Happy 15th Anniversary to El-P’s Fantastic Damage, originally released May 14, 2002.
El-P is a visionary. As a rapper/producer/label executive, he helped create a unique hip-hop scene and movement. It might not have been a scene and movement that was universally accessible, but it was one that he helped create on his own terms, and it filled a need for a style of hip-hop that was lacking when it was released. And its legacy holds strong over a decade later.
Jaime “El-P” Meline started on his path to becoming an indie rap icon as one-third of Company Flow, along with Big Juss and DJ Mr. Len. The seminal group first gained major notoriety with their Funcrusher EP (1996) and then the full-length album Funcrusher Plus (1997). The crew released Funcrusher Plus on Rawkus Records, a label synonymous with the NY indie hip-hop scene in the mid to late ’90s. But their record deal was structured so that they’d always own their master tapes. The group grew disillusioned with the label, and eventually left. Soon after, the group officially broke up and all three members struck out on their own.
El-P always had ambitions to start his own label. He and long-time manager Amaechi Uzoigwe had created Official Recordings and Ozone Management during the Company Flow days. Furthermore, El-P had built connections throughout the NYC underground scene and throughout the world through constant touring and promotion. So in 2001, El-P founded Def Jux Records to be a haven for himself and similarly like-minded and progressive hip-hop artists. His initial roster included Harlem-bred duo Cannibal Ox, Boston hip-hop pioneer Mr. Lif, and New Yorker Aesop Rock.
El spent 2001 building the label and supporting its releases, including Can Ox’s Cold Vein (one of the best albums of the ’00s), Lif’s pair of EPs Enters the Colossus (2000) and Emergency Rations (2002), and Aesop’s Labor Days album (2001). By 2002, Definitive Jux (“Def” became “Definitive” due to threat of lawsuit by Def Jam’s Russell Simmons) had already made a name for itself at the forefront of creative hip-hop. And El decided the time was right to release his first proper solo album, Fantastic Damage, which arrived 15 years ago on May 14, 2002.
El-P has said he’s always envisioned himself as a member of group rather than a solo artist. Yet he’s always been very adept at channeling his thoughts, emotions, and vision in a singular way across his solo albums. Fantastic Damage was his first major shot at creating music as a largely self-contained unit, and it was a triumphant success.
Like all of his albums, both solo and group, it is not easy listening. It often sounds harsh and heavy. El-P often rhymes in a rapid-fire staccato, drenched in regional slang and obscure pop culture references. And the subject matter of his albums is always challenging. El-P loves to rap about despair, hopelessness, pain, abandonment, and the destruction of hopes and dreams. Fantastic Damage is all of these things. However, it is also oddly optimistic at times, in its own unorthodox way. And, like all of his music, Fantastic Damage honors hip-hop’s past, creating music that was centered around banging drum tracks and hard rhymes, while striving to create something new and groundbreaking.
El-P is, if nothing else, a New Yorker at his core. A good deal of his discography, especially his solo work, is dedicated to his ruminations on the city of his birth. Fantastic Damage often serves as a chronicle of the city that he grew up in and its evolution into its post-Giuliani, pre-September 11th state.
“Squeegee Man Shooting” is a vivid and chaotic description of Manhattan and Brooklyn circa-1985, an era where the aforementioned Squeegee Men hustled for loose change, the Decepticons street gang roamed the streets and subway train, and graffiti adorned seemingly every wall. Over a beat that evokes Run-DMC’s “Rock Box,” El reminisces on catching hell for rocking fake Jordans to school, checking Kung-Fu flick double features in the then much grungier Times Square, and egging houses while trick or treating. He also reflects on how that time and place were intrinsic to forming his love for music: “I took a name, too, and so it begun / And wrote raps in my room sipping Capri Suns / In fact, studied the cadences of Kool Moe Dee and Rick / Put my name into their rhymes and then practiced it / Put my brain pattern on fly and I mastered it / Dad played jazz when he drank, it’s no accident / Hands on the piano and make my foot tap to it / Different path, same love, dad, thanks for passing it.”
But El does much more than just reminisce about the past on Fantastic Damage. He’s not interested in nostalgia for its own sake. Multiple songs show how his past has influenced and ultimately informed his present and future. “Truancy” builds upon these themes, further elucidating how his experiences as a New York teen made him the man that he became. Here El raps a mega-long singular verse from the perspective of a teenager coming of age in Brooklyn, cutting class and roaming the borough’s streets. Over guitar stabs, spare cares, and a conga-like drum track, he recalls his expulsion from two schools and “trying to decide where [he] fits.” He reflects upon how hip-hop and hanging out with the “bad apples” were more intrinsic to his education than his teachers, as episodes of beat-boxing courtesy of the Fat Boys’ Buffy and freestyling on the subway transformed him into a hard-working, aspiring entrepreneur and label head. He explains his decision to start Definitive Jux with, “Rawkus was like, ‘we’re gonna take this label to another level’ / I’m gonna take this level to another label / Anti-pop composer, sonically robbing the nation/ When I strap on a blue cardigan we can be neighbors.”
El also looks to the past for inspiration on “Delorean,” his raucous collaboration with fellow Def Jukie Aesop Rock. In its rawest form, the track’s message is “Hip-Hop needs to return to its essence.” But instead of attacking the usual suspects—a.k.a. Shiny Suit Rap and Gun Talk hip-hop—Aesop and El trade bars decrying music that lacks staying power, fake revolutionaries, and “advanced” rappers that grew up in a forest. With obvious invocation of Back to the Future, replete with shouts of “Great Scott!!!,” El pledges “to go back in back in time to when motherfuckas could rock,” with Aesop Rock joining him to ride in the proverbial Delorean, armed with a stolen can of Rust-Oleum in the backseat. The pair promise to hit “88 miles per hour, bring it back to the block / Peel the fuck out before the lightning hits the clock,” pedal to the floorboard, be gone.
“Delorean” also features a protracted scratch interlude/exhibition by DJ Abilities, flexing his ample skills on the 1’s and 2’s. The Minnesota-based turntablist handles all of the scratches on the album, making his presence felt on nearly every track. The DJ contributing as an active member of the album’s musical equation is another component that makes the album feel genuine in its honoring of hip-hop’s foundation.
Fantastic Damage features its share of hard and heavy boom-bap based hip-hop, though filtered through El-P’s hectic lyrical and production stylings. “Deep Space 9MM,” the album’s second single, is a fast-paced, sparse track, where El-P spits stream of consciousness rhymes, again reflecting on his New York upbringing, surrounded by “Metal worms took turns showing off colors and shit.” He takes a shot at his former record label, proclaiming, “Signed to Rawkus? / I'd rather be mouth fucked by Nazis, unconscious.” “Dead Disnee” is a frenzied track that features El-P lyrically laying waste to the Disney multiverse in a violent haze, expertly switching up his rhyme patterns from stanza to stanza.
Fantastic Damage is often bleak in its worldview. The chaotic “The Nang, the Front, the Bush, and Shit” invokes the Vietnam War with its title, with El-P playing both the roles of the wide-eyed teenager looking for new opportunities in his life and the zealous army recruiter, promising the kid the opportunity to see the world and get an education. In the second part of the track, surrounded by furious energy and pulsing drums and keys, El transforms into the overwhelmed soldier, shocked at how deadly and unforgiving combat can be, desperately looking for means to escape, hoping to “get onto the roof in time to hang from the leg of this last chopper.” The track draws parallels between the late ’60/’70s conflict with the burgeoning hostilities in the Middle East that the United States was participating in at the time; Fantastic Damage was released in the midst of the U.S.’s war with Afghanistan and during the build-up to the eventual conflict with Iraq. However, the song also is a metaphor for the record business, with smarmy record executives promising fortune, fame, and opportunity to kids hoping to pursue their dreams, only for the artist to later fall victim to the industry’s cutthroat and unforgiving nature.
The album gets even grimmer, as El-P channels his fondness for tales of dystopian futures with “Accidents Don’t Happen” and “Stepfather Factory.” “Accidents Don’t Happen” is a creeping, cloying track, punctuated by ominous synths, fuzzy feedback, furious scratches, and dialogue samples from the film adaptation of 1984. El teams with lyrical degenerate Cage and Camu Tao (of Cincinnati’s MHz crew) to paint a picture of a totalitarian society where “trust is a commodity crushed by Pol-Pottery.”
“Stepfather Factory,” the album’s first single, plays like a morbid version of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. El assumes the role of the CEO of a successful manufacturing company, rolling out a new line of robotic parental units to keep depressed single mothers from taking euthanasia tablets. Fueled by booze, the mechanical father replacements are promised to provide comfort, but can be prone to serious malfunctions. El draws inspiration from his own negative experience with his stepfather on the song, which he documented on Company Flow’s “Last Good Sleep.”
Along with his obsession with grim dystopian futures, El-P’s love for the works of Phillip K. Dick is well documented. Much like Dick, El-P is adept at writing about seemingly ordinary people questioning their grip on reality as it unravels around them. However, the track “T.O.J.”—as in “Time Out of Joint” from the Dick book of the same name—is probably one of the most grounded and least abstract tracks in El-P’s catalogue. Here El speaks with great maturity and introspection about what he described in an interview with the Red Bull Academy as a “complicated, fucking heart breaking relationship” that didn’t work out. He sorts out his feelings without bitterness throughout the song, not seeking reconciliation with his ex. Rather, he seeks a way that they can end their relationship, acknowledge what they meant to each other in the past, and still co-exist in the present. It’s one of the most heart-felt hip-hop break-up songs ever recorded.
While Fantastic Damage is all despair and pain, El does manage to cut loose in his uniquely El-P way. “Dr. Hell No and the Praying Mantus,” a team-up with Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire, is a lewd and enthusiastically raunchy ode to sexual intercourse, something not often found on most underground hip-hop albums at the time, as most fans expected their favorite artists to be sexless mic-rippers. Safe to say that El-P’s proclamation of getting busy while wearing a “dookie rope and some oven mitts” and his visions of “sexy wood nymphs in crotch-less lederhosen begging to get bent” is sure to shatter a few illusions. “Lazerface’s Warning” is another ode to hedonism, as El describes tripping on mushrooms, overwhelmed by sensory overload and hallucinations as he traverses the streets of New York.
El begins to bring things to a more serious note with “Constellation Funk.” It’s a gritty, electro-inspired track that draws from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Scorpio” for inspiration. Here he echoes themes he addresses earlier in the album, decrying violence against women and pillorying cultural appropriation. He calls out white suburban rappers who “claim they're more artistic and advanced than the inner city tune is / Now you’re fucked up and can’t move units / ’Cause you know nothing of the culture that created hip-hop music / Stuck in an authenticity contest with a bunch of cats that grew up in the exact same way that you did / Now where do you fit?”
The album closes with “Blood,” a team-up of El and Mr. Lif, as both address family trauma and dark moments in their childhood. Over sorrowful guitar wails and synth hits, El-P retells an experience of walking through the city with his mother and falling onto a grate and hurting himself. Meanwhile Lif describes the impact that loneliness and pain has on a child. It’s a harsh but thoughtful ending to an often harsh but thoughtful album.
Fantastic Damage symbolized the end of Definitive Jux’s beginning, as the label spent the rest of the year and the mid-’00s signing more artists and becoming more and more prolific, in many respects becoming the definitive indie hip-hop label of the ’00s. El-P played the background for much of Def Jux’s time in the sun, occasionally producing, occasionally recording, and dropping his second album, I’ll Sleep When Your Dead, five years later in 2007. His second album surfaced after the label took about a year hiatus from releasing music, in order to recalibrate to get themselves set for the new digital-based reality of the music biz. And like most record labels at the time, it had difficulty finding a way to keep the money flowing during the era of the pirated and downloaded album. The label eventually folded in 2010 after nearly a decade-long reign.
These days, El-P is best known as one-half of Run the Jewels, his super-group with Atlanta’s Killer Mike who have found a way to connect with audiences in a way that few hip-hop groups have these days, becoming a true cultural phenomenon in the process. Recording as a member of Run the Jewels has earned El-P more acclaim than he had ever achieved before, and he seems to be giddily enjoying his success. He’s come a long way, but he’s still fighting the same fights and channeling the same emotions with Run the Jewels that he has throughout his entire career.
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