Corporate greed, runaway technology and economic disparity have finally caught up with the planet. It's the 31st Century, and Earth is a wasteland ruled by roving gangs. This dire science-fiction scenario plays out on the second album from Deltron 3030, "Event II" (Bulk), the decade-in-the-making sequel to the group's acclaimed, self-titled debut from 2000.
Deltron 3030 combines the talents of three significant musical figures from the last 20 years: Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, the producer who has worked with everyone from Gorillaz to Kool Keith in the "Dr. Octagon" project; Del the Funky Homosapien, the MC who emerged from Oakland hip-hop innovators Hieroglyphics and wrote lyrics for his cousin Ice Cube's group Da Lench Mob; and turntable composer Kid Koala.
Their paths first crossed in the late '90s when the Automator began working with Del and Koala in another project they dubbed Handsome Boy Modeling School.
"We have an outsider attitude toward music," Koala says of the artists' mutual affinity. "Dan and I started in classical music, but we loved hip-hop. We had this instant communication. Dan would say, 'I need this to sound like a rock skipping over water' here or 'this athletic turntable part' there, and I'll know what to do. He doesn't write parts, but he directs — he works like a film director. Projects with him are more cinematic."
That movies-of-the-mind approach suited Del when he created a character he called Deltron Zero and brought it to Nakamura for a possible project in the late '90s. "It was based on a video game, 'Mega Man X,' with a character who looked like a teenager instead of super-deformed robot who could leap buildings," Del says. "I wanted to do what Del does – battle-rap songs – but in a futuristic concept. I wrote some songs as Deltron Zero, but it wasn't a fully realized idea. Automator handed me a cassette tape full of beats, I took it home, and loved every one of them. I wrote lyrics, and when I came back with (the track) 'Virus.' He really liked it, because it was coming from a different angle, not a typical rap song."
"Virus" was a centerpiece of "Deltron 3030," and the album was well-received. The trio discussed a sequel that would go deeper than the first.
"The first one was a fun record to make – it was futuristic with a loose story," Nakamura says. "After we did that record, we realized that with science fiction it works best when you relate the present to your vision of the future. Koala and I worked on the music, and Del and I talked a lot about what we wanted to see happen in the lyrics. It turned out to be a big project."
Along the way, they were sidetracked by other projects – including the debut of Damon Albarn's futuristic cartoon project, Gorillaz, on which they all collaborated. Nakamura finally came up with some Deltron 3030 tracks and then trashed them in 2004-05. "I didn't think it would take this long," he says. "But records are snapshots of a particular time, and your opinion moves. You hear some music you made a few years ago and realize you're not feeling this anymore. The music for this album was done and redone, and it's probably better for it."
Koala met Del to riff on some musical and lyrical concepts. "I brought a stack of records to his hotel room – science-fiction records, comic-book records, books on record – and we were needle-dropping and listening to this stuff," the DJ says. "Del did a lot of work on this record, making it not just conceptual, but staying on topic within tracks, making it as cohesive as possible. On the first record there was a lot of visual content in his lyrics I could work off, but on this there are a lot of evocative points on ecology, politics, economics. It became this robot Western in my mind."
For Del, the research and preparation required to realize "Event II" was the equivalent of climbing a mountain, an ascent he is reluctant to make again.
"Most of the critical reviews from the first album were right when they said the lyrics were techno babble," he says. "I wanted to make it clear this time that I know what I'm doing. I wanted to give the fans who are looking close a reason to dig deep, because science-fiction fans take these things very seriously, as I found out. I'm not a blown-out fan of science fiction, but I did a lot of reading — lots of books. I read George Orwell, not '1984' and 'Animal Farm,' but some of his other writing on the subject. I had an album's worth of material, but it took a few years to get there. Once we recorded the vocals, it took only a couple weeks. With a guy like Dan, who is pretty ambitious, this is not sustainable in terms of workload and what I would get back from it. If we did another sequel, the hype would die down, it wouldn't be as good, and people would be thinking we were only doing it for the money."
That apparently once-in-a-career vision will be matched by a stage show that will include an orchestra when Deltron 3030 headlines House of Blues on Saturday. It's shaping up as a powerful, even beautiful presentation of what is essentially a bleak album that carries an implicit message about today's world.
"The theme is a very bleak view of the planet, or the galaxy, that Del had," Koala says. "The sad part about it is that it's not that far-fetched. If we go down any of these paths, economically, ecologically, this is all pretty realizable."
Nakamura agrees. "It's a reflection of what happened between 2000 and 2013 on our planet. Like the first record, it still comes down to the idea of greed, power and separation of people based on economic opportunity. Are things more dire than 2001? The way power and money are allocated in our society is still a major issue, and it probably will still be a major issue hundreds of years from now."
When: 11:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $27.50 (advance) and $30 (door); houseofblues.com
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).