A lot of significant things went down in the world of hip hop in 1997. From one perspective, one could view it as the pivotal year where an East coast legend, The Notorious B.I.G., was murdered in LA, about half a year after his West coast counterpart, Tupac Shakur, had also been gunned down. Some might also consider it as a year where many classic hip hop albums of the 90s were released, such as Biggie’s Life After Death, Jay Z’s In My Lifetime Vol. 1, and Wu Tang Forever from the Killa Bees of the NY. But in terms of landmark moments in hip hop, far fewer people will remember 1997 as the year that a little known trio called Company Flow threw out their Funcrusher Plus debut. Let’s talk about how this groundbreaking album is presently received as it nears its 20th anniversary this year, and why it was and still is so important.
The story of Company Flow began in 1993, when Mr. Len was hired to perform at rapper/producer El-P’s 18th birthday party. The two quickly became friends afterwards, and began recording music together. Not much later, El-P was introduced to rapper Bigg Jus by ANTTEX, another rapper and label owner. Now Company Flow was firmly established, with the trio of Mr. Len as DJ and El-P and Bigg Jus rapping, with El-P also assisting Mr. Len with aspects of production. This new group eventually released the Funcrusher EP In 1996, and then Funcrusher Plus, a proper full length debut, arrived shortly thereafter, on July 22 of 1997.
To understand why Funcrusher Plus was so ahead of its time and radically different for hip hop, one really just needs to think of what else was going on at the time in the genre. So called “gangsta rap” had emerged about a decade earlier with the rise of NWA, later augmented by the emergence of other artists such as Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, and the solo careers of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. This take on hip hop focused on the harsh, gritty nature of street life in lower-income, impoverished communities, with a sense of hyper-realism aimed at portraying such life as accurately as possible. Common themes centered around drug dealing, gang violence, and occasionally, as with Tupac and Ice Cube, intense criticism of the American social order.
Company Flow completely ignored and flew in the face of these common hip hop tropes. Defying many of the larger trends occurring within hip hop at the time, Funcrusher Plus dove headfirst into the unknown, tapping heavily into unexplored influences from dystopian science fiction (a favorite of El-P’s) and a uniquely catchy sense of production smothered in a spacey, funk-like approach. And lyrically, the album was unquestionably one of the most well written, diverse cuts that the hip hop genre had once seen. I have immense respect and have been inspired deeply by the incredible lyricism on Funcrusher Plus, and time should be taken to discuss the various aspects of it.
On the one hand, Company Flow did not entirely abandon the hip hop code of braggadocio and proclaiming themselves to be the illest of the ill. In a way, this is simply part of the genre that almost inevitably must be tapped into in some way by hip hop artists. Nonetheless, the way in which El-P and Bigg Jus took to this area of Company Flow’s music on Funcrusher Plus differed significantly. While many other rappers at the time were talking about their greatness in relation to the sufferings and hardships they had been through, El-P and Bigg Jus didn’t really apply the concept in this way. Instead, they seemed to go at it from a bit of a less serious angle, one that was still sophisticated and effective, but a little more for fun than anything else. As Bigg Jus brags on “8 Steps To Perfection”:
MCs couldn’t hang if they was lynched by the Grand Dragon!
Searching through my styles like Jobcore
Coming home on work relief, shoplifting at the rap store
But sabotaging me ain’t easy!
El-P also doesn’t refrain from being boastful and taking shots at perceived amateur rappers, as seen on “Population Control”:
We answer to no one, we 911
Silent alarm, this is harm, fear the duck of learning
El-P phase through these walls like vision
Choked in the shallow water, a bad executive decision
As mentioned, El-P is a passionate nerd for dystopian science fiction from the likes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. This love also oozed into the lyrics of Funcrusher Plus, as a few tracks painted a dark vision of a bleak, totalitarian run technocracy, at an unspecified date in Earth’s future. The most blatant example is “Help Wanted.” This track actually doesn’t contain any rapping from Bigg Jus or El-P, and instead samples from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, but it still paints a powerful picture of some of the album’s themes:
We manufacture war toys. We have an electronic computer programmed with the politics of the government. The government is our client. We feed the computer data on coming wars and revolutions. It tells us what kind of toys to produce, to condition children from birth.
At other points in the album these influences may be a little more subtle, but still present, such as El-P mentioning that the hip hop lifestyle is so important to him that “it’s either rhyme or euthanasia” on “Blind.” Or talking about how “Ted Turner and Bill Gates rub each other down with olive oil” on “Population Control.
Finally, there is one strong example of social commentary and discussion of some of life’s harsh realities in the lyrics of Funcrusher Plus. It would be the first (but not the last) time that El-P would address the issue of some of the domestic violence his mother suffered from his stepdad when he was younger, on “Last Good Sleep.” Undoubtedly the most emotionally powerful track on the album, its significance for El-P all these years later is still clear. When Company Flow reunited briefly in 2011 to play all through Funcrusher Plus live in New York, El-P appeared very ambivalent when the time came to perform the track. All these years later, its haunting hook is no less impactful:
At night I cover ears in tears
The man downstairs must have drank too many beers
Now every night of my life he beats his wife
(Til the day I die)
What does this all mean for Company Flow, and the individual members involved, all these years later? Why is Funcrusher Plus so important, and why should its 20 year anniversary be held as such a monumental event in hip hop?
For starters, there’s El-P. Though Mr. Len and Bigg Jus were certainly major factors in the success and legacy of Funcrusher Plus, it was El-P who ended up capitalizing the most on this success. The album can be seen as something of an unspoken announcement of the incoming wave of excellent, thought provoking underground hip hop that would soon arrive in the early-to-mid 2000s. El-P ended up playing a major role in this wave, as, shortly after Company Flow’s disbanding in 2001, he formed the New York-based Def Jux Records (later extended to Definitive Jux because of a petty lawsuit with Def Jam). As the commander of Definitive Jux, El-P released many important albums for several significant indie rappers who were only starting to emerge at the time, including but not limited to Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Cage, C-Rayz Walz, and more. El-P would also go on to launch his own successful solo career from here and help produce albums for a good number of other rappers over the years. In 2012, his production of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music helped spawn a friendship between the two that led to them forming Run The Jewels together.
Though not as widely received, the subsequent solo careers of Bigg Jus and Mr. Len have been noteworthy in their own rights. To be blunt, I don’t think either of these two are quite as talented as El-P either rap wise or production-wise, but this is definitely not to say that they are without talent period. In particular, I have greatly enjoyed Black Mamba Serums v2.0 from Bigg Jus, which has a very ensnaring, bass-heavy sense of production and wonderful lyricism from Jus. From Mr. Len I’d suggest Pity The Fool , a “Various Artists” type album where Len produced different tracks for different rappers. It’s a fun listen due to how Mr. Len’s production adapts to fit the rappers featured, showcasing his flexible production talents.
Perhaps most importantly, the ultimate legacy of Funcrusher Plus is just how it served, and still serves as a point of reference and inspiration to any rappers looking to go at the sci fi/dystopian angle. Aside from Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagonecologyst spin off album in 1996 (which is still very different from the Company Flow debut), until 1997 no rappers had really explored this area in the way that Company Flow did. Funcrusher Plus could then perhaps be seen as inspiring future albums like Deltron 3030 from Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, the groovy hip hop warning of “psychic dictatorships” from Red Ants, and more. And of course, this influence may have extended beyond the lyrical aspect as well, as the spacey, funky production employed on Funcrusher Plus may have inspired other producers such as Dan The Automator, SKYWLKR, and others to explore such approaches as well.
In 2017, though it has a very strong cult following among fans of the more underground side of the genre, Funcrusher Plus still remains largely unknown to the majority of hip hop fans. In a way this is understandable due to the degree to which it conflicted with so many tendencies of popular, mainstream hip hop when it was released (and still does today). It could also be owed partially to the short career of Company Flow. Perhaps they would have acquired more recognition if they had not broken up and amassed a larger discography. Whatever the cause of Funcrusher Plus’s continued obscurity, it remains one of the most creative and forward thinking albums of 90s hip hop. And really, when one looks at a lot of hip hop around today, even at the more underground level there still isn’t much out there quite like Funcrusher Plus. A highly influential album that was ahead of its time, it is truly one for the ages.
If you’re a longtime fan, someone who has never listened, or something in between those two, the time to smash that damn play button is now. 20 years later, MCs still couldn’t hang if they was lynched by the Grand Dragon.
Ravana, your host here at Cryptic Resonations, is an avid fan of experimentalism in any and all art forms, residing somewhere deep in the swamps of Southern Florida. He particularly enjoys black metal, drone, hip hop, surrealist film, and transcendentalist poetry, and is also a Staffer over at Metalstorm.net.