Wednesday, January 30, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #013 - 'funcrusher plus' by company flow (s02e01)

There's a tendency among music historians and critics to say that after certain moments, nothing would ever be the same - and in the 1990s, many would agree there were two concrete moments where this would be the closest to being true. The first was in 1991 with the release of Nevermind by Nirvana, an album that would redefine rock music in a fundamental way. The second seemed more gradual but its ripple effects would shake the foundations of a different genre: the twin deaths of two of the greatest hip-hop legends of the era, Tupac Shakur in September of 1996, and The Notorious B.I.G. in March of 1997. It was a moment that shook gangsta rap to its core, and in the mainstream would prompt a hard shift towards brighter, glitzier subject matter on both coasts.

But true historians of that era would tell you it's never that simple. You could easily make the argument that Puff Daddy was laying the foundation in the last months of 1996 with Ma$e for a more polished and opulent sound, coupled with the signing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 that would enable radio companies to buy up local stations and deliver nationally syndicated programs, which bucked against the regionality and feuds of the time. And that's not ignore the pushback building against the monopolistic presence of gangsta rap in the mid-90s, which had marginalized pop rap and the more conscious artists who had seen their momentum short-circuited after 93. But in 1997, with pop rap quickly gaining ascendancy, there was no incentive for national radio conglomerates to play the conscious, forward-thinking, or outright weird hip-hop that was starting to bubble forth again, especially given its instrumental palette seemed stuck in the past on a surface listen. And the rap industry began enforcing a divide, where major label success and hits were deemed worthy of critical acclaim while smaller, underground shops were disdained for not having the same maximalist appeal and sound and budget. And while there would be outliers like DMX and Eminem to keep the anger alive, to some extent they served a different audience and purpose, and even at the time rap publications like The Source would not always give them their due. 

But we're not even talking about them. No, for this year we're staying strictly underground - only indie hip-hop for 2019, many albums of which would garner critical acclaim from those in the know, but rarely accumulate the same praise or commercial success as even a few of them could have seen but a few years earlier. Marginalized as backpackers, weirdos, hipsters, and freaks, they would nevertheless keep a flame of lyrical and experimental hip-hop burning against an industry that would ignore them at best and spurn them at worst... and yet you could make the argument their influence lingers far more powerfully to this day. And there's really only one place where we can start: that's right, folks, for 2019 we're talking late-90s/early-to-mid 2000s underground hip-hop and we have to start with Funcrusher Plus by Company Flow - and this is Resonators!

So in comparison with the year I spent on hardcore punk in Resonators, 2019 is going to be a little different if only because my exposure to the genre is very different. With hardcore punk I didn't have the same depth and knowledge of not only the classic albums, but the larger discographies of the artists behind them. With underground hip-hop of the late 90s and early 2000s, not only am I more familiar, I've reviewed albums from these acts before, I've seen how they've aged and grown, and in this case specifically, we're dealing with one of the first acts in which rapper-producer El-P was ever associated, and while his voice was immediately distinctive on this album, he's changed both in production and rapping style in the past twenty years. And that is important to place in context, especially as El-P's brand of production has become so widely adopted and influential in the underground - which for me places this project in another context because not only am I familiar with El-P's work nowadays, I'm also familiar with the underground producers who built their templates on him. 

And this is also where the conversation gets a little complicated, because thanks to the hard division that became entrenched between mainstream and underground hip-hop, you can't avoid a certain reactionary tinge in the underground, especially compared to the expensive, flashy veneer that Puff was pushing in New York in '97. And this matters because it was indicative of the approach across the board in the composition of an album like this - not only did Company Flow have the freedom to be anti-commercial, they relished it, and thus the line between a lack of polish as a debut and moves taken deliberately to alienate an audience gets blurry. Of course, they were signed to Rawkus Records and people tend to forget that along with co-CEOs Brian Brater and Jarret Myer there was James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and ample evidence that this album might not be allowed to get that revolutionary, but that's just conspiracy and I don't hold that against a 22-year-old El-P or his fellow group members, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len. But that's a big observation with Funcrusher Plus if you're coming to it just familiar with the magnetic tightness and catchiness that is Run The Jewels - namely that it's not tight nor particularly catchy, nor is it trying to be. You're here most for an overwritten barsfest against complicated, groundbreaking production for the time, and there are numerous lines on this album highlighting how this just might not be for you if you're not willing to accept hard shifts in vocal fidelity or oblique interludes or in the case of '89.9 Detrimental' a shift to an early freestyle that leads right into the next track. And that's not even talking about content - hell, a song like 'Lune TNS' is filled with references to the New York graffiti scene and if you don't catch a few clues to it you'll be hopelessly lost. 

And to this album's credit, for as much as so much of the bottom-level dystopian rhetoric can still feel paranoid and cluttered, a blend of sci-fi deep cuts, conspiratorial rambling, and nerd punk rage, it's hard to ignore how much El-P and Bigg Jus were ahead of their time in setting that scene. The most striking example comes from production and sample mixing alone with 'Help Wanted' with the extensive pull from the Alejandro Jodorowsky film The Holy Mountain, but that same undercurrent of darkness gives even some of the goofier bars some real punch, especially on 'Tragedy In War (In III Parts)'. And that makes it clear that for as much as they want to showcase real talent with the good spirit of competition, there's a bitterness and rage at a system that would suppress real creative lyricism and production in favour of empty flash - they might not be trying to be commercial, but there used to be space on the radio for everyone, including even them. Now granted, you could make the argument that given how often this album eventually circles back to some pretty explicit sexual references that would never get play for as juvenile and crass as they were that the anger might feel misplaced - they've got their underground lane, why should they care - but even then the mainstream rap industry was assembling the mechanism to make Eminem one of the biggest stars in the world with the same content, and he'd been on those Rawkus compilations as well. And more to the point, as El-P highlights on 'Vital Nerve', not only does he disregard the diluting authority of said industry, and when the sales control the pecking order, he has no faith in the majority - and I've always agreed with this, as popularity rarely if ever correlates to real quality! 

And if we're talking about overstuffed lyrical tightness and creativity, it's hard to ignore just how much wit is crammed into even single songs, and just when you think it's all just wordplay, El-P drops the haunted and painfully graphic 'Last Good Kings', describing his mother's abuse at the hands of his stepfather and the mingled horror and guilt he felt in the aftermath. It's a moment of shocking rawness that he was hesitant to include, but in terms of humanizing the artists here, it's one of the most powerful moments, especially against the oily wiriness of the synth horns and the fragmented sample of 'till the day I die'. And I'd be remiss to not mention the production: the warping psychedelic keen of the guitars on '8 Steps To Perfection', the scratching stuttering off the bass and slightly muffled guitar on 'Blind', the anime sample that opens up the bassy organs on 'Silence', the watery tinkle against the choppy scratches of 'Lune TNS', the wiry jagged density of 'Tragedy of War', the alien futurism of the tones swirling around 'Info Kill II', and the sheer heaviness of the scratches that can shake your speakers against the middle-eastern guitar chords on 'The Fire In Which You Burn'. Hell, even against the elegant keys and bass where it sounds like Bigg Jus is shouting through a lo-fi radio halfway across the room, it connects!

But now we need to talk about the elephant in the room, a slice of unexpected but unsurprising ugliness that slides across the first half of the album that I called out when I made Resonators for hardcore punk and I'm not about to ignore here. Namely, that for as playful and immature as this project can be, there's a bad tendency to circle to homophobic slurs and or even lines on 'Legends' such as 'homosexual MCs receive five mics', delivered with the sort of disdain that is absolutely a bad look nowadays - hell, even to the mainstream it was probably even a bad look then! Now let me provide some context here: like hardcore in the 80s, underground hip-hop in the late 90s was overwhelmingly male-dominated, and in the sustained late-90s backlash to 'political correctness culture', gay slurs became prevalent again as an easy way to presumably take shots at 'mainstream culture' that was only beginning to accept them. And yet while I do doubt there was genuine homophobia from this duo even then, it was the sort of cheap shots that not only have aged really badly - and might explain why El-P hasn't been in a hurry to reissue this album in the past decade - but also reflect the sort of ignorance that's not even close to transgressive or rebellious, cheap attempts at macho posturing sadly too common even in nerdy spaces that I might understand were a product of the time, but can make certain songs nowadays tough to stomach.

But as a whole... look, Funcrusher Plus is not for everyone and I'm not certain that it entirely sticks the landing, especially given where El-P would take his sound in later years - dated questions aside, it's flabby and seems to treat actual hooks and song structure with disdain, relying on sheer bars and wordplay, absolutely the sort of project made by a group of guys who have no incentive to be commercial and every incentive to bar the mainstream to death and back, and if you're willing to give it time, it's absolutely the sort of project that hits harder the further in you get. And for me, I'm thinking a solid 8/10, absolutely recommended as a solid point for our exploration of late 90s underground hip-hop. It only gets harder from here folks, strap in!

No comments:

Post a Comment