Historically instrumental hip-hop albums have been geared toward DJ's. While instrumental versions of nearly every hip-hop recording exist, they are generally on vinyl and not marketed to the average hip-hop fan. El-P's Definitive Jux label, currently one of the best hip-hop labels around (or perhaps one of the best independent labels, period), has been trying to change that by releasing instrumental versions of some of their major releases. The first was Cannibal Oxstrumentals, an instrumental version of Cannibal Ox's urban sci-fi epic The Cold Vein. Now it's Fan Dam Plus, a 2-disc set which has an instrumental version of El-P's Fantastic Damage album on one disc and some bonus tracks and CD-ROM material on the second.
So far Definitive Jux's instrumental albums have a lot to do with showcasing El-P as producer, as he produced the tracks for both the Cannibal Ox album and his own album. The reason they succeed has to do with both his production skills and with the style of hip-hop contained on the two albums. Fantastic Damage is a brilliant portrait of paranoia and confusion which uses both the music and El-P's rapid, word-heavy rhyming style to generate those feelings. The mood of Fantastic Damage is so hectic and busy that an instrumental version is almost needed to fully appreciate El-P's production. Disc 1 of Fan Dam Plus is this a welcome complement to Fantastic Damage. It feels less like a half-complete version of the album than a tool that helps give you a more complete understanding of it. Taking way helps to give.
But while Fan Dam Plus complements Fantastic Damage, it also stands on its own as an album. That fact is a high complement to El-P, a mark of producer as composer. Where with even many of my favorite hip-hop albums, I can't imagine sitting through an instrumental version without longing to hear the words, Fan Dam works as an instrumental soundscape. Even without El-P's heady rhymes, the album is a multi-dimensional journey that's filled with subtle touches. Evoking both the far reaches of space and the grittiest city streets, the music takes tough, sometimes fuzzy beats and sets them with funk grooves and an array of odd and interesting sounds. While the beats are compact and rugged, it's not so much the beats themselves as much as what El-P does with them that sets his tracks apart. He uses disparate parts to set up a dark, compelling mood better than most of his peers.
The "Plus" side of Fan Dam Plus has much more enticing features than those found on most computer-enhanced albums. The creative low-budget video for "Deep Space 9mm" is both creepy and mysterious, with El-P wandering around a NYC where everyone he sees aims a space-age-looking gun at him, as images of war and terror flicker on omnipresent TV screens. Besides that video, there's a solid amount of live performance footage, with great performances of two album tracks ("Deep Space 9mm" and "Stepfather Factory") and "Patriotism" by El-P's former group Company Flow. And while being able to scroll through the album's lyrics might seem like a slight bonus -- after all, plenty of albums include printed lyrics already -- it's actually a nice extra touch, given both El-P's general reluctance to print his lyrics and the density of the lyrics themselves, which make his songs hard to decipher at times. Disc 2 also includes an RJD2 remix of "Lazerfaces' Warning" that throws some classic soul sounds onto the track and "Dead Weathermen", essentially the Weathermen and El-P rhyming over the instrumental for Fan Dam's "Dead Disnee." All in all, when the video footage is taken into account, this disc is itself worth the price of the album.
The release of FanDam Plus is an indication that Definitive Jux is thriving from El-P's business sense -- giving fans what they want -- as much as from the knack he has for releasing innovative music. It goes without saying thatFan Dam Plus isn't as essential a buy as Fantastic Damage, but it's still fascinating.