El-P - Fantastic Damage
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
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
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
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.