MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
EL-P: Fantastic Damage
Definitive Jux, 2002
It’s been a while now since the hip-hop duo Run The Jewels, comprised of El-P, short for “El Producto,” and Killer Mike, burst onto the national scene and began their steady climb to what, in this day and age, pretty much amounts to ‘household name’ status, selling millions of records worldwide, having songs appear in movie trailers and building quite a social media following, so that their respective opinions broadcasted over Twitter hold considerable cultural weight. Killer Mike even has his own socially-conscious docu-series on Netflix. However, both are what I would call hip-hop “lifers,” mainstays of the culture whose respective resumes would be the envy of millions of lesser artists. And yet they remain vitally creative.
This is El-P’s solo debut LP, created during and after the breakup of his legendary former underground hip-hop group, Company Flow, whose only full-length album, “Funcrusher Plus” is itself an underground classic. I loved that record and I love Run The Jewels, but this album, after all these years, is still my favorite El-P record. It is almost indescribable: it is dense futuristic psyche-funk, a brutally heavy aural assault, not unlike the best of Public Enemy’s production, with El’s trademark creativity in stratospheric stride, full of squealing synthesizer blurbles and overdriven space-station industrial, chrome-shiny piston beats, a sonic revolution of androids assembling a hip-hop mosaic, that for all its artfulness and its origins in the NYC underground, still possesses enough swinging energy in its head-knocking boom-bap to completely claim superiority over thousands of backpacker nasal nerd-rappers who forgot that hip-hop started at parties where people danced. (Check out “Lazerface’s Warning” a Philip K. Disco jam, to see what I mean.)
The lyrics are on some serious “other level”shit: sci-fi chaotic psychological post-industrial mayhem, referencing Philip K Dick and George Orwell, (the movie version of “1984” is even sampled) a post-apocalyptic future of skyscraper rubble and human bones. (This was recorded right after 9/11) Some of the lyrics are simply otherworldly in the best possible way. “Who wanna hold hands with this sicko malnutritionist soaked in newspeak?/ Dissolve into the syncopated fragments of vinyl splashed in loose leaf,” (Deep Space 9mm.) The title track, which opens the album with one of the heaviest, baddest intro-beats ever, is the closest thing to a Captain Beefheart-style hip-hop that I’ve ever heard. Sample lyric: “After house of the dead heads fled its just the city moans/ malignant kid in it with sentence of sinister conferred/ magna-funk asbestos, the best at closed quarters shit/ some will gravitate to the falcon and burn in wordlessness.” Dope. Heavy…
I’ve hung on to the CD I have like rare treasure since I bought it in 2002- having balked at the $30 vinyl pricetag back then. Until this year, it was almost impossible to find- vinyl copies regularly go for $200, and it wasn’t on any streaming platforms. Thankfully, Fat Possum has changed that this year, releasing it for streaming platforms, with a plan to re-issue vinyl and CDs later. (I can’t wait, but Covid has definitely delayed some of this plan.)
This album is a masterpiece. One of the best records of the last twenty years, and totally appropriate for this moment in time. If you like Run The Jewels, check this out. Not quite as comic but still buoyant with humor. Gallows humor.