Seize the moment
Overcoming fallen record deals and career limbo, hip-hop duo DLRN goes solo for its long-awaited new project
Sacramento doesn’t have a reputation for hip-hop that’s big-name, alt and experimental, yet here we are in 2018. Hobo Johnson’s suddenly an international star. Just behind him, the R&B-electro genius of The Philharmonik. Others locally, like Sparks Across Darkness and Saevon, are pushing rap music’s boundaries.
Topping that list should be DLRN (pronounced “DeLorean”), who’ve been around longer than everyone mentioned, and yet for the past decade, have struggled to take its music to that next level. That moment could finally be here, as the pair, Sean LaMarr and Jon Reyes, prepare to release their extremely long-awaited EP The Seven Year Itch on September 28.
LaMarr and Reyes have been noticeably quiet lately, dealing with an endless barrage of industry fallout and near-misses. They haven’t played a single show in 2018. The Seven Year Itch was recorded literally three years ago. The longer it’s been in limbo, the more they’ve lost momentum.
“Honestly, this project … has been the most difficult,” LaMarr told SN&R. “It’s like the lost project of DLRN.”
On the bright side: it’s worth the wait. The album finds DLRN at its creative peak, which is saying a lot considering that they’ve released four excellent alt-hip-hop EPs in the past. For The Seven Year Itch, they teamed up with Terra Lopez, lead singer of Rituals of Mine, an electronic duo who are signed to Warner Bros. Records and are considered gods in Sacramento. They also collaborated with Omar Gonzalez-Barajas (drums) and Zach Hake (keys) of PRVLGS, both virtuosos who every artist in town tries to hire as their backing band.
“It feels like a chapter in some regards that we wanted to close, but it also feels like an evolution of where we started getting into more live instrumentation with PRVLGS and working with Terra,” LaMarr said. “It felt like something refreshing. Then dealing with bullshit on the industry side—it sapped us both of our creative energy.”
“Humbled a thousand times”
You can hear excitement and optimism on the record, despite there being a complex mixture of pain and joy. With just four vulnerable and contemplative songs, LaMarr raps and digs into issues swirling around his adult life, like marital struggles, getting stuck in the grind and pondering whether he’s still in love with music.
Reyes spins jazzy sci-fi beats that mutate, drip and gently spiral around the songs. The notes add a weird and primal layer to LaMarr’s poet-on-the-corner conversational verses.
Lopez sings prominently on three of the tracks, fitting the vibe with hypnotic vocals that are toned down compared to what Rituals’ fans are used to hearing from her, which are completely cathartic vocal releases.
The excitement you can hear on the EP has alot to do with the hope DLRN felt during the recording process. When the LaMarr, Reyes and Lopez went to Los Angeles to record in 2015, DLRN had a deal with start-up label Anigma. Earlier that year, Anigma re-released a deluxe version of DLRN’s 2014 EP Neon Noir, their first release under a label (a different label called Waaga). It didn’t perform well, but after DLRN and Anigma talked it out, everyone seemed to be on the same page about making the next one count. The group was trying a bunch of new things out, like collaborating with Lopez, working with live instruments, and experimenting with a surreal, Lost In Space sound.
After some overdubs with PRVLGS and mixes back in NorCal, the record was finished by the summer of 2016, and Anigma inexplicitly dropped them.
DLRN were hoping for a 2016 release. The timing seemed right. Underground alternative artists like Chance the Rapper, Run the Jewels and Danny Brown were suddenly drawing huge crowds. And Rituals of Mine had just penned its deal with Warner Bros., which could have likely given the project a bigger boost.
But they didn’t give up.
“I was very optimistic,” LaMarr says. “I don’t even remember the moment that we created it. I guess that’s how we work. We’ll have a moment, [we’ll] grind out something and 80 percent is just figuring out how and why we’re putting it out. I think we’ve humbled ourselves a thousand times.”
Sac hip-hop rises
After being dropped by a label, it seemed like 2017 dropped a huge gift right into DLRN’s lap. Justin Nordon, an old friend and prominent local promoter, approached them about being the first act on his new label, BLDBLK, an imprint of Sacramento’s Artery Records, owned by Sony. This would potentially give them an even bigger reach than Anigma. Nordon saw this as the beginning of a long relationship, with a full-length likely to follow. By June 2017, it became official.
“They’re the most underrated hip-hop act potentially on the West Coast,” Nordon said a year ago. “Their product is very well thought out—a very polished brand. That’s something unique that comes together when you bring Sean and Jon. You’re left with a product that is different.”
Unfortunately, by fall 2017, Artery Records got sold to Warner Bros., effectively dissolving BLDBLK. DLRN’s release was left in the dust. Part of what took so long for the group to put the record out this year was waiting to see if Warner Bros., or any other related entity, still wanted the album. Even as much as a month ago, it seemed like there could have been some interest.
Now, LaMarr kind of laughs it off, saying that the group has bad luck with labels.
But, at least they know they can depend on themselves: They’re releasing The Seven Year Itch independently.
“In today’s climate, it feels like you’re shooting yourself in the foot to hold on to music,” LaMarr said. “If we can’t get the right situation, it’s better that we have something in the world than not.”
2018 may turn out to be an even better time to release the still-cutting-edge The Seven Year Itch. Afterall, Hobo Johnson was virtually unknown in Sacramento two years ago, when DLRN were first planning on releasing it.
“It’s a pretty cool time to be an artist from Sacramento that makes quality music,” LaMarr says. “I feel like this project might play better now than when we created it. This came out before a lot of stuff that I’ve been really inspired by, and it stands up to what’s happening right now. That is just a testament that the moment we captured was pretty cool, and if we find another like it, we just got to keep pushing. At this point, we create moments. Hopefully when we release it, the moment matches the climate.