El-P: Fantastic Damage

[24 June 2002]

By Matt Eberhart

We’ve all been waiting for this one. Since El-P’s trio, Company Flow, broke up in March of 2000, we’ve all been sitting tight, praying, hoping, and most definitely fiending for another product of El-P’s genius.

When his young Def Jux label dropped Cannibal Ox’s Cold Vein last spring, we started to sweat. El-P produced the entire album with a vision of power, and tracks like “Battle for Asgard” and “Real Earth” showed off his absolute untouchability, his incredible skills that producers just aren’t supposed to have. These songs shredded our ears with the sounds of intergalactic fighting, while still persisting with some ultimate head-bopping hip-hop beats. Like I said, we started to sweat. And we continued to wait.

A little earlier this year, though, El-P finally whet our palettes with the single “Stepfather Factory” (also found on Fantastic Damage) a track he’s performed at nearly every one of his solo shows, a track we have all learned every word to, a track with a beat that has been sewn together so tightly and with such doctor-like precision that it seems inhuman. The satiric and techno-sadistic lyrics about abusive stepfathers—“Trained to be the best in / Made from the most easily available materials / And, uh, loosely inspected / Guaranteed to revolutionize / Perfectly realistic / And even someone who’s institutionally respected: / Robotic Relative”—the droning, distorted synths and samples, and the lashing vocals give chills to even the most hardened hip-hop fans.

Once this track was on vinyl, it was all over. We finally had the chance to taste what we had been craving for two whole years. And since Fantastic hit the streets in May, everyone has been feasting on beats and samples that come from the dirtiest, piss?stained concrete of Brooklyn, New York. The album is not only reminiscent of the whole history of hip-hop—including samples like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Scorpio”—but it’s also indelibly indebted to and clairvoyant of the future—warped, twisted, layered, and crunching titanium-alloys that somehow take the form of infinitely vast synths.

The whole album is gritty. It’s the kind of record that makes me feel dirty just thinking about it.

Like “The Fire in which You Burn”, one of the hottest and most nasty tracks on Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, the title track on Fantastic rips through even the weakest pair of $10 speakers with its schizo-breakbeat and blown?up samples, both of which are imbedded in a layer of dense fuzz. The first track on the album, “Fantastic Damage”, lays the groundwork for 70 minutes of El’s pioneering wave of hip-hop.

“Accidents Don’t Happen” bleeds two piercing tones—one high and fluctuating, the other very low and static—over a heavy demo-style beat. Cage and Camu Tao guest emcee their don’t-leave-the-house conspiracy theories, and by the time the track breaks off, a black cloud hangs low over your head.

The whole album reeks of the future of hip-hop, but “Blood”, which ends the album, shouts back at the Cold Vein production sound and will shakes your whole block. Its positive/negative attitude—“When I say ‘me’ I mean ‘I’ / Thinly veiled / When I say ‘you’ I mean ‘we’ / Will prevail / When I say ‘she’ I mean ‘God’ / Give us strength”—plus guests C-Rayz Walz and Mr. Lif kicking the chorus make the track the perfect end to a long-awaited album. It wraps everything that epitomizes the highs and lows of New York hip-hop into a tight four and a half minutes, and leaves you ready to follow C-Rayz’s pounding lead: “Do right, do right, do right, do right, do right”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elp-fantastic/