The relationship between rap music and major labels has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has brought forth a wealth of classic material and helped spread hip-hop to the four corners of the map, from Warner distributing Cold Chillin’ in the late ’80s to Universal successfully banking on Southern rap in the late ’90s. On the other hand, major labels have shown the habit of interfering with artistic freedom, delaying releases and offering exploitative contracts. The archives are filled with series of dope albums that have been aborted because one or both parties decided to sever ties. Take Del the Funky Homosapien, who would have had an impressive three-album run on Elektra if “Future Development” had come out in 1996 like it was supposed to.
Having been one of the first big labels to sign rap acts (most notably Grandmaster Flash in 1985), Elektra, then part of WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) became a major force in the early ’90s with groundbreaking debuts by Brand Nubian, Leaders Of The New School, KMD, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Digable Planets and Lords Of The Underground. For whatever reason, around 1993, their initial momentum began to dwindle. While sophomore efforts were there, some of them were seriously delayed. Others got shelved permanently, such as KMD’s “Black Bastards” or Shazzy’s “Ghettosberg Address”. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was an important acquisition they quickly put to use, but other new recruits that were either signed directly or through subsidiaries and affiliates like Pendulum and Chameleon only released the one-shot 12″: Supernatural, Heather B, Lin Que, Omniscence, Kinetic Order, etc. In recent times, three albums from those days finally saw the light of day: KMD’s “Black Bastards”, Pete Rock’s I-N-I album and “Clear Blue Skies” by the Juggaknots. A fourth one has been available since 1997, when Del decided to sell “Future Development” as a tape on tour and on the Hierogplyhics homepage.
Since I first copped it from Del himself, “Future Development” has been repackaged in CD and vinyl format (with an added bonus track), available at the Hiero website and (sometimes as an import) at established online stores. What is the point in reviewing it now, when most Hiero fans are likely to own a copy and everybody else could probably care less about an album by some ex-major label MC his superiors refused to put out? Simply put,”Future Development” has become a symbol for hip-hop’s growing independence. This independence has been both forced and wanted. Wanted because there comes a point in every artist’s career where he will long for more artistic freedom and entrepreneurial responsibility. Forced because by the mid-’90s, major labels were either trying to get a piece of the Bad Boy/Death Row/No Limit/Roc-A-Fella action or were too involved in ongoing mergers to build rap acts that were more than just a fluke. Jive, a key player in hip-hop since the late ’80s and employer of the majority of the Hieroglyphics, shifted its attention to boy bands and pop princesses. Loud, an early ’90s groundbreaker, fell into a severe slump. And the most legendary label of ’em all, Def Jam, seemed more concerned with joining the oligarchy than breaking new artists.
This left a void that made many rap acts discover the wonderful world of doing shit yourself. While so-called imprints mainly served to stroke the artist’s ego, the hard work some of the real independents put in paid off in the form of a bigger audience. Today, there’s a nationwide patchwork of independent hip-hop labels, and one patch happens to be Hieroglyphics Imperium, at the inception of which we find “Future Development”, an album that unwillingly but given its name quite fittingly became a turning point for rap music.
Is there any other way “Future Developments” lives up to its name? Yes and no. Admirers of Del’s 2000 concept album “Deltron 3030” will recognize first steps being undertaken on the title track, from the distorted “Earth to Del, “Earth to Del” messages to the mechanical funk, but really its opening statement “each rap is texture-mapped to perfection / a 3D world for you to step in” is more clearly realized on the rest of the tracks which are akin to a stroll through the hood rather than a trip through space and time.
Staged by A-Plus with a slightly accelerated bassline and leisurely dropping organ sprinkles, “Faulty” accompanies Del as he lends an acquaintance some money, curiously follows him wondering what for and runs into the drug dealer who cashed it in. Cursing himself for his confidence, Del vows to learn from this lesson: “Out in the O they tryin’ to play you like Kermit / out in the O they’ll smoke your ass like sherm sticks / definitely somethin’ to be concerned with / you can’t trust these niggas and it’s time that I learn this.”
Oakland, CA is, as usual, an important point of reference. “You ain’t around in the Town, clown,” he barks at an opponent in the opening “Lyric Lickin”, setting the tone for this smoke-infested album populated by po-po, intoxicated youth and wack MC’s:
“I don’t give a shit, I wants to get lit
Split the Philly, roll that bitch, and it better hits
correct and right, make sure po-po out of sight
or they gonna have us locked up tonight – sike
We in the cut with the best bomb available
Peeled out laughin’ in a trail of smoke
Oaktown, where niggas get down in more ways than one
It don’t stop till the raising sun”
A thumping battle call, “Lyric Lickin” may show Del at his cockiest and most animated (“Fuck bein’ calm, I’m like a shell-shocked vet from ‘Nam”), but his KRS-like vocal dominance shines through elsewhere as well, such as on the important reminder “Don’t Forget the Bass” or “X-Files”, where he delivers blows to rookie rappers: “Del is old school compared to your subterfuge / I got the same code of ethics Jungle Brothers used.”
Unlike its dark predecessor “No Need for Alarm”, the ingenious “Deltron 3030” or even the playful debut “I Wish My Brother George Was Here”, “Future Development” is quite ordinary as far as hip-hop records go. “Why Ya Want to Get Funkee…”, tipping its hat to Today’s “Why You Get Funky on Me” and sounding like an East Coast cousin of “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”, displays Del’s ability to be brief and still say everything neccessary as he recounts three episodes where he catches flack from females for his gear, his age, or his reputation as a rapper. “Games Begin” starts out purely recreational (“Whether you’re a clerk or a rapper like me / we all need to kick back and be carefree”), but ends in a plea for responsibility (“Don’t put shit off till tomorrow, do it right now, ‘fore you fuck with your pals”) while “Love Is Worth” urges us to apply our affections wisely: “You gotta know what your love is worth / that way you don’t waste it on the world goin’ berserk.”
“Corner Story” brings back the Ice Cube cousin Del was first introduced as. In order to enjoy their blunt properly, he and a buddy set out for some brew, knowing what dangers lurk outside: “Shit is like a warzone, streets is hot like the Bahamas / but we will stay away from the drama / […] / but then we had to pause like a comma / cause someone got stuck and bucked and family was outside with trauma.” Still they embark on their mission, Del mindful of the fact that they will have to walk past members of the Nation of Islam twice. So he purchases a copy of The Final Call the first time and hides the beer when returning. It’s impossible not to notice the similarity to the Ice Cube of “Death Certificate” in these detailed observations. Yet in tone, “Corner Story” is almost “It Was a Good Day”, given Del’s matter-of-factly delivered comments over A-Plus’ peaceful beat.
Another song that reminds one of the early Cube connection is “Del’s Nightmare”. The topic is slavery and Del tackles it with a bluntness that might shock those who still try to act like it never happened. But as the sinister landscape sculpted by A-Plus enfolds, by the time of the chorus, “Del’s Nightmare” turns into an examination of the music industry and an eerily precise reflection of Del’s own situation at that time:
“This is for you kids tryin’ to get signed
just a little something you should keep in mind
The labels are slave masters, artists are slaves
Don’t get too raunchy, they want you to behave
You get signed, you thinkin’, “This is great”
but wait, you never knew what was at stake
Creative control they withold, you sell your soul
when you sign on the dotted line hopin’ to go gold
But you’ll never see that, not without promotion
the label just throw your shit out and got it floatin’
You think your shit is potent, but ain’t nobody buyin’ it
If they ain’t never heard of it, ain’t nobody tryin’ it
If they ain’t never heard of it, your record, they murder it
You can complain, but they are not concerned a bit
cause when they signed you, they thought you’d make a hit
cause of who you was affiliated with and all that bullshit
Frustrations, all these rules and regulations
Just so you can have your shit heard by the nation
And be patient…
cause by the time they finally release your shit it’s ancient
You think they’re workin’ your album? You’re mistaken
And if you flop, you get dropped
cause you ain’t the star, you didn’t go pop
just straight up hip-hop, time to get a mop
cause without no promotion, of course sales drop”
After vowing in the chorus: “Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me or my crew,” and ending the song by giving “props to niggas who is independent / cause they make they own money, plus decide how to spend it” only to wait in vain for “Future Development” to be released, going independent seemed like the right thing to do at the right time for Del and the Hieroglyphics. Because, as he says elsewhere on this album, “I’ve been in the rap game too long to falter.”
Who knows, if they could have released “Future Development” with proper promotion and packaging, they could have retained the national attention they commanded with brilliant releases like the Souls Of Mischief’s “93 ‘Til Infinity” and Del’s own offerings. But as it was, until recently only hardcore fans had a chance to check out Del’s third effort that seriously rivals, fellow reviewer Steve ‘Flash’ Juon may forgive me for using his own verbiage to contradict him, KMD’s “Black Bastards” as “the best album Elektra never released.”