The wayback machine

DLRN's take on hip-hop is '80s-retro yet also unmistakably modern

DLRN’s Sean La Marr gears up for time travel.

DLRN’s Sean La Marr gears up for time travel.


Hop into the DeLorean time machine to four years ago, when Sean La Marr was just another up-and-coming hip-hop artist in Sacramento. Shoot the machine back over to present day, and the lyricist can be found hanging out at the Midtown cafe Temple Coffee, discussing his new album with hip-hop group, DLRN (which, yes, is derived from “DeLorean”).

The group, featuring La Marr with producer Jon Reyes, is promoting its new album, Awakenings. Naming the group after a Back to the Future reference, La Marr says, is part of the pair’s attention to detail and symbolism.

“When we decided to name the group DLRN, I was kind of over [the] boom-bap [style],” La Marr explains. “I was like, ’Let’s do something different.’ So we started experimenting with darker tones and different kinds of soundscapes, and a lot of it was very synth-heavy. That’s why we named it DLRN: [The sound] is kind of ’80s-ish, and nothing’s more iconic [of] the ’80s in my mind than Back to the Future.”

Reyes pushes the idea even further.

“This is our third eight-track album,” Reyes adds. “So it’s 88.8, which is the speed needed for time travel.”

Clever, right?

Reyes describes the group’s sound as experimental, likening it to moody electro artists, such as Little Dragon and James Blake, with more traditional hip-hop influences such as the Roots, Mos Def and J Dilla.

“It’s taking really progressive music and making it hip-hop. To create dope stuff, you’ve got to be malleable,” Reyes says.

Watch DLRN’s artsy, minimalist video for its single “Good Company,” which features the pair and vocalist Iman Malika subtly emoting against artistic-yet-clean production effects, and you’ll quickly pick up on the band’s thoughtful aesthetic.

Watch the pair perform the song live, however, and you’ll get treated to an energized, dancey love jam. The group’s ability to be silly, sexy and fun is well-matched by the depth, wit and thought behind its lyrics and musical disposition.

Their ease of collaboration goes way back. The two met as teenagers and did time in a band together; after that group disbanded, they stayed in touch.

These days, they say, their collaboration feels easy and natural.

Sure, La Marr is the voice and Reyes is the beat man, but the crossover is vast.

“We collaborate a lot in the studio, whether it be from just the recording process to the post-recording to the way songs are formatted,” La Marr says. “But [sometimes] there comes a point in the [production] language—like when it comes to the real, real mixing—where it’s kind of like beyond me, so I just kind of sit back, like, ’Yeah, that sounds good. Yeah, I like that.’”

That work ethic reflects the hypertechnological age in which they produce music. With La Marr living in Sacramento and Reyes in San Francisco, the partners are no strangers to working via digital correspondence.

“Being collaborative is part of our Internet generation,” Reyes says. “Our whole process initially was just sending files over the computer, and we still kind of do that.”

The album hardly sounds as if it were stitched together through the Web, though.

Awakenings opens with “Homecoming,” a sparkly track that initially reflects upon the jaded frustration of waiting for dreams “with expiration dates” and lowered expectations, then replaces it with a proposal of resilience. “Drive,” meanwhile, is a cruiseworthy track with a bouncy synth fit for the movie Drive’s ’80s-centric soundtrack.

On “Fear & Loathing,” nightlife and personal demons meet against a hook (sung by local singer-songwriter Steve Nader) inspired by a Kurt Vonnegut quote: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing ever hurt at all.”

La Marr’s penchant for literary nods is rooted in a desire to keep the music timeless.

“A lot of our references aren’t contemporary. In hip-hop, we get a lot of punch lines that are very current. But I like to make them about things that have lasted, that will always be relevant because the art or the thing I’m referencing is of importance, not just, ’This is hot right now,’” he says.

“And that’s kind of the concept behind DLRN. We want to make music that lasts, music that weathers time,” La Marr says.