Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus is such an example. Coming out in 1997, it was so drastically different from the sugar coated, chart topping and frankly boring hip-hop that was receiving so much airplay. P. Diddy it ain’t. Uncompromising in their approach, Company Flow naturally didn’t garner a lot of commercial attention, but for those who discovered them, it was a blessing.
There are a number of themes, both musically and lyrically, that pervade Funcrusher Plus. The first is science fiction. Even the album cover suggests some sort of dystopian future at war with alien life forms. Lyrically they drop references to The Terminator, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twelve Monkeys, L. Ron Hubbard, and so forth. But this isn’t just a gimmick; the references are weaved into the lyrics to suggest paranoia, bleakness and a definite sense of unease. (“I’m convinced future MC’s are sending robots back in time as we speak to kill my mother before I’m born, be warned”) Not only that, but the science fiction themes also seem to stress how ahead they are of their time, and there’s a definite sense of antagonism towards authority and big businesses. They speak foully of large record companies (“Time-Warner will fall/Record labels will fall, the earth will crumble”) and comment on the government in a unnervingly satiric way. For example, the track Lune TNS is a rather disturbing short piece revolving around a spiraling drum beat and spoken word samples about controlling the growing population of the earth. “To save the country’s economy, we must eliminate four million citizens in the next five years…Begin the operation with the gas chambers, gas pools, gas universities, gas libraries, gas museums, gas dancehalls and gas whorehouses etc.” Further references are made to the conditioning of workers and children… a harrowing vision of the future indeed.
Musically, Funcrusher Plus feels futuristic and science fiction-like. Instead of the usual funk or jazz loops used in a lot of 90’s hip-hop, the producer El-P creates a very odd and jarring musical soundscape with minimalist, dissonant beats and eerie ambience. Vital Nerve is perhaps the epitome of El-P’s production idea, with a dark, 3-note synth pattern over a slow beat. 8 Steps to Perfection is awash with psychedelic guitar and odd electronic sounds, and The Fire In Which You Burn has a droning sitar beat over a frenzied, broken beat that seems impossible to rap over. All in all, the music maintains an atmosphere of tension and discomfort.
Secondly, Funcrusher Plus explores the dark side of humanity. Their exploration of this theme isn’t as direct as their strong sci-fi references, but elements are incorporated in a very offhand way, which somehow makes it more unsettling; as if they have accepted that these things go on and cannot change them. The very first thing heard on the album is a man’s voice saying: “Since you’re my special friend, come closer for a special treat. I’m going to let you touch me in a special place…” I need not elaborate. As previously mentioned, the Lune TNS sequence of population control and conditioning is rather disturbing, and other tracks devote their lyrics to themes such as domestic violence (Last Good Sleep) and war. (Tragedy of War (In III Parts)) Not condemnatory, but simply commentaries. El-P and Big Juss, the two rappers, employ rapid-fire, visceral flows and barrage the listener with a verbal assault. Their confrontational and sometimes angry voices only do more to increase the feeling of angst and unease that’s so present on this album.
Company Flow’s vision of the world and our future is not a pleasant one, but often they hit the nail right on the head. In the 14 years that have passed since the release of this album, things haven’t exactly gotten any better in the world, have they? One of my favourite lyrics from the album is: “When sales control stats I place no faith in the majority.” Company Flow recognized that they had something to offer, something great, but knew it wasn’t even going to be widely liked or accepted. Instead of compromising, however, they stuck true to their ideals and made an album that was completely abstract and made few, if any concessions to the listeners. And you know what? They didn’t care. It takes balls to do that, but it takes something else to do it so well. They’d rather have the stats than the sales. Funcrusher Plus is a difficult album, one that requires multiple listenings before you even begin to see what they were trying to achieve, but when you do, there’s no doubt that it’s worth it.
Words - Adam