"I ain't really got time to play games," says the thirty-year-old Del around a mouthful of fries. "I'm trying to get my music good as fuck. I see that I'm kind of a natural at this shit, so I'm trying to take a little more time to learn even more since I absorb it so quickly. [Video games are] partially why I'm playing catch-up now. I turned around, and everybody else was working while I was sitting on my ass.
"All that playing video games got my fingers hella ready for when I started playing keyboard, though," he adds.
Today it's mostly hard work -- along with a little Game Boy here and there -- for the underground wunderkind MC also known as Teren Delvon Jones. While on the road, he's recording new material for The Eleventh Hour, due out by next spring or summer. He studies music theory, as he has for the past few years. Though a decade has gone by since Del unveiled his first record -- I Wish My Brother George Was Here, released on Elektra and produced by his cousin Ice Cube -- he insists it's all the same game.
"Not that much is different for me," he says. "My approach with music is a little more stable. I kind of just know how music works, basically. So that's changed, but the way I make music hasn't really changed. It's updated, but I do that anyway. I'm constantly trying to improve on myself."
The Oakland native emerged from his well-known cousin's shadow in the early '90s, making an undeniable impact on underground hip-hop. His approach was very different from that of his cousin, as well as from the style then dominating the Bay Area rap scene; it was as if he couldn't sit still long enough to fall into one way of thinking. I Wish My Brother George Was Here relied heavily on Parliament/Funkadelic samples, and Del's oddball but clever observations cut through the usual thematic parade of thugs and gangstas. Some of his sillier material found him riffing on personal hygiene, public transportation, and loser friends crashing on his couch. He seemed not just bent on flowing about topics no one else even dreamed of discussing, but truly bent. Other times, he hit on more serious subjects, but always from an intelligent and unique perspective.
"The trick is to talk about something that everybody talks about, but in a different way, or from a different angle," Del says. "The problem ain't hella pimp rappers; problem is hella pimp rappers that ain't really pimps. Like, I ain't heard nothing but just how many hos you got and 'I'm a pimp.' Once we can get past that and hear something a little bit more creative with it, then there wouldn't be a problem. Ain't no new twists on it."
The same cannot be said of Del's own music. In 1994 he released No Need for Alarm, without the aid of Ice Cube. The result was a jazzier, more East Coast sound, with more confrontational rhymes. The album retained a sense of humor but shed the freewheeling goofiness of his debut. After Elektra released Del from his contract, he dropped Third Eye Vision on Hiero Imperium, a label started by his rap collective, Hieroglyphics. Two records followed in 2000: Both Sides of the Brain and the brilliantly futuristic, high-concept Deltron 3030, on which he explored a cyberpunkish world through the persona of Deltron Z. Del was introduced to his widest audience yet when he and Deltron co-conspirators Dan the Automator and Kid Koala joined Blur's Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett in Gorillaz, the animated, otherworldly virtual band that had a smash hit with "Clint Eastwood" in 2001.
These efforts added up to a creative benchmark for Del -- one that he was eager to usurp.
"[Both Sides] was the pinnacle of what I could do with the limited technology and knowledge that I had," he says. "That's when I started studying music theory, because I knew it was time to. The major players in the business, all their shit is getting better, to the point where I couldn't really sit back and just be like, 'Well, it's just because they getting all the breaks.' No, they're shit's getting better. Time for you to get better, too.
"My knowledge of music and how it operates is better," he continues. "That's another reason I wanted to learn more about the theory of music: I wanted to be able to do what these other cats was doing. There's only one Stevie Wonder, but you always know his shit when you hear it."
Del says he recently realized that it's impossible to create something out of thin air -- that is, music that's entirely new and without influence. Understanding that the past always affects the present has been liberating, in a way.
"It's obviously influenced by other people; it'll never be all the way original, so to speak," Del says. "But once I realized that, it kind of gave me a lot more freedom. Basically, we all use the same tools to make music, the same seven notes, so that ain't going to change, but everybody expresses it in a different way. It's like, those of us who speak English speak English, but you speak English in a different way than I speak English. Even at the base of language, even if you talk Japanese, you're still speaking a language. At the most basic, it's the same."
Finding common ground with listeners is paramount for Del today, though that wasn't always the case.
"I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I feel like I'm pretty hip to what's going on, so I can pretty much tell what the vibe is at any point in time," Del says. "In the past I've gone against it, and that's just hard for me, because it's basically like, 'Okay, I don't want you to buy my album.' Might as well just say that. That's why I'm saying when I learn more about theory and shit, and learning that people do come before you, they kind of set a path, and you kind of learn from them. That freed me up from having to worry about 'I gotta be the most original motherfucker.' That ain't going to happen, so quit worrying about that. You can keep that. That ain't from this planet. I'll take something that was made on Earth, actually."
Those are rather dramatic words for someone who has often been accused of being from another planet himself. Could it be that the true Deltron Z is actually a human being, not some freaky alien?
"I'm not even hella weird or crazy like that," Del says. "I mean, I think a little bit differently from people, but I'm pretty much into what everybody else is into around me. I just look at shit a little differently. But I think that was the initial draw to my shit, though, that people could relate to me in that way. Like, 'Okay, he's a little different from us, but what he talking about, I can peep what he's saying.'"