Kieran Dicken’s debut album is dark, playful and completely British.


If you didn’t know already, there’s a new boy on the grime scene and in his fold are a crack team of the hottest musicians around at the moment. DELS, the pseudonym of 27-year-old rapper Kieren Dickens – so called because of a high school mix up with a boy called Delroy, leading to the nickname that caught on with such force even his mum uses it – has teamed up with modish producers Joe Goddard, co-founder of electropop juggernauts Hot Chip, musician Kwes and experi-popstrel Micachu.

He follows in the school of slow-rhyming (think more Roots Manuva than Giggs) but where his contemporaries plough a dub-oriented furrow, Dickens takes the back alleys of Clubland, using an abundance of dirty synth lines and juxtaposing beats to create gritty, gloom-laden hip hop that’s somewhat akin to Kano, who in fact worked with Hot Chip’s other founder Alexis Taylor on his last record, ‘Method to the Maadness’.

Saying that, however, lyrically the two couldn’t be more different. Where Kano raps about sexual conquests, rudeboys and the sleazy side of showbiz, Dickens spits rhymes about the darkest realities and escaping to dream worlds, which may stem from his love of melancholic rockers Joy Division. “I’m obsessed with Ian Curtis,” he states when citing his influences, among which also fall Andre 3000, MF Doom and Biggie Smalls. “The way that he wrote his music – I think there’s something quite beautiful in that. It’s morbid as well and I’m quite a morbid person.”

Death is something that’s always on Dickens’ mind as he has constant night-terrors about it. “I’m always dreaming about death. I think it’s because I’ve been going through a rough patch recently, but I can’t help it, every night I’m getting killed in some way or I’m about to be killed, or I’ve already died and I’m watching myself dead on the floor. I don’t know what all these things mean but it’s quite weird and it’s really disturbing because it’s fucking up my sleep pattern. I’m waking up every night, sweating my arse off.”

‘GOB’, his debut album that was released on May 2, treks a macabre route too, which is a leap away from his single ‘Lazy’ that was recorded with Goddard and released as part of independent London label Moshi Moshi’s ‘Singles Compilation, Vol. 1’ back in early 2008. The track was a fist-pumping number full of odd beats and quick wit, but Dickens was apprehensive about becoming a “club act.”

That’s what I was conscious of,” he tells me. “When I made ‘Lazy’ a lot of people thought my live show was going to be really intense, but I’m into different types of music and I wanted to reflect those influences. I wanted it to be almost like a rollercoaster – the highs and the lows of life, I guess. There’re a couple of upbeat tunes on ‘GOB’, but I just wanted to show depth because some of the songs, some of the things I’m talking about, like ‘Droogs’, couldn’t be up-tempo. It’s heavy shit, so I felt like it needed to reflect what I was talking about.”

The song ‘Droogs’ is a minimal, lingering track towards the end of the LP that details the sexual abuse his friend suffered in her childhood – something that she really didn’t want him to write about. “But I just couldn’t not do it,” Dickens professes. “I heard this beat that was sent to me and I just thought that would be perfect for what I really wanna talk about. It’s something that happens a lot, every day, under the surface and I’m trying to shed light on that scenario. I’m not trying to unite the world with this song or anything like that, but it’s a window into someone’s life, you know?

“This is what happens to women and the way I wrote it was like a movie, a visual. The first line is ‘If you pan to the left…’ and the way I saw it was like reality TV, but what if it was in someone’s house? A real life scenario. So I imagined all these different cameras focusing on my friend’s house and that’s where I got the inspiration from. She liked [the song], but it really upset her because of what I was saying.”

Having grown up in Ipswich, Dickens went on to study graphic design at Kingston University – he had applied to do illustration, but they advised him against it – where he acquired video making and artistry skills, which is why so much of his work is written on a visual level. “I’m inspired by visuals as much as I am sounds,” he explains. “I’m always thinking about how the sounds can be represented in a visual format and I can’t get that out of my brain, because I’m like a droid – it’s been drummed into my head for the last three years at uni.”

Some of the directors that Dickens looks to for inspiration include David Lynch, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott and artists such as Yoshitomo Nara and Hayao Miyazaki. “I’m in to storytelling a lot, you know?” he offers up plainly, almost as a throwaway comment. “Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ always stuck out in my mind because it’s quite a simple story, but with the pictures you can lend your own meaning to them and make up your own story. I was always obsessed with stories as a kid, always reading and drawing pictures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Drawing them obsessively until I didn’t need a visual any more – I could literally draw it without even watching it,” he laughs and leans back into the sofa that he’s been perched on the end of until now, finally starting to relax.

It’s clear from the way he rings his fingers and shifts on the spot that Dickens isn’t yet comfortable – or jaded for that matter – by this whole ‘fame’ business. “The idea of random strangers just coming up to me and knowing who I am freaks me out a little bit,” he admits. After all, it was only a year ago that he was picked up by the Coldcut lads’ Ninja Tune imprint Big Dada, which led to a three-album deal – perfectly suited to the Suffolk boy who has already told us he doesn’t want to be a 30-year-old rapper. “What have I got? Three years? So three albums and I’m gone,” he proclaims.

But before we touch on the end, let’s go back to the beginning. “I’ve always been obsessed with words, always writing down my thoughts in the back of my exercise books,” says Dickens of his childhood. “One of my friends read my lyrics and said I should rap, but I was really shy as a teenager, so the idea of being on stage and performing in front of people was such a daunting prospect.” It was one that he overcame with age and five mates on stage, though. “I used to be in this group called The Alliance back in Ipswich,” he continues. “We used to make garage music, rapping over fast tempos, which then progressed when I went to university when I was 21 and felt like I had more to say. With garage there’s a limit to what you can say because it’s so quick, but a hip hop tempo fitted me perfectly because I could project what I really wanted to say.”

Goddard didn’t come onto the scene until Dickens was at a graphic design work placement in 2006. “I met them all on Myspace,” he mentions when explaining how he came to know his band of producers. “I messaged Joe after I heard the Hot Chip album ‘The Warning’ and told him I really liked it and that I could tell he was inspired by some garage music because of the rhythms and the drum patterns. He messaged me back saying, ‘Yeah you’re right. One of my biggest inspirations was Wookie’ and he said, ‘I love your music, I really want to work with a rapper’, and I thought woah, this must be a joke. I was sweating my arse off in this office, typing away to Joe on Myspace… I had to log out, turn my computer off and turn it back on because I thought it wasn’t real.”

As it is, Goddard only features on three songs on ‘GOB’, despite being the only producer to work in the same room with Dickens. Kwes, who produced the majority of the album, “loves to work on his own,” Dickens clarifies. “So he’ll send me something, I’ll record over it and then he’ll go away and put this bit together.” With Micachu he didn’t want to tamper with the two tracks she sent him. “Her beat-making is really raw and all over the place, so I left it how the demo was because I didn’t want it to be too polished.”

In regards to the concept of ‘GOB’, Dickens describes it as “the space between fantasy and reality,” commenting that he and Goddard didn’t think there was enough fantasy in hip hop. “I wanted to explore that space,” he continues, “that’s how I ended up writing ‘Shapeshift’, which is written from a child’s perspective about me turning into any old thing I want. But I didn’t want people to not be able to relate to it – I didn’t want it to become too self-indulgent – so I had one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy world.

“In ‘Violina [a song about his ex-girlfriend], I was writing it like a musical. So, I talk about the ally cats and the street rats – they’re singing in the alleyway,” he makes clear. “And I called it ‘GOB’ because it’s a very British word that’s quite fitting for a hip hop record. It means ‘to spit’ and ‘mouth’ as well. But I also quite like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory idea of the Ever-Lasting Gobstopper. I wanted to make music that had longevity because a lot of hip hop that’s out there today is quite throwaway. I wanted to make an album that was good for something and would last longer. Plus, I wanted to forge a British sound with this album. I wanted it to sound like it came from the UK.”

We’re beginning to catch on to the excitable imagination of Dickens, much like that of a child’s, that he can’t make sense of unless he can work undisturbed – something the night time lends itself well to. “I have to be really tired to write my best music,” he tries to illustrate for us. “Really awkward thoughts start pouring out after midnight and it’s such an effort to write something, but then suddenly you get this burst of inspiration.

“The hardest thing about writing when you’re really tired is you think everything’s shit, but maybe you listen back to the recording the next day and think, ‘Oh actually, it’s quite good.’ I think it’s because that’s when I feel most relaxed. When my brain’s too awake I’m thinking about other stuff that I need to be getting on with, everyday things, but when I’m really tired, I really do feel like it’s just me on my own. When everyone’s asleep you don’t get distracted by anything else.”

This is one technique he’ll doubtless be taking to approach his sophomore LP, but one thing’s for sure, it won’t be in his hometown. “I really want to write my next album in another city, maybe Tokyo or New York, because I think just being in a different environment will inspire me. I can’t write another album in Ipswich,” he sighs, pausing for thought. “Yeah, I’m sure, I just can’t write in Ipswich again. So we’ll see what happens, maybe I’ll go to New York and make some music up there. I really want to work with Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio. He said he’s a fan of my music, so I think we’re going to do something in the future. Maybe he’ll be on my next album, who knows?” And on that tempting note, he leaves us with a hundred new questions, but we’ll have to await album number two. Until then, ‘GOB’ is going on repeat to tide us over.

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