El-P’s Definitive Jux label has made some serious headway over the past year, gaining enough momentum to inflate it from fledgling dream to full-blown phenomenon. After a strong run at the end of its first calendar year with the Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock records, 2002 saw Def Jux drop Bush-worthy bombs in the form of RJD2’s Dead Ringer and Mr. Lif’s I Phantom. Yet the heaviest waves were reserved for the impresario himself, as El-P unleashed his first post-Company Flow work upon the hip-hop world with the jawdropping beauty that was Fantastic Damage. Picking up exactly where he had left off with that groundbreaking trio’s demise, Fantastic Damage showcased both E-L-dash’s incomparable production talent (particularly for anyone who slept on Can Ox’s The Cold Vein) and his considerable skills as an MC. Of course, Co-Flow fans already knew and revered his gifts behind the boards and the mic, but the hype accumulated by the label’s growing reputation as the Motown of indie hip-hop only increased the record’s promise for impact.
These days, instrumental hip-hop albums are generally suspect. It seems like everybody and his cousin has put one out after The Instrumentalyst—the only problem being that not every extended family member is Dan The Automator. At best, they do offer some exposure for potentially overlooked DJ’s or producers; at worst, they give someone the chance for some private (or public) fun, karaoke-style. But let us not forget that El-P released an instrumental hip-hop album (Little Johnny From the Hospitul) with Company Flow that wasn’t just a “vocals surgically removed” version of the already hit record, but rather a fully conceived collection of instrumental tracks created by El-P and Mr. Len specifically for that project. In other words, the man has a little more cred than DJ Average or some other producer trying to milk his record for another dollar or two, and furthermore, it made perfect sense for him to release an instrumental version of the Cannibal Ox record, especially considering that Vast Aire and Vordul are an admittedly acquired taste as far as MC’s go.
Which brings us to Fandam Plus, the instrumental companion to Fantastic Damage. While it’s certainly no replacement for the original—a record justifiably present on any 2002 top-ten list that matters—it does offer some valuable insights into El-P’s production that aren’t readily apparent on the vocal version. Take “DeLorean” for example, where the absence of Ill Bill’s knuckleheaded guest verse about getting his dick sucked in a strip club (by a cokehead, no less!) shows how truly amazing the bridge’s breakbeat is without distraction. “Truancy” provides another test case, one in which the lack of El-P’s stream-of-consciousness wordflow reveals the beat as an illegitimate offspring of the Beastie Boys’ “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”. And then there’s “Accidents Don’t Happen”, which in instrumental form serves an even clearer reminder that El-P was incorporating Middle Eastern vibes into hip-hop (see Company Flow’s “The Fire in Which You Burn” from Funcrusher Plus) long before Missy Elliott and Timbaland made it fashionable.
Of course, just as Newton’s Law prescribes, for every bit of brilliance found on Fandam Plus there’s an equal and opposite reaction. “Deep Space 9mm”, one of the original record’s many highlights, sounds haphazard and clunky without El-P’s meticulous verse to hold it all together. Similarly, both the title cut and “TOJ” come off rather flat without the vocals that set up each track’s powerful dynamic shifts. But of all the instrumental mixes, “Dr. Hellno vs. the Praying Mantis” probably disappoints the most—it’s still a mighty fine slice of robofunk, but gets awfully monotonous without El-P’s hallucinatory sexcapade narrative.
As an added bonus, the second disc of Fandam Plus includes several appetite-whetting rarities that will most likely be the major selling point for Def Jukies. Of the remixed audio tracks, RJD2’s deconstruction of “Lazerface’s Warning” satisfies most deeply, particularly for turntable-deficient fans that missed out on the 12-inch where it originally appeared. RJD2 gives the cut a little more traditional hip-hop flavor, courtesy of a tastefully scratched intro, tightened-up beat and supremely hip vocal sample that he weaves into the very fabric of the mix. Throw in a CD-ROM component with complete lyrics to the original album (to further fuel those karaoke dreams, even though you can’t actually print out the damn things), the “hip-hop Taxi Driver” video for “Deep Space 9mm”, and some live performance footage (including a version of the rare Company Flow classic “Patriotism”, which no one in their left or right mind should go without hearing) and you’ve got the makings of a real collectors’ package.
Unfortunately, what relegates Fandam Plus to the status of mere curiosity piece is that it really is just a “vocals surgically removed” version of Fantastic Damage. After serving up a record like that, our man El-Producto doesn’t really need to prove his skills (surgical or otherwise), but if he had made the effort to remix some elements of the backing tracks or switch up the running order, he might’ve achieved something closer to a kidney transplant than a tonsillectomy.