If you listen to hip-hop, you’re listening to The Delfonics — a singing group from Philadelphia whose members are now in their 80s. When Lauryn Hill sings the hook in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” she’s lifting a couple lines from their 1972 song “Walk Right Up to the Sun.” Her group, The Fugees, reworked The Delfonics’ “Ready Or Not, Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” on The Score. Ghostface asked The Delfonics’ William Hart to sing backup on his debut album, in “After the Smoke Is Clear,” and years later he rhymed over the entirety of “La La (Means I Love You)” in a song called “Holla.” Biggie, Missy Elliott, Gang Starr and Nicki Minaj have sampled the group’s songs.
Tapping the veins of The Delfonics’ emotive ballads has made for intensely dramatic tracks. Hart sings most often in the thin air of his upper register and, when his voice has been paired with gruff rappers telling scary stories, the effect is unnerving and memorable. Adrian Younge Presents The Delfonics is 13 new songs written by producer Adrian Younge and William Hart and recorded with Younge’s band. Their cross-generational link results in songs that capture the relationship between The Delfonics’ music and hip-hop — songs that get under your skin and stay there.
Younge and Hart are holding fast to the qualities of The Delfonics’ music from 40 years ago — Hart’s piercing falsetto, the surf-guitar licks, the heavy pauses. But Younge in particular has also taken note of the power found in those sounds when rap producers stripped the flourishes away and roughed them up. Gone are the big orchestral openings. These are tight little songs with a fat bottom end, a bass line that can’t be ignored and enough skank to make felt the strains of reggae that bubble up in hip-hop.
Those choices ramp up the drama of the achingly sweet songs, which feel ripe for a soundtrack. There’s Bond-movie tension and dark-alley intrigue in the air, even though the lyrics are nostalgic and winsome. Remember, though, that Hart is in his 80s. He uses his voice in much the same way he used to, sending it over swooning arcs to land on the held note, but now Younge supports those flights with complementary stabs of brass. The sourness that was always in Hart’s tone is crystallized now. The album is poignant and ambitious, and feels more than anything else like a gift from Younge to Hart. It’s a gift Hart receives with elegance and joy.