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El-P - Fantastic Damage
(Definitive Jux)

When people look back at this moment in time for the underground hip-hop "Def Jux" produces, what will they call it? Will it have a name that evokes a time and place, or will it be more specific in regards to the type of music that is being produced?

Think of the term "Post-Punk". What on earth does post-punk mean? Does that mean that punk had this (un)official death and anything "Post-Punk" was all the little kiddies that came out immediately afterward? Or is it just used for people who hated saying New Wave? I personally hate saying both, but I think it does point out something pretty funny about music writing: reverence or hatred always produces a new term for something, a phenomenon, that just can't be explained. If it turns out to be something silly like Post-Punk, then so be it, as long as they've acknowledged that something different and new is being done.

Along with Def Jux labelmates like Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox, El-P (he produces and raps, too) is doing something quite different right now. It's not just underground, which has bore the load of remembering why hip-hop was created in the first place for some years now. It's a different set of rules, almost. It has a whole strange kind of progression that makes it truly distinct even among the underground resistance. To just read in some archive a few years from now "Indie Rap" wouldn't really show the whole picture.

So, Fantastic Damage, before we go any further, is a pretty special album. El-P really took his time with this one and goes to show that his production work on 2001's stunning Cold Vein wasn't a fluke. More like what's to come.

Some might've wondered if he could hold it all together without a crew, and appropriately so. El-P was part of Company Flow, who, depending on who you ask, was almost single-handedly responsible for revitalizing underground in the mid-90's. Efforts by newly solo artists always seem to be less than stellar. Phife Dawg, once part of the legendary Tribe Called Quest is the first one that springs to mind… almost everyone I ask about his new stuff just turns up their nose… at their nicest. For once great artists to put out something middling would already be a travesty, but they always seem to do so much… less. Maybe it's the strife that always seems to follow a break-up; great groups always seem to burn out brilliantly.

But El-P, who admits the final Company Flow show was probably his best show ever, seems to almost feed off the adversity. After leaving Rawkus following artistic and financial disputes he created a label to see out his further ideas. Maybe just one of those people who are only at their most creative during the most upheaval.

Fantastic Damage is dense. That's really the best way to put it, dense, and sounds like nothing else that has come out in recent memory. You'll play the album several times over just to get certain lines; to see if you've heard them correctly ("You wanna buy the farm, but the land ain't yours to own"). It walks a fine line between straight b-boy trash talking (especially on Dr. Hellno and the Praying Mantis) and harder, darker subjects (El-P seems to be focusing quite noticeably on family issues). All the while you'll be witness to some classic lines, like the ending chorus on Delorean: "Great Scott / Doc / We need to go back in time to when motherfuckers could rock / 88 miles per hours and take it back to block / Get McFly / And peel off before the lightning hits the clock".

Musically albums that have involved El-P's production have always had a kind of thick, heavy foundation; his sampling work draws from many influences. It does feel as if he's moved even further along than his previous work, which was already quite… interesting for its time. He's always held little regard for a simple rap/hook/rap/fade out structure and this album takes us further down that path. It's challenging and, again, it'll take a few listens to piece together where everything goes, but it's a rewarding task.

It's very simple, El-P, on his first try away from a crew and on his own label (before you cry foul: yes, I do know he's with Weathermen). In addition, he's helped to create what could almost be called a different era in hip-hop, seeing as much of what's considered underground now would've just been "good" a few years ago. This is more than another knock against the industry. It'll confuse, then grow on you, and then you won't listen to anything else for a while. Along with a few other brave hip-hop souls, it's breaking new ground.

So now we need a name… how 'bout "Prog Rap"? Ok, I'll go kill myself now.

--Maurice Downes

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[email protected] | June 2002 | Issue 27
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