Rising rap star has homegrown appeal
His flowing rhymes are turning heads on the UK hip-hop scene – and tomorrow night DELS gets to show his hometown what he can do, playing at Uprock at The Ipswich Swan. JONATHAN BARNES spoke to the rising rap star.
FOR the record, the name should be written in capital letters. “Like OMG,” laughs DELS, one of the UK’s best new hip-hop stars, who - to use rap parlance - has come straight outta Ipswich.
It’s a name that has stuck to Kieren Dickins since his days at the town’s Thurleston High School more than a decade ago. “It’s my nickname; I didn’t choose it,” he explains. “One of the teachers used to get me mixed up with a kid called Delroy. That’s how it started. I just like the way it looks written down; in capitals.”
A qualified graphic designer, the way things look is important to DELS. But it’s how the 26-year-old sounds that has pushed him to the cusp of big things.
His smooth rapping style and innovative rhymes have earned the rising MC a three-album record deal while his first two single releases, and their accompanying videos, have gained much attention for their musical and visual punch.
DELS is both fresh and refreshing. His lyrics aren’t about gangs, guns or girls; they’re plucked out of his imagination, from boyhood superhero fantasies (debut single Shapeshift) to the meaning and colour of his dreams (Trumpalump). Inoffensive, maybe, but definitely not ineffective.
His words flow over a playful electronic soup of beats, samples, bleeps and boings that sound like they’ve been stolen from a 1980s computer game.
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The eclectic charm of his early releases has been championed by Radio 1 DJs Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens, the latter of whom has booked DELS for a session at the station’s famous Maida Vale studios. The future looks bright for the young rapper.
Kieren Dickins was born in Ipswich and raised on the town’s Whitton estate. His parents were music fans rather than performers; and beats, grooves and rhymes filled the family home. He might remember himself as a “disruptive and delinquent” schoolboy but he admits to loving English class because he was so “obsessed by words”. It wasn’t until he left high school, though, that he found his voice and started to string his signature rhymes together.
Taking a year out of education and clueless what to do with his life other than play basketball, DELS began “making beats” with his friend Elijah Turay in a Wherstead Road basement. They formed a two-step garage band, The Alliance, who gained something of a break when the late DJ John Peel caught their act and invited them in for a Radio 1 session. “We really thought we were going to make it,” says DELS. “We had four years making music but there were not really many openings for us; being in Ipswich. It’s a lot easier now you’ve got the internet to get your music heard.”
It was the internet that gave the young MC’s career the boost it needed. The Alliance had fallen apart and, after going back into education at Suffolk College, DELS moved on to London’s Kingston University to study graphic design; as did Elijah, who was still his main collaborator. They put up a MySpace page to showcase some slowed-down hip-hop, recorded in their spare time and under DELS’ name. “I felt comfortable being on my own,” he says. “It was liberating, I could do what I wanted to to; not everyone else’s ideas. That’s when I started to get some momentum.”
His music was heard on MySpace by Joe Goddard of the leading electronic band Hot Chip, who got in touch by email to offer his services as a producer. “I thought it was someone messing about. I turned my computer off and back on again, and the message was still there; and it was real.”
This was 2006 and, since, Goddard has become DELS’ key collaborator and mentor. His influence and production work – plus a touring cycle of gigs across the UK and Europe – have had a galvanising effect on the rapper’s career. Bosses at top urban label Big Dada – home to Roots Manuva and Wiley – only needed to hear two tracks to offer a recording contract. That was signed in May; DELS’ debut album is scheduled for release in February.
Announcing the record deal, Big Dada pointed out that DELS “does his own artwork and videos - which makes it a lot easier” and the design-conscious MC has grasped the potential of how his artwork can compliment his music. The video for Shapeshift, self-directed with two university friends, features legions of DELS hoodies bouncing in union. To date, it has had nearly 70,000 hits on YouTube.
The video to the follow-up, Trumpalump, due out in December, has had 20,000 clicks in just three weeks since it was posted online. It’s based on the key lyric “do I dream in colour or black and white?”.“I try to visualise the lyrics in my videos: the idea is to represent them either in a literal or an abstract way,” he says.
Proving astute as well as artistic, DELS has also posted a “making of Trumpalump” video to ensure even more hits from graphic design bloggers.
He’s quietly thrilled at the attention his music is getting and is looking forward to bringing his live show (also featuring a drummer, synth player and back-up “effects” singer) to Ipswich and showing a few old friends what he can do.
“I had kept my friends in the dark about my music,” he says. “I didn’t want to weird them out with my weird sounds. But in the last year, they’ve started to get really excited and taken an interest in what I’ve been doing.”
Music doesn’t yet keep DELS occupied full-time. Based in London, he still does some freelance graphic design and comes back to Ipswich to do youth work, with youngsters who have been expelled from school. “It’s a lot of fun; just doing creative projects and activities,” he says.
On that point, just as his musical career appears ready for take off, DELS makes a point of his retirement plans. There won’t be another record deal after this one, it seems.
“I’ve always said I’m only going to do three albums,” he says. Really? “Yeah. There’s no timescale, just however long that takes. Then I’m going to do a master’s in graphic design and become a lecturer.
“Three albums and that’s it,” he insists. “There’s only so much someone can say. I’ll have done it by then.”
For the moment, though, enjoy his 300 words a minute and some genuinely exciting hip-hop. That it’s homegrown just adds to the appeal. Remember the name; and write it in capital letters.