Twelve years after the release of Company Flow’s only proper album, El-P, Mr. Len, and Bigg Jus reveal, in so many words, that they knew exactly what they had on their hands when Funcrusher Plus (1997) hit an unsuspecting public like a bat out of hell. They knew they were good, and that what they had to say was goddamn insightful, and if you kept buying the major labels’ snake oil without bothering to tune in to their message, well then fuck you very much. The record was designed to leave a mark, to be a rallying cry against societal ills, with a goal no less ambitious than the dismantling of the entire corporate infrastructure that enslaves us all. Beach Blanket Bingo this was not. Boasting is practically a strand of hip-hop’s DNA, but given the focused ferocity of what these MCs produced, their self-referential talk makes them seem less like big-headed braggarts and more like first degree murderers, planning and successfully carrying out a brutalizing mission. Which isn’t in any way to condemn what they’ve done. Take it from El: “When a Company Flow song comes on it’s like getting shot with a fucking nail gun. Everything else is like palm trees.”
What they didn’t know was how unanimously thrilling an experience getting shot with a nail gun turned out to be. Even CoFlow themselves were shocked at the record’s positive reception; it’s one thing to shout your piece from the top of a mountain and hope for the best, but it’s entirely another for millions to gather around and imbibe it, enraptured, as if they were hearing the last words on earth. In hindsight, though, the timing of Funcrusher Plus was right on the money. It’s easy to take for granted that hip-hop didn’t used to have the variety we now enjoy, and that huge swaths of the population felt alienated when Native Tongues-inspired rap declined and gangsta rose to prominence in the mid-’90s. Death Row Records had a corner on the market and hogged the spotlight, in fame and infamy alike, and there were precious few viable alternatives until 1996, with the release of two very different but extremely influential records: DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. The former was a head trip built wholly from samples, an unthinkably dazzling love letter to marginalized pop music set to the ever-reliable blunted beat. The latter seethed with horror movie backdrops and the queasy non-sequiturs of rapper Kool Keith’s twisted alter ego. Together, they groomed ready and willing listeners for experimental hip-hop’s bright future.
Funcrusher Plus shares the D.I.Y. spirit of Endtroducing and the dystopian creep of Dr. Octagonecologyst, but it’s unlikely that Company Flow took any cues from those records at all. When it arrived in 1997, it sounded like nothing else in existence. Hip-hop devotees from across the spectrum continue to swear by its aesthetic, as though it were a dogma and not a production technique. We all know it by now: bargain-basement beats produced on cheap equipment, sparsely laden scraps of melody (some may just be simple sound effects given over to pitch control), a near-complete absence of jazz licks and G-funk samples, and above the barren landscape, the MCs spitting strands of lingual barbed wire at 120 miles per hour. Not much there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop record since The Low End Theory that is at once this spare and this fully realized. The ample spaces between beats are meant to give the performers the chance to fire as many rounds as possible within a single breath, and if they’re not speaking, to allow you to cogitate the album’s gravitas and catch up to them.
Of course, it’s almost fruitless to try. Their flow is so fast and dexterous, it’s practically a graduate course on how to rap. Three-hundred consecutive listens wouldn’t even begin to crack it, and reading the lines on a lyrics sheet doesn’t really help: It’s a Harvard dissertation riddled with blood and bullet holes, where only parts of the exegesis come through, tarnished and surreal. You could post it on a wall and throw a dart at it blindfolded, and you can be pretty sure that whatever you hit will be close to brilliant: “Scratch the bed numbers off your girl’s back / In fact, black, the injection of my lethal status will ultimately break all beats down to lethal antimatter”; “I the Don Digital, slash, piranha morph / Alongside poor terrible surgeons who blur comic perspectives / And wonder how to get bent, that flaming Molotov shit / Unstoppable object hits unmovable wall and space split”. If their words elude full understanding at the micro level, the overarching messages come through clear as a bell. References to sex usually appear in the context of violence and abuse; the government is portrayed as nothing less than Big Brother and a puppet of corporate influence. Humans are both fucked and fucking. When the rappers reference themselves, they often do so with agitation and dissatisfaction, assuming their combat positions because they have to, not because they like it.
In that sense, Funcrusher Plus is actually a return to the political, observational hardcore rap that gangsta took cues from and expounded in its nascent stages. Public Enemy turning unbridled aggression into art; KRS-One calling himself “The Teacher” and assuming a gun-toting Malcolm X pose; N.W.A. documenting the most frightening hood in America and looking like the baddest mothers you never want to meet in an empty lot — it’s all here, in Company Flow’s streetwise attitude and their seeming deference to the infamous gang motto, “Blood in, blood out”. A few songs have some fun with this approach: “Vital Nerve” is simply a beat and three notes hammered out on a keyboard, and features the group’s most swaggering chorus: “Soon you’ll see / As I flow fluently to fre-quent-ly / Another MC will drop off the face of this earth, for what it’s worth / I’ve been the nastiest one since birth”. Sweet! On the other side of that coin is “The Fire in Which You Burn”, whose melody is just a scorching sitar snarling like a threat, its rhythm a series of staccato, clipped pounding noises. (Nail gun — right.) “Last Good Sleep”, coming in at the end of the record, pushes Funcrusher Plus into undeniable reality. Nothing sci-fi about it: This is El-P’s song about his mother getting beaten by her bastard husband, and a young El hiding out upstairs and crying. He’s even mixed lower than usual, as if he’s still trying to evade detection. I don’t blame him.
Scary shit in 1997, and it almost goes without saying that it’s even scarier in 2009. Funcrusher Plus had been out of print since 2006, prompting a struggle to get the rights back from Rawkus and an ugly condemnation of the label from El-P. Of course, his Definitive Jux is one of the premier hip-hop imprints around, and when it eventually won the rights, it put the record back on shelves in remastered form (and with three bonus tracks from ’93 and ’94 — curios, but inessential). It’s not clear exactly when the group decided to reissue the record, but the first time they reunited was in 2007, at the CMJ music festival in Brooklyn. At that time, the global economy was only beginning to quake and things hadn’t yet turned fatally south. Between the reunion and the release, then, Company Flow and the rest of us saw the world crumble, our portfolios disappear virtually overnight, and the prospect that greed would someday cripple us come true. One of the most revolting and eerily prescient tracks here is actually an interlude, “Help Wanted”, which stumbles through slime like a corrupted My Bloody Valentine. In it, we hear sampled, authoritarian voices broadcasting what the government wants to do to us. Example: “I am financial advisor to the President. To save the country’s economy, we must eliminate 4 million citizens in the next five years.” If that doesn’t grab your attention and freak you out a just a little, you’re probably in denial. When I played this song after not hearing it for quite a while, I actually had to shut it off because it was going to drive me crazy.
And yet, Funcrusher Plus doesn’t sound better than it already has 12 years on, at least from this chair. It seems to be that rare decade-plus reissue whose stature hasn’t really undergone any shifts — small or seismic — since its initial release. I consider that to be a testament to the standalone quality of this music, to the notion that Funcrusher Plus is both its own thing and a work of incredible artistry and vision, no matter how it’s sliced and who’s listening. Tempting though it may be to call it ‘timely,’ it’s worth noting the obvious fact that it was written when 2009 was merely a thought in people’s heads. These three dudes with the bomber jackets and the brains of MENSA members tapped into a universal truth, grabbed us by the collar, and tried to express what we’re only now beginning to realize: that if something doesn’t stop us — the businesses, the lobbies, the extortionate political bodies, the consumers, all of us who help a flawed system run like a Swiss watch — from hurtling in this direction, then just go ahead and stick a fork in us, because we’re as good as gone. The message felt appropriate then, and it feels appropriate now, and I can only believe that when folks play this record in 2196, it will put the fear of God into them, too.