Happy 20th Anniversary to Company Flow’s debut album Funcrusher Plus, originally released July 22, 1997.
For some, hip-hop was in a dire place in the summer of 1997. Rap had never enjoyed such mainstream exposure, acclaim and acceptance, but it appeared that the music was in danger of losing its soul. You could turn on the radio or watch MTV and be faced with a constant stream of hip-hop artists, but everything seemed watered down. And to some degree, the music was collapsing in on itself, coalescing around a single point of sameness. Then groups like Company Flow came along and started pushing the boundaries outwards again.
Anti-pop sentiments were hardly new to hip-hop during the mid ’90s, but Company Flow raised them to a high art form. Comprised of rapper Justin “Bigg Jus” Ingleton, rapper/producer Jaime “El-P” Meline, and DJ/producer Leonard “Mr. Len” Smythe, Company Flow held the mainstream music industry in utter contempt. All three were New York City natives, though Len spent many of his formative years in Newark, New Jersey. And all were raised on the traditional hip-hop of the ’80s and early ’90s. In the mid ’90s, they found companionship with other like-minded artists in the NYC Underground scene, which was nurtured by the Stretch and Bobbito Show on 89.9 FM; the group were mainstays on the infamous radio show. Funcrusher Plus was Company Flow’s reaction to what they saw as a complete dumbing down of hip-hop music and it’s a masterpiece of defiant art.
The trio’s debut full-length was an aural assault on what hip-hop had become – a middle finger to the mainstream. Throughout the album, there’s talk of taking down the record industry and calls for rappers signed to major labels to resign and take it back to the real shit. Though the term’s genesis was tongue-in-cheek, the group began to live its “Funcrusher” moniker through its music. During an era where slick loops of pop songs ruled the radio and the club, the musical backdrop for Funcrusher Plus was harsh and challenging. The beats drew from an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, soul, world music, reggae, and other bizarre sources. They sampled obscure avant-garde Mexican films. They programmed seemingly off-beat drum tracks. Lyrically, they went to dark places that few other groups dared to traipse. Never had inaccessibility sounded so great.
Funcrusher Plus was also influential in the way that it shaped how artists worked with record labels. Wu-Tang Clan may have been famous for how they negotiated the right deal with Loud/RCA Records, but they didn’t have ownership of their music. In contrast, even while Company Flow sought out a record label to work with, they insisted that they retain ownership of their own master recordings. Independence was paramount for the group; they famously emblazoned “Independent as Fuck” on the labels of their early singles. When Company Flow did eventually sign with Rawkus Records, it was by their accounts a 50-50 partnership, and the group did indeed maintain ownership of their master recordings.
Company Flow and Funcrusher Plus helped put Rawkus on the map. Before working with the group, the label was best known for releasing dance music and the occasional rap act like The Rose Family. Their partnership with Company Flow helped earn them the capital to expand the label and their roster, signing acts like Mos Def and Reflection Eternal, and distributing singles from artists like Shabaam Sahdeeq, RA the Rugged Man, L-Fudge, Sir Menelik, and others.
A hulking behemoth of an album, the CD version of Funcrusher Plus clocks in at 74 minutes, while the cassette and vinyl versions add an extra song, lengthening the album to nearly 80 minutes. The album includes just about everything the crew had recorded to that point, between 1994 and 1997: the entire Funcrusher EP, all of the songs from the 12”s they had released during the lead-up to the album, a handful of new songs, and a freestyle from the Stretch and Bobbito Show. But although the album is lengthy, it never feels padded; the interludes, freestyles, and all the other songs all fit in their proper place.
For example, “Bad Touch Example” could never have been anything but the lead off track for Funcrusher Plus. Originally conceived as a promo for the Stretch and Bobbito Show, the song is a fitting introduction to Company Flow’s unique style. Starting with a catchy horn intro and samples from an anti-child molestation PSA record, Jus and El-P kick their verses over what sounds like a subdued vibraphone loop. Bigg Jus leads off the track, kicking his swift, yet almost conversational delivery, rapping, “It’s the baby-faced lieutenant with the Luck like Luciano / Hardcore like Kool G Rap music made for concert piano / So dust off the candelabra, hip hop’s version of the super Don Dada / With the license to give more ass whippings than Father.” Then El-P introduces the audience to his abstract, off-kilter metaphorical attack, rapping, “By birthright I'm pulling swords from stones, high toast beam / Phonetically aborted, try to distort it and catch a silent scream, fetus / The raw daddy tactics prove Krush Groove unstoppable / Testing luck is like sucking on lead paint popsicles.” El-P’s ad-libs between their verses sum up the ethos of the group, as he proclaims, “With one verse we have proven that we can rip all of these signed, big-budget motherfuckers.” The message was straight-forward: rap was fat and lazy, and Company Flow were here to knock it on its ass.
On the mic, El-P and Bigg Jus each had a unique lyrical presence, and were both pure New York. El-P’s lyrics showed his penchant for making allusions to obscure sci-fi films and TV shows and ’80s hip-hop, while Bigg Jus peppered his rhymes with references to the city’s subway system and famous graffiti artists. “8 Steps to Perfection,” the group’s first single, allows both to offer a demonstration in pure lyrical bravado over a sinister bassline and airy synths. Bigg Jus again leads of the song, rapping, “Tags that spray your hall with rap aerosol / Organized graffiti lectures in can control / Or level with the devil racing uptown first to Fort Apache / I’m much too much for any demon style to master me / From the Throgs Neck Bridge to the Hell’s Gate, lyrically detonating.” El-P is next up to bat, rapping, “Call me Maximillian, ’cause I'm that crazy robot / Teetering on the edge of outer space / Spitting buckshots ’til black holes surround me.”
Company Flow was pretty good at making fairly traditional hip-hop when they wanted to. Songs like “Vital Nerve” and “Blind” (the album’s third single) are up-tempo boom-bap bangers. But as with all of the tracks on Funcrusher Plus, there’s also something off-kilter about them, moving the songs slightly left of the center. “Vital Nerve” does come the closest to the type of song that might have been played on late night Hot 97 radio, anchored by its forceful piano loop and a raucous Biz Markie beat-box sample. El-P also effectively elucidates the group’s ethos with the line, “With hip-hop guidelines I state I never liked authority / When sales control stats I place no faith in the majority.”
“Collude/Intrude” is one of the album’s best tracks, a lyrical clinic in battle rhyming by El-P and J-Treds, a friend of the group. Over a beat that’s evocative of mechanized warfare, the two emcees trade verses back and forth, with the grim determination of securing their dominance and ensuring that “Time Warner will fall.” The track also showcases the talents of Mr. Len, who lays down his scratches throughout the song, including the verses as well. Len was integral to creating the group’s sound, as his scratching added to their tracks’ atmosphere and power. He also helped on the production side, including the DJ cuts: the brief “Lencorcism,” which first appeared on the Funcrusher EP, and the album’s closing track, “Funcrusher Scratch.” The latter is a fun and gritty DJ solo track, as Len flexes his ample skills over hard-hitting drums. The track would serve as a precursor to Little Johnny From the Hospital, Company Flow’s 1999 follow-up instrumental album.
And of course, some of the tracks on Funcrusher Plus border on being completely impenetrable. “Population Control,” the group’s second single, is a dark and brooding track, built around neck-snapping drums and murky keyboards and sounds of water dripping. “Tragedy of War in Three Parts” is similarly aggressive and bleak, featuring three beat switches to split the track into three separate “movements,” allowing Jus, El-P, and Len to shine individually.
There are a good number of solo tracks on Funcrusher Plus, allowing El-P and Bigg Jus to demonstrate their respective abilities to shine on their own when necessary. “Legends” is El-P’s dissertation on making uncompromising music, a pledge to establish his legacy by moving off the beaten path. “Lune TNS” is Bigg Jus’ in-depth lesson on the history of graffiti in New York City, as he shouts out pioneers on the scene and verbally transcribes his own exploits bombing in the train-yards. “Lune TNS” is one of the few tracks on the album produced just by Jus and Len, with no production input from El-P.
The posse-cut “Fire in Which You Burn” is another of the album’s best moments. Jus and El-P are joined by J-Treds and Breezly Brewin of Tha Juggaknots to form The Indelible MCs, a group of independent-minded artists. El-P outdoes himself with the drum track, which consists of two solid kicks and five just slightly off-beat snare hits. He then adds a warped sitar, giving the beat a completely surreal feel. Mr. Len’s added cuts then push things over the top. It doesn’t sound like a beat that any emcee would have any business rapping over, but all four acquit themselves perfectly.
But perhaps the highlight of the album is “Last Good Sleep,” another solo cut by El-P. Not many emcees delve so openly into their personal pain and trauma in the way that El does with this song, as he chronicles his and his mother’s experiences with his alcoholic step-father. He describes in vivid detail his perception as a child, knowing that his mother was facing horrific physical and mental abuse, but feeling powerless to do anything about it. El-P’s production makes the track feel even more claustrophobic, as keyboards pulse and claxon-like noises echo through the chorus. The raw emotion and pain that churns through the song is something that few artists ever attempt.
“Info Kill II” is another stand-out track on Funcrusher Plus. The original version of the song was released as a 12” on Official Records, Co Flow’s own imprint. However, members of the group knew that they had to change it for the album’s release due to the Queen and Redman samples featured on the track. While the re-recorded verses remained the same, El-P reworked the beat to give it a gothic sci-fi opera feel, complete with soaring synths and haunting echoing voices. Musically, it hinted at the future of El-P’s production style. Lyrically, it’s as strong as any track on the album, as Bigg Jus raps, “The lifeline intertwined with true belief got distorted / Caught it late night on Telemundo, Nightcrawling, teleporting / Spotted in boot camp dishing out an ass whupping, bad decision / Align astrologically to ensure global time positioning.” El-P laments the proliferation of sub-par emcees throughout hip-hop with his verse, rapping, “See, technically you’re not the germ it's your sperm that's the weapon / I fear ducks fertilizing and teaching their seeds all the half stepping / Spawning little replicate idiots, so I madly touch pressure points badly / Sadly but it's my duty.”
Members of the crew estimate that Funcrusher Plus sold somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 copies. But regardless of the number of units that were sold, the album was extremely influential. It was practically the cornerstone that underground hip-hop of the late ’90s and early ’00s was built upon, inspiring rappers from around the globe to make music that didn’t fit easily into an accessible box.
It’s a shame that the group itself didn’t last nearly as long as its influence. Bigg Jus left the group around 1998/1999, striking out on his own to record solo music and work with such labels as Sub Verse Music. El-P and Mr. Len kept the crew together to record the aforementioned instrumental album, Little Johnny From the Hospital, but parted ways on good terms not long after. Mr. Len released his own album, Pity the Fool, in 2002, and later founded Dummy Smacks Records. El-P, of course, created Definitive Jux Records, the poster child for independent hip-hop from the early to mid ’00s. After recording two solo albums and running the label for close to a decade, El-P closed up shop and began to pursue other endeavors. One of these endeavors was uniting with Killer Mike to form Run the Jewels, with whom El-P has achieved the most success of his career.
The members of Company Flow remain on good terms, and have occasionally come together for reunion shows. I’ve always found it interesting that all three of them each had their own separate record labels/imprints, as it showed their commitment to putting out music that they believed in. Lots of artists are dissatisfied with the state of the record industry, but it’s another thing to put your money where your mouth is, and release music that you believe will help change the status quo and influence the next generation of artists. In that sense, Company Flow always led by example, making music on their own terms, then sought to inspire further change within the music that they loved. Funcrusher Plus was a great beginning for the trio, but it certainly wasn’t the end.