City Paper is not for tourists
Perhaps more than any other MC today, El-P symbolizes what hiphop has lost in the surge to become marketable. El-P is everything hiphop’s popular face is not: honest, complex, and disturbing. His drums jackhammer tracks, keyboards and strings aim purposely for dissonance, and vocal samples are slowed and distorted. Over this broken collage, you get El-P rapid-firing lyrics, delivered off the beat and without regard for the rhyme scheme. Listening is about as pleasant as walking through a field of glass shards.
El-P (aka El Producto) began his recording career in the early ’90s and soon signed to then-maverick hiphop label Rawkus. Initially, the New Yorker was a member of the group Company Flow, which released its much-debated debut album, Funcrusher Plus, in 1997. The disc’s noise-ridden production helped make it almost unlistenable in places, and its disregard for corporate music standards led to lyrics that were as dense and as hard to read as sonic graffiti. “Now we can all become Lord of the Flies/When this industry sees its demise,” rapped El-P on “The Fire in Which You Burn.” “Hold it up and try to destruct you get zapped with dead eyes…/I’m known to slip arsenic mickies in talk soup then reform/With an unprecedented fierceness, display these powers of Storm.”
Funcrusher Plus was a rough, unrefined album, but it established Company Flow as the most potent practitioner of musical chaos in the hiphop realm since Public Enemy’s legendary Bomb Squad. A better example of the group’s power, however, was the monstrous “Patriotism,” the standout track on a very good compilation, 1999’s Soundbombing II. The cut featured El-P doing a battle rap as a personification of America, perhaps the best amalgam of social critique and braggadocio hiphop has ever produced: “Your bleeding-heart liberal drivel gets squashed…/You bitchy little dogs don’t even phase my basic policy/The bomb’s smarter, my Ronald Reagans crush Carter/With Bay of Pig tactics makin’ young men into martyrs.”
More than any other cut, “Patriotism” laid Company Flow’s claim to Public Enemy’s legacy. Amiri Baraka once wrote that to understand the state of black people at any moment in history, all you have to do is listen to their music. Certainly this was true in the era of Public Enemy, whose music reflected the mayhem black America endured in the Reaganomic ’80s. With Company Flow, El-P, a white MC, expanded Public Enemy’s disorderly protest to include the entire proletariat, black and white. From his vantage point, it was the world, not just black America, that had fallen into chaos.
El-P has subsequently broken with Company Flow, but his debut solo disc is well within the spirit of the group. Jarring, discordant, and virtually without melody, Fantastic Damage is a good album that should have been a lot better. Most of the production was handled by El-P, but he leaves hardly any room for himself. The vocals are mixed at such low levels that, in many cases, it’s hard to discern what a song is about. In hiphop, a track is a stage furnished with myriad sounds. Without a vocalist, the track may sound good, but the MC is the actor, giving life and meaning to the set. Unfortunately, for the majority of Fantastic Damage, El-P’s vocals are just another sound, another interesting aspect of the stage design.
To be sure, there are some serious headbangers here. “Lazerfaces’ Warning” is an awesome track, powered by its submerged-sounding drums, metal-on-metal samples, and pulsing electronics. And “Deep Space 9mm” works scattershot percussion and diamond-edge scratching, whereas “Dead Disnee” resurrects shades of old-school electro-funk. Indeed, the production throughout is clearly reminiscent of the late ’80s, but unlike so many underground acts who advocate traditionalism for its own sake, El-P advances the agenda. Fantastic Damage recalls Golden Age hiphop classics such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, but in many ways it is a step beyond both of them.
But it isn’t a better album than either, mainly because Fantastic Damage’s narrator spends most of his time lost in the mix. The title cut’s industrial-sized drums and jarring scratches are captivating, but they also completely envelop El-P’s speed-rapped vox: “Radio sputter dust…/You misinterpreted that Funcrushed shit…/You just don’t get it…/And terrible child actors…/And remember everything backwards.” Ditto for “Deep Space 9mm,” though this one very clearly stated dis to El-P’s old label bubbles up through the noise: “Signed to Rawkus?/I’d rather be mouthfucked by Nazis unconscious.”
Those few moments when you can wade through the morass and pull El-P’s lyrics out whole, they always emerge as bright, hard gems. “Stepfather Factory” is a fantasia about a corporate approach to single motherhood. “Mothers, how many times have you debated self-euthanasia tablets/For breakfast snacks when restlessness attacks/Seemingly at random?” El-P asks, answering his question with a modern-day modest proposal: “That’s why I’m gonna build a stepfather factory,” And “T.O.J.” is a remarkable take on the romantic ballad, dispensing with conventional professions of love but nonetheless rending your heart: “And you can tell that maybe time is out of joint, my love/So this is maybe just an SOS, shrapnel, an echo, a dead sentiment/Measurement across the nothing for no one, a wasted effort, a shrug.” Ultimately, though, these two tracks just make you wonder what else might be buried in Fantastic Damage’s impenetrable mix.
That said, Fantastic Damage is amazing simply because it expands the range of what good contemporary hiphop can sound like. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint is a classic, but it sounds nothing like an OutKast album. And neither sounds anything like Fantastic Damage. The sad thing about hiphop isn’t that Jay-Z and Jay-Z-biters are on the air—it’s that the music business has decided they’re all that will be on the air. And that leaves little room for an album as interestingly flawed as Fantastic Damage. CP