In 2009, I worked with at-risk youth in a public school program in Portland, Oregon. Music provided a touchstone for both staff and students but my coworkers and I often struggled to find music that everyone could agree on that was also appropriate for a classroom setting. My friend and colleague Jim once recommended an album that he found to be a great fit for our unique circumstances: Deltron 3030. Oddly enough, this sci-fi tinged concept album featuring producer Dan the Automator, turntablist Kid Koala, and left-field rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien proved to work incredibly well in our classrooms. Deltron 3030 dropped in the spring of 2000 but I knew nothing about it until Jim enlightened me and now this post gives me an opportunity to extend this favor to you. Shortly after its release, Deltron 3030 became a cult-classic for underground hip-hop, established a high point for each artist’s career, and just happened to lay much of the groundwork for the next year’s debut album by Gorillaz.
Following a bit of exposition about the album’s vision of the future with “State of the Nation,” Deltron 3030 begins in earnest as “3030” slowly builds steam and evolves into a sprawling-but-fleet seven-and-a-half-minute declaration of purpose, style, and absurdity. Running back to back, “Virus” and “Upgrade (A Brymar College Course)” establish the album’s stride while offering irresistibly catchy choruses, sumptuous sonic textures, and compelling beats. My conversation with Jim about this album actually started with “Upgrade” because he thought its chorus, “upgrade your gray matter, because one day it may matter,” offered an excellent theme song for our classrooms. Arriving about halfway through the album, “Madness” allows our protagonist Deltron Zero to reframe his quest for survival as a battle against the forces of complacency and conformity that doubles as a commentary on the state of hip-hop around the year 2000. With a cameo from Damon Albarn, “Time Keeps on Slipping” unites the team that would soon go on to create the virtual band Gorillaz and unveils the sonic blueprint for that project’s very successful first album. Punctuated by an assertive fanfare and featuring a vocal hook from Sean Lennon, “Memory Loss” serves ably as the album’s final full-length song and functions nicely as a bookend with “3030.” Short interludes, announcements, and advertisements make up nine of the album’s twenty-one tracks and deftly balance Kid Koala and Dan the Automator’s highly evocative, dense arrangements and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s rambling, verbose, and heroic vocal performance.
While this album shares multiple connections to similar projects like Dr. Octagon, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Gorillaz, Deltron 3030 stands apart because of the remarkable synergy these three artists achieved. The influence of Deltron 3030’s singular take on Afro-futurism extends beyond the genre of underground hip-hop and the various projects of its members and filters into Janelle Monáe’s music, especially her 2013 sophomore album, The Electric Lady. Two years ago, all three members of Deltron 3030 reunited to release their sophomore album, Event 2, which felt at moments like an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle...again. Intentionally or not, this follow-up served as a reminder that a large part of the first album’s success derived from the fact that at the time very few people had any idea what these three artists could accomplish together. Although I can’t be sure that this is what music will sound like in a thousand years, Deltron 3030 remains certainly well ahead of its time and still feels like a future time capsule just waiting for discovery.
- John Parsell