Let's ignore the reductive Asher Roth/Eminem comparisons for a minute. Anyone awed by the white rapper du jour's soporific "Asleep in the Bread Aisle" would be wise to listen to "Funcrusher Plus," the 1997 debut from Company Flow. The album is currently receiving the reissue treatment from indie-rap linchpins Definitive Jux.
Indeed, two years before "The Slim Shady LP" had the mainstream media myopically proclaiming Marshall Mathers' monopoly on maladjusted melanin-deficient rap, El-P set the benchmark for sardonic Caucasian critique.
Manhattan's merry pranksters turned sanctimonious would-be sages, the trio of El-Producto, Big Jus and Mr. Len were its Hells Angels -- turnstile-hopping, graffiti-bombing babies of the late '70s, raging against everything from dysfunctional families to corporate larceny to the decrepitude of hip-hop.
The initial release was on nascent, boom-backpack bigwigs Rawkus Records, and conventional logic rightfully holds "Funcrusher Plus" as the first great effort of the underground rap boom of the late 1990s. Years prior to to Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the first Company Flow 12-inches sound-bombed the subterranean with a singular ferociousness. As El-P described it, it hit like a "nail gun. Everything else is like palm trees."
During the Funcrusher Sessions of 1995-1996, the sub-genre hadn't yet split off toward self-righteous tributaries -- there were no arbitrary divides between underground and mainstream. The well-known DJ Premier spun Company Flow, and their pictures were up in the Source. Meanwhile, the Telecommunications Act was ensuring that they'd never see radio play, and label consolidation soon established a 38th parallel between haves and nots.
Along with De La Soul's "Stakes Is High" and DJ Shadow's "Why Hip-Hop Sucks in '96," "Funcrusher Plus" forms a triptych of the first important salvos aimed at the Cristal-sipping, Bentley-swerving commercial rappers of the Big Willie era. On "Vital Nerve," El-P declares that "when sales control stats, I place no faith in the majority."
On "8 Steps to Perfection," he declares discontent with rappers' "recycled metaphors" before dropping consecutive bars referencing the Incredible Hulk, Laura Ingalls and "Highway to Heaven." When not inveighing against industry entropy, he's railing against "every rhyme [becoming] the official new blueprint for wannabe writers."
Avant-garde rap had been around since Ramelzee, K Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, but in post-"Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" New York, the worship of hard-core rap has tended to supersede left-field experimentation. While Puff Daddy's deep-pocketed disco and soul samples were the prevailing trend, El-P conjured an apocalyptic minimalism -- the sublimated sound of clanging and cluttered train cars, city grime buried beneath cuticles, and the ghostly smoke of burning blunts. With Pentecostal fury, El-P and Big Jus strain to jamb dozens of ideas into every bar, approaching raps with carnivorous attack, bobbing and weaving with stutter-stop, off-beat cadence.
If there's a problem with "Funcrusher Plus," it's not in its execution, but rather in its apostles' interpretation. It's incalculable how many mediocre MCs heeded its words, but ignored its ideas. Thanks to their inimitable craft, El-P and Big Jus avoided overt stridency, their alienation transmuted into an eloquent evangelism.
While a lesser talent like Roth might carp about "how disgusting it is for black ... African rappers to talk about [their money], while the motherland is suffering," he'd be well-served to pick up a copy of "Funcrusher Plus" and absorb its obsession with originality, or its efficacy in lodging artful complaints. Company Flow may have sought affirmation by rejecting the status quo, but the indelible nature of their debut is a powerful testimony to the virtues of staying wide awake.
"Funcrusher Plus" (reissue)