With rapper/producer El-P gaining more exposure than ever with the recent success of his group Run the Jewels, it’s the perfect time to go back and look at the album that started his highly unorthodox hip-hop career. No, I’m not talking about his solo debut Fantastic Damage, I’m looking at before that. I’m referring to the album that he made along two other talented underground artists in the late 90s, that sounded unlike anything the genre had yet developed. The album in question is the group Company Flow’s 1997 LP, Funcrusher Plus.
For those not in the know, Company Flow was El-P’s relatively short-lived group, that also consisted of rapper/producer Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len. Recorded over a period of roughly three years, Funcrusher Plus was certainly a strange rap record for anyone to listen tocirca the late 1990s. It was abstract in design, and considerably left-field lyrics-wise for an album coming from hip-hop’s birth-place of New York. It ultimately proved too strange to be welcomed by the mainstream, but it’s lasting impact on the genre has been more long-term than most of the chart-toppers to come out in the same year. In many ways it picked up where other underground groups like Ultramagnetic MCs and Organized Konfusion left off, only now coming after the East Coast Hardcore movement which gave El-P and co the influence needed to make a more abrasive sound, and calculated sense of menace.
Company Flow made a record here that proved that hip-hop could be rugged and hard without giving into gangsta posturing. Acts of violence are usually brought up only as surreal metaphors, and there are virtually no drug references, yet the album still strikes a gut-punch at its targets, which are usually corporate. Before forming Company Flow, El-P had an arduous experience trying to get a solo deal through a record label, which clearly gave the rapper a bitter taste of the music industry. “Never again I let a record label trap me/Try to clap me, with paper work that leaves me empty/Gas me to diss me, I swear to God you’d have to kill me”. Not to say that the group is unaware of the grim realities of street life though, as the song “Last Good Sleep” details a horrifying case of domestic violence, but Company Flow was ultimately a group who found more sustenance in keeping their conflicts more personal.
Which brings us to the group’s other most prevalent target, which El-P refers to as “signed big budget mother f**kers” on the opening track. El-P and Bigg Juss are far more concerned with lyrical dominance over marketable appeal, and they show this in a way that leaves their competition in the dust more often than not. “I go all out and attack crabs and herbs that’s crazy wack/ We all can’t be be pimps, and we all can’t rap/You got to get your dollars on cause it’s on like that,” raps Bigg Juss on “8 Steps to Perfection” making any listener wonder why his rap career basically began and ended with this group. Yet El-P is absolutely the ringleader of this bizarre rap circus, as his witty and unpredictable rhymes are most aligned with the group’s image. “Negative thirty below wind chill factor/The counteraction is just a helpless action of the hapless flinching/My supersonics leave you mute like Maggie Simpson.”
Listening to Funcrusher Plus now, it’s revelatory that El-P had set up his principle aesthetics very early in his career. Barely in his 20s during the recording of the album, El-P still showed he was an anomaly for the genre both as a beat-maker and a rhymer. The futuristic sound-scape of Funcrusher Plus and the dense lyrics of Company Flow’s two emcees are certainly reminiscent of El-P’s ventures as both a solo artist and with Run the Jewels. Still though, the album captures a bygone era, as his beats are even more minimalist here then they were during his Def Jux period, and are more jazz influenced (you’re not likely to hear horn-based instrumentals on an El-P release anymore). The production is also notably more grainy. which reflects the era, and also makes El-P’s adaptable craft become more apparent. El-P is most admirably an artist who has had full control of his output, and this album demonstrates that he has brought his ethos into the modern era without sacrificing an iota of his signature style.
18 years after the album’s orginal release, Funcrusher Plus is a milestone for art-rap, perhaps only equaled in importance with Kool Keith’s Dr Octagonecologyst. A cerebral, aggressive and delicately produced masterwork, the album’s seminal value can be heard in artists like MF Doom, Atmosphere, and of course the numerous artists that populated El-P’s Def Jux label in the 2000s. It may take a few listens to fully digest, but those that value the artistic potential for hip-hop music will find one of their best cases here.