Preoccupied by death, mortality, and the blurred boundaries between dreams and reality, Kieren Dickins’ mind never stops wandering. As DELS – a childhood nickname that stuck – he makes genre- straddling, unstructured hip hop. Wobbling bass and squelching electronics intertwine beneath his subtle delivery, the eccentricity of his beats matching the fluctuating mood of his lyrics.
His debut, the unusually titled Gob, has emerged as one of the year’s strongest albums. Yet underneath the surface of accessible musicality lurks morbid darkness, cartoon imagery and the tense undercurrent of uncertainty. At times, it all leaves you wondering just how Ipswich-born Kieren keeps it together.
“I’ve lost people close to me at the most unexpected moments and I guess that filters through into the subconscious,” he says. Alongside the gloominess, however, is colour, and a sense of fun; on songs such as ‘Shapeshift’ he sees life through a child’s eyes. This contrast of emotion and imagination mirrors his daring combination of genres, taking in hip hop, dub, and electronic music. Taking advantage of production from three uniquely talented producers – Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard, rising star Kwes, and eccentric oddball Micachu – his music shows no fear of defying convention.
“I love things that don’t quite sit; that go against the grain and aren’t too regimented,” he told The Hunger. Which might be part of the reason why independent stalwarts Big Dada and Ninja Tune gave DELS his first record deal earlier this year. Rubbing shoulders with Roots Manuva, Wiley and Diplo at the label, and armed with a mainstream-friendly album and aesthetic, DELS is well placed to blow a Gob-shaped hole through new British music.
“I’ve lost people close to me at the most unexpected moments and I guess that filters through into the subconscious,”
The Hunger: How would you describe your music?
DELS: It is raw, honest hip hop; a mixture of the conventional and unconventional. It definitely borrows from certain periods of conventional hip hop, but I know it might be perceived as having an unconventional structure and presentation. What I loved about the golden era in the mid-90s, is how individual each artist was – people like Wu-Tang Clan, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes. Hip hop has been forward-thinking for a long time, but I wanted to leave my own stamp on the UK music industry. I picked Micachu, Kwes and Joe Goddard because I knew that they would give me an individual sound, and I really think like we’ve achieved that. I want to maintain that British feel to it. Growing up, I was inspired by a lot of bass-driven music – bass lines are an important part of my work.
What do you want people to get out of listening to your music?
I want them to see images; I always think visually. I come from a design background and that’s the way I write my music. My favourite rappers, like MF Doom, Roots Manuva and Ghostface Killah, painted pictures to draw you in visually, and that’s what I hope to achieve. I’m not one of those rappers who has loads of books full of lyrics. I write for the moment; everything’s impulsive. Lyrics are the most important thing to me. I don’t have preconceived ideas about what I really want to say but what I am thinking is reflected within the music.
Is control an important aspect of what you do?
My music takes on a life of its own. Listen to songs like ‘Trumpalump’ and ‘Moonshine’ – there’s no structure, not even a chorus, really. They aren’t very controlled. I definitely have control over the sound and the visuals, because I’m signed to a great record label that allows me to do that. It’s important for me to have 100% creative control over the whole project, because it’s my baby. I only want to make three albums, so it’s very important that I maintain control and have the final say on what comes out. I don’t want to take the plaudits for everything, though, because so many friends have contributed to the project.
Dreams and mortality feature heavily on the album. Why is that?
When I was making it, I was going through a lot and had lost some people close to me, so quite a lot of dark themes were coming out. I was looking for ways that I could turn ideas on their head and represent them visually. I wasn’t just thinking in an audio sense; I was always thinking how they would be perceived if we made a video for each song.
“I wouldn’t say I’m preparing myself for it, but I could die walking home today.”
Are you preoccupied with death?
I think about death all the time. Most of my dreams over the last year or so have been about death. I need to stop watching fucked up things before I go to sleep. I think about it because it’s around the corner and you never know when it’s going to happen. I wouldn’t say I’m preparing myself for it, but I could die walking home today. If it happens, it happens. I was so pleased when my album came out that I thought, “If I die now, I’d be happy.” I had something for people to remember me by.
What do you think happens when you die?
I don’t know. I used to think I’d go to heaven or hell, but I don’t know if I believe in those worlds at the moment. I was really religious when I was a kid, but I’ve since stopped believing in God. Maybe there is a higher force, but I think it’s all science really. I just hope that I get to see my grandparents again.
You grew up in Ipswich. What was your childhood like?
I remember running wild around the streets with my friends, getting up to no good in the summertime. I came from a family that didn’t have that much money so we had to invent fun – sometimes doing stupid stuff like breaking windows, but otherwise riding around on our bikes and playing sports. I wanted to become an NBA superstar but that didn’t work out. I’ve got five brothers and sisters. We lived in the last council estate on the outskirts of Ipswich, so we were near to the countryside and trees. We used to make dens all the time.
Did you experience any racism when you were younger?
I didn’t have any problems being a mixed race youth. I didn’t even realise I was mixed race until I went to university, and people said, “You’re mixed race.” that’s the only time I’ve felt uncertainty. I always saw myself as black – I was raised by seven black women but I didn’t think about colour. I don’t think the public perception of colour is fair, and it’s partly because of the way black youths are represented on television or in the newspapers. There is always a stereotypical black character in Eastenders, so I guess that’s why people continue to think this way. I want it to change, but it’s not going to. They’re going to keep making these bullshit stories and writing these bullshit articles. I can say what I feel in my music and in interviews, but it’s going to take more than me saying what I’m saying right now to change it.
You moved to London to go to university. Did it feel like a big change?
It felt right; I knew it was where I wanted to be. I came to London a lot when I was a kid, to visit my grandmother and my grandfather who lived in Tooting Broadway. But moving here was an eye- opening experience. When I went to university, I really got to see it: all the different boroughs and exhibitions and club nights. I was exposed to different genres of music, and it had an influence on my own sound – rock, electronica, dubstep and garage – adding to what I knew before. It really developed my sound.
What’s next for DELS?
I want to keep combining my words, music and visuals, because I feel if I concentrate on just one, I’ll get really bored. You can’t rush art, so I just let it all happen. Fate will decide whether I’ll lean further towards the visual side or the musical side. Maybe I’ll become a producer; maybe I’ll study for a masters. Or maybe I’ll just sit in a studio producing music for other bands. I like to keep it open and I’m using each opportunity to delve into whatever area I want to.
Dels’s debut album, Gob, is out now.