, and the Earth colony of Sicilia is great, but after you hear a story once it gets harder to re-listen through and continuously appreciate. Most of Deltron 3030’s tracklist can be replayed two decades after their release because they’re standalone hits with memorable hooks: “Positive Contact,” “Things You Can Do,” “Upgrade,” et. al. You listen for them and stay for the thin threads holding it all together.

“Things You Can Do” and “Madness” both derive their hooks from Susan Jacks, singer of the late-60s Canadian psych-pop band The Poppy Family. It’s unclear whether Dan the Automator flipped those records of his own accord or if Kid Koala’s Canadian sensibilities influenced the choice. However it came to be, the pitched (up, on “Things You Can Do,” and down, on “Madness”) vocals create an eerie aura for Del to expound upon. In the context of the Poppy Family song, “Things you can do, some can’t be done” is an allusion to a racial oppression present in 1969, which apparently doesn’t change by 3030.

“Madness” gets its hook from the Poppy Family’s “Of Cities and Escapes.” The original is a melancholy ode to staring out the window of a one-room apartment at the crowds and smog across the water. The repeated refrain of “I’m caught in the grip of the city,” then a pause before “Madness” on the Deltron 3030 track instantly recontextualizes Susan Jacks’ words. The hook evokes Metropolis: a futuristic city with a steep, unfair divide between the haves and have-nots. Without outright describing the invented city that he’s rapping from, Del helps us imagine what it might look like.

Leading up to Y2K, hip-hop was never far removed from genre fiction. Super hero and kung-fu tropes abound. ATLiens played with the space-age ideas of Parliament/Funkadelic. Handsome Boy Modeling School was similarly high-concept. In the wider musical canon there are plenty more examples. Zappa’s Joe’s Garage had the dystopian theme of a totalitarian government criminalizing music. Rush reached the year 2112. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs evolved out of an abandoned idea to adapt 1984 into a musical. Radiohead’s albums are vaguely conceptual. But Deltron 3030 proved that science fiction could find its most fitting home in rap.

Finding out that, in fact, we came back. We were always coming back.

After not listening for a decade, Deltron 3030 is back in heavy rotation like I’m a teenager with an iPod again. I am once again immersed in a post-apocalyptic future that was relevant to modern life back in those kinda-post-apocalyptic aughts, when I had 10 GB of downloaded MP3s on an Apple device and now, in post-post-apocalyptic 2023, when I have $10/month of Apple Music 5G-beamed into my earrings.

In that aforementioned RBMA oral history, Kid Koala mentions that it took “3-4 years” before Deltron 3030 caught on with the masses. I was among those latecomers. The Bay and older music fans knew, but Del didn’t reach me until “Clint Eastwood” laser-blasted him into the mainstream of a new era. The inclusion of “If You Must” on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 soundtrack reminded a generation of filthy kids who would forgo showers to grind forever as a pixelated Bob Burnquidst to wash their collective asses – then go check out the back catalog.

When my friends and I discovered Deltron 3030 in high school, we treated it like any other form of speculative art. Instead of pushing our desks together in Algebra class to ignore our group worksheets and debate whether or not the smoke monster in Lost is Jacob, we sat around and recited lines. I could almost get through all of “Meet Cleofis Randolph The Patriarch,” one of the greatest songs of all time, despite not knowing for years that that was MC Paul Barman and not Del rapping in a goofy voice. I have a vivid memory of learning what the word “papyrus” means after “Virus” lodged itself in my brain, and a friend mocking me for not knowing it sooner. We knew instinctively without straightforwardly acknowledging it that Deltron 3030 was fiction teaching us about real life, in a way that most music doesn’t.

Dystopian fiction appeals to all age groups but caters especially to adolescent audiences (The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, etc.) This is likely because young adults are beginning to understand the oppressive nature of authoritarian systems, whether that’s the government or their Algebra teacher yelling at them for pounding desks and karaoking Del lyrics instead of scribbling down the Pythagorean Theorem. Protagonists in dystopian fiction tend to rebel against the system and succeed. For impressionable age groups not yet aware that the future is inevitably dismal, this provides a cathartic form of release.

Deltron 3030 would never have been taught in my school back then, but it offered us the same sort of insights into the world that could come from books like Brave New World. Literature was the entrenched institution with enforced interpretations. Albums like Deltron 3030, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, Dr. Octagynecologist, and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots were the living, breathing lessons in the power of fiction. Deltron Zero didn’t give us a straightforward narrative from the 31st century, but his techno-babble verses helped us write the story of our teenage lives.

We didn’t feel the weight of how it would all turn out then, but Del saying “Late in the evening, f*cked up on my computer and my mind starts roaming” spoke directly to us. We could sense the encroaching horror beneath what technocrats marketed as utopia – like the internet was a constantly-accessible aughts version of the Perisphere. In the two decades-plus since Deltron 3030’s release, we couldn’t have predicted how much we’d need someone to crash our whole computer system and revert us to that new word I learned. For our teenage brains, on the ebb and flow of the world wide web, trading CD download links on boring inside nights, Deltron 3030 was what sold us on Del as the true savior of the universe. He never let a computer tell him shit.

Time Keeps On Slipping

The year 2000 doesn’t feel that long ago. I was 9 that year and the 60s/70s/80s felt so distant I couldn’t conceive of them as actually happening. I know now that’s just because I didn’t live through those decades. The ‘90s are the ‘70s of today and that’s impossible to reconcile. You don’t realize until you’re older, that everyone eventually feels this way. From the perspective of a teenager now, Deltron 3030 is what Run D.M.C felt like to me. Dystopian fiction of yesteryear tends to keep on appealing to subsequent generations, but I have no idea if Deltron 3030 resonates with kidsthesedays. But the best albums find their way through time, and it seems impossible that this one could ever slip away.

After all, Deltron had an immediate impact that has only expanded over the course of two decades. Gorillaz’ 2001 self-titled debut is another exercise in world-building that benefited from Del’s verse on “Clint Eastwood.” On Mr. Lif’s 2002 LP I, Phantom, “Earthcrusher” explored the post-apocalyptic idea of nuclear fallout. Gift of Gab put out 4th Dimensional Rocket Ships Going Up in 2004, and Del featured on the follow-up Escape 2 Mars in 2009. El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead—another masterclass in the form, considering El-P’s heavy, glitchy synth-driven production style is so well-suited—came out in 2007. Shabazz Palaces has continued the tradition. So have Clipping. and many others.

Deltron 3030 was futuristic as a teenager, still is now, and probably will be in the actual year 3030. It is timeless because it is so conscious of time. How it bends and distorts, but always keeps slipping. How that never becomes easy to deal with. But how music, without plot but with a conceptual framework, can help us make some sense of the incomprehensible.

Y2K panic faded quickly when the world didn’t end. Then the world began to end, a little bit at a time. 9/11 happened. The Bush years ensued. The housing market collapsed. We entered a recession. Pointless wars dragged on. Capitalism continued to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Trump came and went, but didn’t leave. We climbed out of the recession but might be going back in again. Of course, there was and still is covid. Whether or not we are ever actually living in a dystopia is debatable, but the persistent widespread belief that we are is indisputable.

Deltron 3030 was a reflection of its time that has stayed relevant for more than two decades. It’s fitting that the album art is from a photograph snapped at the 1939 New York’s World Fair. Of the “Perisphere,” which showcased a utopian city of the future. Deltron 3030 arrived in the present, borrowing sounds and ideas from the past. It continues to slap on and on through the future. It is the soundtrack for a doom that is ever-impending, stocked full of hits that provide us a consistent source of joy and comfort. It’s one of the few albums so timeless we can’t help but return.

The most dystopian thing about 2023 is everyone thinks they’re in a dystopia for a different reason, and they’re right. These songs tap into that paranoia, which was present in Y2K but not to the current relentless, overbearing degree. Then and today, Deltron 3030 eased the pain through funk and idioms. It isn’t nostalgia that brought me back to the album. It’s fresh, now, still, somehow. Deltron 3030 is cryogenically frozen both right at and way past the millennium, but it is not a corpse; it is capable of reanimating at the push of a button.

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