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Company man
El-P goes with the flow

"Independent as fuck." Emblazoned on Company Flowís 1997 debut album, Funcrusher Plus, this stark slogan guided the underground rap group through their brief career. Company Flow have since disbanded, but co-founder El-P continues to follow the old credo ó as the honcho and house producer of his own label, Definitive Jux, heís carved a jagged, non-conformist path, releasing hip-hop that is abrasive, arty, and defiantly uncommercial. These days, heís an underground rap kingpin of sorts ("the Steve Albini of hip-hop," the Village Voice recently quipped), snatching up buzzed-about MCs like Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and Mr. Lif and signing on to produce major-label projects like Zack de la Rochaís solo debut.

Itís no surprise then, then El-Pís long-awaited solo album arrives with the weight and subtlety of an 18-wheeler. Corrosive and uncompromising, Fantastic Damage (Definitive Jux; out May 14) revels in lead-heavy beats, trashy punk sonics, and barreling asymmetrical rhymes. The title is fitting: itís a sonic shitstorm of fierce and hypnotic beauty.

El-P, who headlines downstairs at the Middle East this Tuesday, has been producing tracks since the mid í90s, but his technique has progressed over the past couple years. Fantastic Damage is stocked with phantasmagoric beats that drip from the speakers. The towering horrorcore of "Tuned Mass Damper," the psychedelic space rock of "Deep Space 9mm," the boiler-room hiss and moan of "Lazerface" ó itís all as vividly disturbing as a bad acid trip. For true rap-rock fusion, head straight to "Truancy," which sounds like Queens of the Stone Age jamming over the Bomb Squad suffixed with a misty-eyed, dawn-breaks-over-the-Rockies coda.

The building blocks of El-Pís sound are simple to pick out: early-í80s drum-machine-based rap (think Run-DMCís "Sucker MCs"), freaky í80s electro, Adrian Sherwoodís On-U-Sound dub-punk productions, Autechreís micro-managed glitch techno, Tony Iommi riffs, glossy new-age synths, Flipperís sludge grunge, the RZAís gothic hip-hop. But itís the way they crash together that will twist your brain into a knot.

El-P has become the underground version of Timbaland. His productions and theirs are meticulously arranged; each sound is placed perfectly within the mix, with obvious thought about the rhythm and texture of every chopped-up sample. El-P and Timbaland even draw from the same sonic grab bag of í80s electro sparkles and crystalline new-wave synths. But whereas Timbaland provoke bump íní grind in the clubs, El-P promotes closed-eyed freakouts in blunted basements. Itís still starkly digital, but using gritty, shit-encrusted sounds and rotten, worm-eaten tones, El-P tweaks electroís utopian futurism with a cynical dose of cyberpunk fatalism. Computer viruses, Internet porn, software monopolies ó theyíve all ruined the digital dream. The future is here, he seems to be saying ó and it sucks.

The downside to these incredible beats is that El-Pís rhymes become lost inside the tornado of sound. His über-verbose, syllable-crammed, off-beat flow isnít exactly charismatic to begin with ó he sounds as if he had a thesaurus and a couple of William Burroughs novels on his nightstand. Sample lyric: "Who wanna hold hands with this sick malnutrition of something we speak?/Dissolve into the syncopated fragments of violence pass the looseleaf/We can embrace on the business end of my face-first Joe Versus the Volcano suicide leap/Dance with the vinyl monster, devil in blue sky, blind with clean conscience." Uh, pass the Advil.

Back in Company Flow, El-P had the funkafied braggadocio of Bigg Jus to balance him out. On Fantastic Damage, his abstract expressionist spray bathes the entire canvas. Yes, itís literate and virtuoso, but itís also exhausting. Call it medicinal music: hip-hop thatís good for you but hard to swallow. Which too bad, because when he gets topical, the results are gripping. Helicopter whirs, napalm blasts refigured as snare hits, and a harrowing first-person lyric make "The Nang (Front, Bush, and Shit)" into a Vietnam portrait as conflicted as Full Metal Jacket. Even more impressive is "Stepfather Factory," an A.I. for emotionally bruised b-boys where El-P morphs into a shifty robot salesman. "Stepfather Factory" is a chilling product of his troubled home life ó he rhymed about his real-life abusive stepfather on Funcrusher Plusís "Last Good Sleep." His knack for dystopic landscapes and polysyllabic paragraphs has turned him into an indie-rap icon, but only when the literate wordsmith writes himself into the story does El-Pís verbal logic come into focus.

EL-P headlines downstairs at the Middle East with Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, and Vast this Tuesday, May 14. Call (617) 864-EAST.

Issue Date: May 9 - 16, 2002
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