Quarantining The Past: Company Flow’s ‘Funcrusher Plus’

    It’s been 15 years, and as time passes the influence of Funcrusher Plus gets deeper and deeper. Big Jus, Mr. Len, and El-P came out of frustration and failure– after El-P’s solo major-label deal fell apart–and they used that fuel to completely change the game on this record. It spawned El-P as a forceful rapper and producer, it jumpstarted Rawkus records–who would go on to release important records from the likes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli–and it eventually led El-P to his own (currently on hiatus) label, Definitive Jux, which has played underground-breaker for much of the past decade.

    Funcrusher Plus also stepped out of the shadow of gangsta rap to show us something new. There were outliers to that game — Wu-Tang Clan blew up the formula with Enter the 36 Chambers — but it wasn’t until the late-’90s that independent rap as we know it started to take shape. And though it wasn’t alone, Funcrusher Plus is the brightest beacon of light, the most original and far-reaching album to come out of the burgeoning hip-hop underground. There is no other record that sounds like it, not even any other record involving these players. If you need evidence (and a near-perfect record itself), check El-P’s new album, Cancer For Cure, to hear a record that gives you an entirely different side of El-P’s sound.

    And while merely to listen to–and a struggle to keep up with– Funcrusher Plus is interesting in its own right, as is its place as the “independent as fuck” rap record, what’s more interesting is the formula the group took to create it. They play a sneaky sleight of hand on this record, luring us out onto their limb with stark, East Coast beats, before cutting it off and letting us fall into the bizarro world that is Company Flow. Opener “Bad Touch Example” — that creepy intro aside — has the kind of thumping, wet-around-the-edges bass and rainy-day keys you’d expect from a RZA beat, even if Big Jus and El-P spit so quickly and verbosely they seem to fall out of flow (and yet never run out of breath). “8 Steps to Perfection” has shimmering guitar take the place of the keys, but it’s still all about spare drums and spacious bass, and the raps slow down just enough that you can make out Big Jus slaying everyone around him, spitting lines about how “MCs couldn’t hang if they was lynched by the Grand Dragon” and how they’re too busy “shoplifting at the rap store” to do anything original.

    So it goes for the first six songs or so. There’s the clean, funky banging of “Collude/Intrude,” the soulful guitar lines of “Blind”– which also uses the old-school move of Big Jus and El-P introducing each other before the song starts. There’s also the moody pulsing of “Silence” and the sample- and scratch-heavy “Legends.” Maybe the first half of the record sounds more in-line with the times because it’s taken from the band’s first EP, Funcrusher. But that album came out just a year before, and though we see things get weirder, there’s one moment — on “Collude/Intrude” — that we get a hint of the strangeness to come. El-Producto starts the song with an odd, central-command request to “please commence intro,” his voice treated to sound mechanical, robotic. It’s a quick moment, not even really part of the song, but it tells us everything about the paranoid, shadowy, sci-fi beats about to come.

    And sure enough, Funcrusher Plus slowly but surely starts pulling away. “Legends” may be the first true signpost, since those samples and scratches never smooth out, they skitter and stop, they crumple up and pile on each other, while El-P unleashes his thorniest rhyme of the album “simply for the sake of the derangement.” Later he starts “Population Control” with an a capella introduction that is nearly impossible to keep up with, and then lets it bleed into the horror-flick beat, where the keys and guitars are subbed out for creaking blips and the haunting sound of splashing water. Keys come back on the Juss-produced “Lune TNS,” but they’re sped up to sound jarringly alien. “Definitive” has pretty straight ahead scratching, but it’s distorted by effects to sound melted at the edges, like a tape getting eaten by the deck. By the time you get to late-album standouts like “Tragedy of War,” El-P and company are playing with time signatures themselves, dropping in extra cement-block-heavy snares to throw off the timing.

    Most of this is El-P’s production work, but it’d be a mistake to overlook Mr. Len’s clutch contributions here, especially on the moody, underwater grind of “Last Good Sleep,” the heaviest, strangest beat on the record. It’s the longest song here, and it trudges along deliberately, but it inverts nearly all the elements the album started with. There’s no comforting high-end, no plinking piano, no guitar hook. Instead, you get voices cut up to make unrecognizable noises that aren’t quite full words, you get clattering sounds buzzing up against suspenseful two-note horn blasts. Over it all, El-P twists the traditional storytelling side of hip-hop into something that may be personal but is also impressionistic and detail oriented. El-P is listening to parents fighting through his bedroom wall, and the confusion and frustration of it come through perfectly in the smudging of details, in the focus of the silhouette of his mother in the hallway. You get the whole story without being told. It’s not about bragging or gunplay, it’s much more personal than that. There’s plenty of hip-hop swagger on Funcrusher Plus, but it’s these behind-closed-doors moments, the moments of confession, where they move away from the street and towards introspection that it — once again, on another level — sets itself apart.

    Company Flow were ready to trailblaze on Funcrusher Plus, but what makes it such a lasting, crucial album, is how it recognizes and honors the best, grimiest parts of hip-hop, before twisting them into something new, before blowing them up into pieces and reordering those pieces into strange new rap mosaics. It’s an album that knows you can’t forget the past, that today is just something that builds on yesterday, and hopefully leaves the weak shit behind. It’s an album that recognizes its own history too — meshing the Funcrusher EP in with the new material — and names itself as such. It’s the past plus. And now, with their only true full-length record, Company Flow has left us with a document that is 15 years in the past but won’t fade away. It helped shape much of what independent rap has come. So in the real world, it might be 2012, but in the world of indie rap, some of us are (or should be) living in a different time: 1997-Plus.