Review: Del tha Funkee Homosapien

(Above: Del tha Funkee Homosapien breaks down the basics of good hygiene.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Many music fans causally attach the phrase “golden era” to a nostalgic entry point or a favorite genre style. But the music of Del the Funky Homosapien truly represents a lost period of hip hop, before rap was the CNN of the streets or a gangsta’s paradise.

A 20-year veteran, Del’s music eschews many of hip hop’s biggest clichés to focus on more light-hearted topics such as personal hygiene, the public transit system and friends who overstay their welcome.

As such, Del’s sold-out, one-hour set at the Riot Room on Saturday night was refreshingly devoid of social commentary or macho posturing. His humble mission to have fun and start a party was an energetic success.

Del threw his syncopated punch lines like a fighter, bouncing on his heels with each syllable as if sparring with his mic. His set included classics like “Mistadobalina” and “Dr. Bombay” from his 1991 debut album, but newer tracks like “Foot Down” and “Get It Right Now” show Del’s wit and delivery haven’t slowed down. The hilarious “If You Must” (sample lyric: “this fool’s breath, I mean so bad it’ll melt your ice cream”) was another memorable moment.

Backed by DJ Zac Hendrix and MC Bukue One – whose lengthy set together immediately preceded Del’s – the headliner at times seemed the smallest of the three personalities onstage. As Bukue handled the between-song banter, Del often briefly retreated to lean against a speaker at the back of the stage until it was time for the next song.

Despite allowing him to play the wallflower, Bukue and Hendrix were good foils for Del. Both performers kept the mood light and the crowd moving. At one point, both MCs exchanged freestyles as Hendrix changed up the beats after each turn. One of samples in Hendrix’ arsenal was a snippet of an Isley Brothers song employed by Del’s cousin Ice Cube on his hit “It Was a Good Day.”

After a short dance interlude and Bukue’s puzzling impersonation of Digital Underground’s Shock G during a cover of “Humpty Dance,” Del returned with two tracks that showed despite his comedic tendencies, he is a serious artist. A song from the acclaimed “Deltron 3030” project lead into “Clint Eastwood,” the Gorillaz’ single that featured Del and briefly elevated him out of the underground.

For Del, the golden age is now. It’s the title he bestowed on his new three-disc release and singing along to the familiar chorus about “sunshine in a bag” it’s not hard to agree.

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Justin Townes Earle: His father’s son

(Above: Justin Townes Earle performs the joyous/sorrowful “Harlem River Blues” for David Letterman.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

While he was living in Los Angeles in the throes of addiction, songwriter Steve Earle reached out to his son Justin, who was living with his mom in Nashville.

“I had very little contact with my dad growing up,” Justin Townes Earle said, “but once a month I’d get a package in the mail full of records.”

Steve Earle was a country sensation at the time, building on the success of his albums “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” but the albums he mailed his son bore little relation to ones he was making.

“I guarantee you I was the first kid in Nashville to have Nirvana’s ‘Bleach,’ because I got it from my dad in ’89 when it first came out,” Earle said. “I had all the AC/DC albums … Mudhoney. I got Ice Cube’s ‘Lethal Injection’ from my father.”

A few years later, the elder Earle — now clean of his addictions — offered some musical advice to his son: Write what you know and write honestly. By this time Justin Townes Earle, 14, had discovered the music native to his hometown.

“I took that advice and ran with it,” Earle said. “I’m the type of person who, once you point me in the right direction, just leave me alone and let me go.”

Earle plays the Bottleneck in Lawrence tonight. Fifteen years have passed since his songwriting career began, and although he suffered some of the same dark periods of substance abuse his father endured, Earle has persevered. He has released an album a year since 2007, each building on the last.

“My albums have been a conscious progression,” Earle said. “ ‘Yuma’ was me addressing my Woody Guthrie thing. ‘The Good Life’ addressed the honky-tonk ghost. With ‘Midnight at the Movies’ I was trying to push to the weirder side of folk, and then on ‘Harlem River Blues’ I was going for more of the gospel and blues.”

Last year’s “Harlem River Blues” opens with what may be the standout track in Earle’s impressive catalog, an upbeat, jaunty gospel number … about suicide by drowning.

“That song initially came from something I remembered when reading the ‘Basketball Diaries’ when I was young,” Earle said. “Jim Carroll and his buddies were the toughest kids in New York because they’d jump off the cliffs into the Harlem River.”

The darker elements draw on Earle’s days as a homeless junkie. Shortly after being fired from his father’s band in the early 2000s, Earle spent two years on the streets in perpetual search for the next fix.

“Because I am a drug addict, I have friends with fairly miserable lives and a few who actually took their own lives,” Earle said. “I talked with one friend about eight hours before he did it (killed himself) and as he told me his plan. I saw a look of ease on his face I’d never seen. It was what he wanted to do and why the song has a celebratory feeling.”

Barely 29, Earle feels like he has already lived several lifetimes. He quit school at 14 and ran off with some other budding songwriters at 16. A near-death experience hastened the start of his recovery from hard substances, although Earle still smokes and just swore off alcohol.

“The album ‘Harlem River Blues’ is about a man in his late 20s realizing he’s human and slowing down. The invincible part of my 20s are over,” Earle said. “I’ve run the gamut. There’s something about drugs that make you realize how delicate life is.”

Most of Earle’s immediate future will be consumed with touring, but he plans to take several weeks in October to record his next album. After that he’s moving from New York City to Europe for three years.

“I want to go to Barcelona on weekends and Paris for dinner,” Earle said. “I’ve been to Barcelona three times on tour but have never been to the beach. I want to spend a month in Marrakech. I just want to take in as much as I can.”

Thursday’s show will be Earle’s first appearance in the area since he opened for Levon Helm at the Crossroads in July, a night Earle calls “one of my favorite shows of all time.”

“I had done a couple shows with Levon prior to that night, but because his voice was bad he didn’t sing,” Earle said. “After my set I walked out and ordered a couple drinks from the bar at the right side of the stage. When the band kicked into ‘Ophelia’ and I heard that voice, I dropped my drinks and ran to the side of the stage.

“I didn’t move for the rest of the night.”

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