By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
By Chaz Kangas
By Allison Babka
By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Tef Poe
By Mabel Suen
You can hear the rumbling of some sort of hip-hop future on a few recent releases. It grumbles through the Anti-Pop Consortium's Arrhythmia; it unsteadies your balance on Prefuse 73's Vocal Studies & Uprock Narratives; its knees buckle within Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein.
It's the sound of the steady bump-thwack-bump-thwack beat being fucked with. In the same way Ornette Coleman challenged jazz's steadiness, an important movement in hip-hop is questioning the notion of the standard beat. Rhythms wobble, then stumble. They're drunk, and the only thing supporting the beats is the MC -- a brilliant role reversal. At the forefront of the new is El-P, who, on his debut full-length, Fantastic Damage, nails it.
El-P used to be in Company Flow, a NYC group that earned respect in the late '90s before dissolving. These days, he's entrepreneur and producer: His label, Definitive Jux, consistently churns out shockers, and he's made beats for some of hip-hop's most adventuresome. El-P's out there, and he's got company.
On Fantastic Damage El-P occupies the roles of producer and MC, and he kills. As an MC, he spits paragraphs, not stanzas. Yes, he rhymes, but he's got a peculiar internal clock. Seldom does he squeeze to fit his lyrics into the obvious rhythm; rather, he evenly balances lyrical needs and beat flow -- if he needs space to finish a thought, he finds it -- so his tracks roll at their own strange pace.
But El-P's better at producing than rapping. His tracks are uniformly insane. Dungeon drones battle with synthetic beeps. He inserts ear-splittingly high frequencies just to fuck with your head, couples them with deep bass, adds human moans to beats and rhythms that jump and reorganize nearly every four measures. El-P hates stasis, so while the Diddys of the world take the interstate to the end of a song, El-P cruises the winding thoroughfares.
Like most hip-hop records, though, it's too goddamn long; there's filler, and the record occasionally loses its momentum. Were Fantastic Damage twenty minutes shorter, it'd be perfect; as it stands, though, it's merely fantastic.