As Beyoncé’s management team will attest, keeping an album under wraps has its advantages. Granted, Lowell-based producer D-Tension doesn’t have a slew of big-budget music videos and an exclusive iTunes deal for his forthcoming LP “D-Tension’s Secret Project,” but he has his own reasons for exercising discretion: In recording the first non-hip-hop project of his long career, he simply wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I had been thinking about making a retro '80s rock album,” he says on the phone from his home in Lowell, “but the thing was I didn’t know if it was going to be good. I usually work with samples and an MPC, and this project is live instruments and synthesizers, and what if it sucks? I didn’t tell anyone about it in case it didn’t work out. The secret was that I was taking this leap and risk with my career, but I didn’t tell anyone until the record was done.”
The record release party, which takes place March 22 at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, means that D-Tension’s long-planned foray into rock, an endearing and earnest tribute to the 1980s New Wave sound, is ready for its big reveal.
The live performance will be the culmination of the production’s many challenges, but also of its author’s rediscovery of rock. Since launching his career in the late '90s, D-Tension has been a mainstay of New England underground hip-hop, releasing multiple solo albums while producing cuts for Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, and Termanology. Yet his adolescent years were spent listening to such artists as Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, the Cure, and Thomas Dolby.
“It was like punk rock with synthesizers,” he recalls. “It’s boys wearing makeup, it’s pink and purple hair, it’s neon clothing and checkerboard sneakers that don’t lace up. It was all new and out there for the time. I embraced it and it spoke to me the same way that punk rock and hip-hop did. I just saw it as an extension of that.”
He adds, “It was Top 40 radio but it was still very rebellious. It was funny to me that adults were just so upset about people like Boy George. I had a Boy George poster on my wall and my minister came to my house to rebuke the spirit of homosexuality from my body.”
Upon joining WFNX as a radio personality in 2003, D-Tension was introduced to bands such as Muse and Interpol that shared his sincere appreciation for New Wave aesthetics. Inspired by the retro revival, he spent years developing his instrumental skills in preparation for “Secret Project,” where he wrote and performed all 11 songs, playing keytar, synthesizer, bass, and guitar.
‘I had been thinking about making a retro ’80s rock album. . . . I didn’t tell anyone about it in case it didn’t work out. The secret was that I was taking this leap and risk with my career, but I didn’t tell anyone until the record was done.’
To complete his vision, D-Tension sent prerecorded backing tracks to collaborators like Aaron Perrino (of Dear Leader) and Jason Dunn (of the Luxury), who independently crafted their respective track’s melodies and lyrics, except in a few cases.
“The most challenging thing was that the whole arrangement was already fixed,” says Ad Frank of Ad Frank & the Fast Easy Women, who wrote and performed “Can You Stand It” and will be part of the band for the record-release show. “I had to write around a very tight mathematical formula, which I’ve never done before. The thematic tone of the album was very much up my alley, but there are definitely some people on the record like Kevin Stevenson and Kerri-Ann Richard who were totally outside of their element and came through in spades.”
Yet “Secret Project” retains the spirit of its chief creator throughout while spotlighting the talents of its contributors. “My Van Tonight,” one of several songs with lyrics by D-Tension, has the dirty, tongue-in-cheek wit of his hip-hop material, now flipped for Apple Betty’s Richard to sing from a female perspective over layers of bright, bouncing synth. Perrino’s lover’s angst bubbles under the rock guitars of “Heartbreak of the Century,” while the xylophone on “Gatekeepers” echoes the Cure’s “Close to Me” and provides the backdrop for Alex Stern (of the Sterns) to launch a few broadsides against local music scene snobbery.
Though D-Tension already has ambitious plans for his next solo hip-hop record, he hopes to build on the “Secret Project” experience by producing a full-length rock record with a single artist sometime in the near future. He calls it a natural progression, which means maybe it won’t need the added mystery the second time around.
“I didn’t have a moment when I knew it was good,” he says. “I had to take the leap when I felt I was ready. When Ad Frank came in and recorded the song ‘Can You Stand It?’ and didn’t make fun of it and respected it and gave me a great song, I could say to myself, this might work.”
After teasing it in the video for “Sunday Morning,” Moe Pope dropped the complete version of “Cocaine,” a track from his collaboration with producer The Arcitype titled “STL GLD,” on his Soundcloud page earlier this week. . . . Artist Alvin Acoma Colon will host his second Wu-Tang-themed art show at Paris Street Gallery (101 Paris St., Everett) Saturday from 7-11 p.m. . . . Slaine headlines the Middle East Downstairs Sunday, where he may tease a few tracks from his forthcoming album, “The King of Everything Else,” with Rite Hook, Maroney, and Apathy also on the bill.