Del the Funky Homosapien is not new to the world of computers or video games. In fact, it has been as much a part of his life as hip-hop.
In a 2017 interview with DJ Vlad, Del discussed meeting Sir Jinx, Ice Cube’s neighbor and future collaborator, prior to the creation of NWA in the mid-1980s: “Watching [Jinx], I learned how to use the SP-1200 [drum machine]…I was into computers and stuff too. So something like that, a drum machine, was hella basic for me to use because I was already working on computers.”
“I been computer literate since 5th or 6th grade,” he told Todd E. Jones in 2006.
The ’80s would also set the stage for one of Del’s most significant hobbies beyond music. When asked in 2015 about his all-time favorite video game console, Del responded, “It would probably have to be [1982’s] ColecoVision because that was just so advanced. All the video games that were in the arcade, that were raw, they had them on there. That was the first time you could really play arcade games that had the same graphics as the arcade.”
In 1998, Hieroglyphics transitioned from their major label careers into independent artists with the release of their first “family album,” 3rd Eye Vision.
The video begins with Del in the countryside, catching a ride in the back of a pickup truck as he raps away the time, making his way toward San Francisco. Once he arrives in the city, he hops out of the pickup and waves goodbye to the kids who accompanied him during his hitchhike.
Realizing he has time to kill while waiting for the ride to the recording studio, Del pulls out a Sega Nomad and begins playing games while rapping his verse.
The Nomad was a portable Sega Genesis console released in 1995 at the tail end of the platform’s life. Available in limited quantities and sold exclusively in North America, its retail price of $179 (around $350 in 2023, adjusted for inflation) was considered “a bit steep.” Its appearance in “At the Helm” was surprising; it signaled Del was serious about video games and proud enough to feature them in his video.
After the release of “At the Helm,” the individual artists of Hieroglyphics returned to their roots and began working on their respective indie solo debuts.
Del was up first, announcing the official name of his fourth album, Both Sides of the Brain, in January 1999 on Hieroglyphics Dot Com.
Anticipation for Del’s new album was high, but the single’s artwork would resonate especially with a specific segment of fans.
“Phoney Phranchise’s” cover art features a Jacob Rosenberg photograph of Del in his house, sinking into a chair and holding a Sega Dreamcast video game controller. Del’s name is written in the font popularized by Sega’s logo, representing the iconic video game company.
The cover is a love letter to video games, seemingly with no correlation to the song itself. Lyrically, “Phoney Phranchise” is a declaration of Del’s commitment to staying true to “real hip-hop” and authenticity. Although Del does yell, “Iki-mashō!” in the beginning of the song (“Let’s go!” translated from the Japanese he was studying at the time, which is the home of Sega), video games are never referenced in the song.
Video games then carried the stigma of being the domain of so-called nerds. While Sony’s PlayStation made headway in maturing the perception of video games with its sleek marketing aimed at young adults and underground club culture during the mid-1990s, video games remained a niche hobby worldwide in 1999, despite sales being on the rise.
Yet here was Del, seemingly ahead of the curve, proudly elevating gaming to such prominence as to feature it completely out of context on his debut cover artwork.
But wait a second! The Dreamcast wasn’t even slated to release in North America until September 1999. So how did Del even manage to possess one for a music single that debuted a whole month prior?
He had imported it from Japan where it was already available for sale, a staggering 10 months before it was released in any other territory… It turns out Del wasn’t just a video game fan; he was a hardcore gamer!
“I’ve got damn near every video game system from the last 20 years probably,” he told IGN in an April 2000 interview. “I’ve got an Atari 2600 at my mom’s house. I’ve got ColecoVision around somewhere, too.”
Welcome to the Next Level
While not all of Del’s fans were video gamers, for those that were, the “Phoney Phrancise” single cover served as a strong endorsement and validation of their hobby — their culture.
And it wasn’t just the single’s cover art that embraced gaming culture. Del leaned heavily into Japanese otaku-infused marketing, creating anime-inspired characters called Deltoid and Deltron-Z to promote the album. He sold T-shirts featuring these characters, drawn by Shing02, on the Hiero website. Notably, Deltron-Z served as the primary inspiration for the collaborative concept album Deltron 3030 with Dan the Automator, which debuted in 2000 following the release of Both Sides of the Brain.
Deltron 3030 would become a pop culture crossover hit for Del, with songs featured in TV shows such as CBS’ short-lived Robbery Homicide Division and Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek. As of June 2023, most of its songs have amassed millions of streams on Spotify. Notably, “Mastermind” has garnered 21 million streams, while “3030” has reached nearly 15 million.
Around the time of the release of “Phoney Phranchise,” Hieroglyphics Dot Com coincidentally slowly rolled out a new look for the website throughout the summer and fall of 1999, featuring a pixelated background reminiscent of early 2D video game art. Furthermore, a new website mascot debuted: Wobble Karnof Kaduk, also known as Hiero Monkey. He was an unofficial remixed version of the side character Data from the Capcom video game Mega Man Legends, sporting three eyes to symbolize the Hiero logo. (And there was a T-shirt for that as well!)
Suddenly, video game culture was at the forefront of how Del and Hiero were marketing themselves heading into an entirely new century: a complete confluence of nerdy subcultures.
Let Me Tell You About the Proto Culture
While Hiero head gamers were buzzing from the “Phoney Phranchise” cover art, word began to circulate on Hieroglyphics Dot Com’s message board, Hiero Hoopla, that Del had an entire song dedicated to video games on Both Sides of the Brain. The song was titled “Proto Culture,” a reference to the human race in the anime Macross, and it featured Del’s friend Khaos Unique on production and as Del’s rhyming counterpart.
In a December 1999 interview with video game website, Electronic Gaming Monthly / GameSpot, Del and Khaos Unique shared the origins of “Proto Culture:”
EGM: Tell me about “Proto Culture.”
Del: KU made the beat. Do you remember how we came up with it?
KU: We’ve been talking about doing a video game song forever. Del heard the beat and came up with the title. I sampled a video game to make the beat in the first place, [Capcom’s] Darkstalkers. It only made sense, I guess.
Del: Yeah, that’s what really set it off. I guess KU was experimenting with sampling off video games.
One of the most surprising aspects of “Proto Culture” was how current and plugged into gaming it was at that moment in time. Del and KU were not just rapping about “the glory days” of the NES and Atari (although there was that). They were rapping about video game consoles that were so new, they weren’t even available outside of Japan yet.
I hope they make part 2 for DreamcastDel – “Proto Culture”
‘Cause games I’ve seen in mags, you won’t believe they have
The Sega Dreamcast finally launched on 9/9/99 in North America. Backed by a massive (for the time) $100 million marketing blitz, it hit retail 10 months after its initial debut in Japan, generating great excitement among Sega fans. And even though he already had the Japanese version, that didn’t stop Del from eventually owning a North American unit as well.
Del Performs at the Sega Dreamcast Launch Party
Del, Khaos Unique, and Pep Love performed at the Sega Dreamcast launch party at Club Townsend in San Francisco the following day, on 9/10/99. After Del showed Sega the cover to “Phoney Phranchise” and played them “Proto Culture,” Sega inviting Del to perform and celebrate the Dreamcast launch was a no-brainer (pun intended).
I attended that night, as did Jacob Rosenberg, the original photographer of the “Phoney Phranchise” album cover, who was also a Hieroglyphics Dot Com contributor. In fact, we wrote a feature article together about our experience that night on Hieroglyphics Dot Com.
Jacob was once an employee at Sega of America in their game counselor department, “back in the DAYYYYYY.” If you ever called Sega’s 1-800 number in the early 1990’s, chances are high you may have received some gaming tips from Saucee Jake over the phone.
I’ve also written about the night on my personal blog, and posted several video performances I captured on my Hi8 camcorder:
Pep Love, of course, ripped it:
But arguably the highlight of the night was Del & KU’s performance of “Proto Culture:”
At the end of the night, then-Sega CEO, Peter Moore announced the 24 hour sales figure of “the biggest launch in entertainment history”: a whopping $97,904,618.09.
Truly an amazing night for Sega and its fans, Del included.
As Del entered the 21st century, he continued to lean heavily into the otaku and “nerd” culture he was so proud to be a part of.
He released Both Sides of the Brain in April 2000 to much fanfare. The aforementioned Deltron 3030 quickly followed it up a month later. There were also tracks like “Cyberpunks” that appeared on a compilation for Strength Magazine, further bolstering Del’s otaku-infused lyrical aesthetic, complete with sampled dialogue and music from the animes Zillion and Bubblegum Crisis.
Del spoke passionately about video games in many interviews of the era, so much so that it seemingly became a prerequisite on the part of the interviewer. We documented many of them on the Hiero Website.
Elsewhere on Hieroglyphics Dot Com, Del reviewed popular video games for Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn in streaming audio, including rare import titles such as Tobal 2 and Fighters Megamix.
Back in the real world, Del would go as far as incorporating gaming into his live shows. In the January 2000 issue of Gamers’ Republic (the same video game magazine Del shouted out in “Proto Culture”), the author writes about his experience at a show in Los Angeles:
As he does at many of his shows, Del paused for a moment to ask the audience what they thought about the Dreamcast by round of applause. The reception was mixed, but people obviously liked the system. Talking to Del later, he told us some crowds really diss the system—something he takes personally, though he understands reasons why some are jaded.Gamers’ Republic, issue 20, page 13
Time is Too Expensive
I had to make important life decisionsDel – “Proto Culture 2.0”
Will I study something to help me make a living
Or will I continue to spend time progressing
Analyze combos and strategies for Tekken
As the 2000s progressed, Del would begin to downplay and moderate the subject of video games in his interviews, possibly due to experiencing saturation after years of discussing it publicly. Instead, he began to speak often about learning music theory, the results of which were eagerly anticipated on his next album, Eleventh Hour.
I came to a point in my life where I was confused, and I really didn’t know how I was going to “make it.” I reached a crossroads, and I had witnessed many people in the music industry improving their craft while the music landscape was evolving. It made me feel somewhat obsolete and humbled. Immediately after, I began studying music theory. I realized that was the natural progression of what I was supposed to be doing.
I feel like if I released another album like Both Sides of the Brain, I’d be finished. I’m sure some people would still enjoy it, but that style was starting to grow stale. If I couldn’t update it, I would just become old news.Del, January 2003, MVREMIX
The choice proved controversial among Hiero fans, as well as arguably some of the group members themselves: it would be nearly a decade before we received the fruits of Del’s studies.
Del finally released Eleventh Hour in 2008. The eight-year gap between albums felt like a lifetime given the nonstop progression of hip-hop culture. Despite the hiatus, the album achieved similar rankings to past releases, peaking at number 23 on Billboard’s US Rap Chart and number 122 on the Billboard 200.
Although perhaps less often referenced in interviews, video games and “Otaku Del” never really went away. Deltron 3030 received a sequel, 13 years after its original release: 2013’s 2nd Event. This unexpected continuation of the Deltron saga surprised fans and brought renewed attention to Del’s conceptual, anime-inspired work.
In addition to the sequel, Deltron made a cameo in the season 3 finale of the Cartoon Network show Craig of the Creek, which aired in 2021. This appearance further solidified Del’s connection to the realm of geek and pop culture, capturing the interest of old and new fans alike.
And in 2020, Del released “Proto Culture 2.0,” a sequel to the song that arguably started it all. This fresh collaboration between Del and Philadelphia-born, self-proclaimed “nerdcore” artist Mega Ran brings a new twist to the now-classic original, serving as an homage to Del and the groundbreaking path he paved for artists.
Mega Ran expressed his enthusiasm for the project, stating in the video’s description on YouTube, “We both love video games and hip-hop equally, so this was a dope time to pay tribute.” He further acknowledged the impact of the original song, stating, “I think our subgenre [of video game-inspired hip-hop] wouldn’t exist without that song…’Proto Culture’ forever!'”
Game developers appreciated Del’s efforts to feature video games and gaming culture in his music. In fact, they appreciate those efforts so much that they reciprocated the love and started including Del’s music in their games.
In 1996, Monkey Do Productions, a small development team within publisher Electronic Arts, reached out to Hieroglyphics regarding the inclusion of their iconic 3-eyed logo and music in an upcoming video game for Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation.
The in-development title was called Shredfest and served as a follow-up to their previous release, 1994’s Road Rash, which was one of the few bonafide hits for the much-maligned 3DO console.
The new game would feature similar 3rd-person racing and combat gameplay mechanics. However, players would switch from riding motorcycles and mobbin’ Northern California streets to donning snowboards and bombin’ mountains. Hiero’s logo would appear on the bottom of snowboards and elsewhere, and their music would be a part of the game’s soundtrack.
Despite magazine articles showcasing some exciting progress, the game was ultimately canceled. Nevertheless, Shredfest would not be the last time video game developers and Del dabbled in a bit of cooperative play.
But perhaps no Del video game feature has been as popular as 2001’s Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 from developer Neversoft and publisher Activision. The game was part of a cultural phenomenon that began with the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater game in 1999. The third installment, featuring Del’s “If You Must” from his Both Sides of the Brain album, garnered rave reviews, and would go on to sell over 2 million units worldwide by 2006.
Del’s music continues to be featured in video games, including original works for games such as 2016’s Street Fighter V. For many fans, their initial exposure to Del’s music has been through games like Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, NBA 2K5, and numerous others, which have far greater exposure and deeper marketing pockets than a typical indie hip-hop album release.
Del continues to play the game, dropping the proverbial quarter into the arcade cabinet to reach the next level. In May 2023, he announced a new EP called DO DIS in partnership with Spy OPTIC, the makers of (get this) Del’s signature “Hotspot Gaming” glasses. The glasses are a sequel to a previous partnership in 2021 which featured Del in his house playing a Nintendo Switch while wearing a very impressive set of gaming goggles. Both glasses purport to “give hardcore gamers an edge” and advertise that “game play will never be the same.”
“I’m usually on PCs, though, so…That’s what I play video games on, is PCs” he updates us.
No matter what the hardware, though, Del keeps on gaming. Being a gamer and a Hiero fan means you like what Del likes. For Hiero fans who can appreciate a good Genesis vs. SNES comparison or engage in arguments about whether a RAM cartridge could have expanded the Saturn’s market, it makes their fandom even more meaningful to be so in tune with their favorite artist’s passion.
Who knows what future developments are just a controller’s cord length away?
[“Proto Culture”] changed my life. Back when I first heard it in 1999-2000, I had no idea that other black people loved video games as much as I did. Gaming culture was different back then – no online MMOs, not as many casual players. And when I heard one of my favorite MCs spit this, talking about E3, Rival Schools, Xenogears?! I don’t even know how to explain it. I would put it on after people would make fun of me for all that weirdo shit I was into, and it made me want to play more. I still do sometimes when I’m having a bad day. I wouldn’t be in the game industry today if it wasn’t for this song. Thanks Del and Khaos Unique.Reddit, r/Music
I think if you like video games and anime, you’ll like my album. I got a lot of references to stuff like that.– Del
Update, July 24, 2023: Added “Games Begin” chapter, detailing the Sega Nomad’s appearance in the “At the Helm” video.