Rapper DLO, real name Bradley Thomas, is one of Madison's strongest hip-hop voices. That's thanks in part to his work with dumate, the hip-hop band that released We Have the Technology in 2009. Thomas also pairs with producer Man Mantis as IceMantis and helps fellow dumate MC Laduma Nguyuza produce the James Baldwin-inspired Billie James Project.
But Thomas, 34, does some of his best work when he retreats alone to the basement of his east-side house. He released his first solo instrumental hip-hop album, Pempstrumentals, in 2009, sequencing mostly one-minute tracks that simulated the busy-minded flow of a J. Dilla or Madlib mix. Pempstrumentals has become a series, with music that's distinctly different from DLO's output as a rapper.
On the mike, DLO embodies a blunt masculinity but also explores the MC as an adult, rapping about being a provider and even helping kids with their math homework. Pempstrumentals, on the other hand, finds that grownup trying to unwind and explore a gentler side. Says DLO, "My rapping style and my producing style, it's almost like I'm bipolar."
DLO released two installments in 2011. Pempstrumentals III: The J&R Files honors the long history of hip-hop producers mining jazz music, while Pempstrumentals IV: Photosynthesis takes the series to its height so far, as Thomas gets bolder in his use of synth hooks and weaves samples into denser and fuller compositions. The fifth installment is due later this year, and dumate is also working on new tracks.
Thomas recently sat down at his compact home-recording setup to describe what's behind a few highlights from the last two Pempstrumentals.
"Mr. Morgan" (Pempstrumentals IV)
The elements: A strong kick-drum sound punches against the eerie lull of a melody from Showtime's Dexter.
DLO: "I would fall asleep after watching [Dexter] episodes, and I woke up in the middle of the night and I heard this.… It's weird with Dexter, because he's a serial killer who kills other serial killers. I felt bad about liking him, but I still like him. [I wanted a] creepy-boom-bap type of vibe."
"Daily Grind," "Off Work" (Pempstrumentals IV)
The elements: Perhaps the titles are a coincidence, but the former's wistful string hook and the latter's vocal sample - chopped up so it no longer forms a word, but undeniably forms a celebratory funk rhythm - capture the ups and downs of the working week.
DLO: "The album is kind of reflection of what I go through on a daily basis. [A vocal sample] doesn't even have to be a word.… Even if someone's singing the word 'cricket,' if it sounds cool, I'll chop it up."
"House" (Pempstrumentals IV)
The elements: A voice sings the word "house" over and over, to strangely calming effect.
DLO: "I was going for a straight-up neo-soul deal. I got that sound 'house,' I think, from the Persuasions, an a cappella band."
"Iceman Improv I" and "Iceman Improv 2" (Pempstrumentals III)
The elements: Thomas experimented with improvising synth lines and even threw together some samples over the track in an improvisational fashion, challenging himself to reassemble vocal, horn and keyboard sounds in something like real time.
DLO: "I had a main loop, and I had the bass and drums going, but everything else was played live. The keyboard was one rip through, just started playing it."
"Quiet Dawn" (Pempstrumentals III)
The elements: A series of piano samples glitter over keyboards and jazz guitar, giving this track an opulent feel.
DLO: "That was just kind of a feel-good track. I gave it to [Madison-connected MC] F. Stokes a while ago, because he liked that one. It has a very earthy, warm, vibe-y feel to it. [The piano] is a sample. I have a whole collection of samples that are not loops, they're just different instruments. They're maybe some chords, or Bobby Womack going 'hey!' When I make a beat, I like to make a collage."