August 12, 2013

Max Bell wrote his own eulogy with cocaine hands.

While the attacks of 9/11 aren’t mentioned explicitly, El-P’s Fantastic Damage might be the only N.Y. hip-hop album from 2002 that sonically captures the horror of the terror alert era.  Though there’s really not much competition. Cam’ron’s Come Home With Me dropped the same day (May 14), but only talks about the attacks on “Welcome to New York City.” Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2 was as light and safe as we thought Jay would ever be. And though Nas’ God’s Son was one of his best albums to date, it was a little too self-mythologizing for any lasting catharsis. It was El Producto alone who was left to capture the wounded psyche of Gotham.

Fandam begins with the title track, and wastes no time creating that sense of post-9/11 fear. First some sort of space organ starts up, grinding out long notes that seem to prophesize the end of something. Then comes a somber, high-pitched voice:

Now the evening has come to a close

And I’ve had my last dance with you

So on to the empty streets we go

And it might be my last chance with you

So I might as well get it over

The things I have to say

Won’t wait until another day

On the page the above words still read like a love song. But, when heard for the first time on “Fantastic Damage,” it’s as if El’s managed to turn Peter Skellern’s song apocalyptic.

The source material seems like a strange choice, but the songs on hip-hop radio around Fandam’s release suggest otherwise. In other words, hip-hop had lamentably moved from the Jiggy era to its “luv” phase. To better illustrate what I mean, here’s a short list of the songs that were on the radio around 2002:

. Ja Rule – “Always on Time”

. P. Diddy – “I Need a Girl (Part I & II)

. Fat Joe – “What’s Luv?”

. LL Cool J – “Luv You Better”

With that in mind, El’s sampling choice doesn’t seem so odd. Though his record would get little to no radio play, he used a love song to flip N.Y. radio on its ear, to turn all of the “luv” bullshit into something much more honest.

“Squeegee Man Shooting” is pure, unfiltered autobiography on wax. Backed by drums and alarms that sound like someone turned the Death Star dash into an MPC, El takes the listener to Brooklyn in 1985, chronicling the growth of his love for hip-hop and hip-hop culture: rocking bootleg Jordans and sipping Capri Suns while studying the cadences of Kool Moe Dee. Throughout, he spells “Fantastic Damage” one letter at a time. And the more he does, the more it starts to click. The title is the ethos of the record. Fandam means the deconstruction of everything that’s come before in order to make way for the new, for El-P’s samples, beats, rhymes, cadences, etc. — all of which were unlike any hip-hop had heard at the time.

Still, as El continues to rap, one gets the sense that the title Fandam also refers to his relationship with hip-hop. It is a mantra resurrected, his realization that “Fantastic Damage” is exactly what hip-hop did to his eggshell mind in ’85. That’s why the word “remember” echoes towards the end of the track. In order to move forward and make the rest of the record, El first had to go back.

If you know El’s music, you know that looking forward generally means the end in one form or another.

On “Deep Space 9mm” it means a dystopia where every citizen carries a gun with the safety off. In El’s vision of N.Y. (“new Rome”) Orwell’s Big Brother is real. He’s only counting the hands on the clock until some demagogue burns the city down while spitting propaganda to the beat of a million marching androids.

Then, on “Dead Disnee,” the ostensibly idyllic theme park is turned into bedlam. Manic voices of brainwashed children swirl like the chorus in the most perverted of Greek tragedies. Mr. Toad may or may not be Oedipus, and Gepetto is a pedophile. After rewriting the stories of a number of different Disney characters, El terrorizes them to cartoon noises turned carefully constructed boom-bap cacophony. He sprays Bambi and his entire family and runs over the cat from Alice in Wonderland. By the end of the track, the Disney World rides have collapsed. The walkways are broken and scorched. Mickey Mouse snorts snow white and rapes Snow White. When the hook (“When the city burns down I’m going to go to Disney World”) plays, its equally hilarious and frightening.

“Delorean” temporarily obscures that forward gaze. Rather, it’s another move back in time, a call for “a time when motherfuckers could rock.” The sound of an alert siren goes in and out as thumping, heartbeat drums mix with laser gun funk. Aesop Rock and El-P trade dense and abstract battle bars as if they were engaged in an intergalactic parking lot cypher. I’ve yet to really sink my teeth into Aes’s verse, but El throws haymaker after haymaker at MCs and critics who don’t understand the meaning of Fandam, those who call his music “off beat, jagged, [and] ragged.”

With “The Nang, the Front, the Bush, and the Shit” El moves between the ‘60s/’70s and 2002. Rapping over the sound of choppers, he writes and directs his version of Platoon, the song’s protagonist dodging “Charlie,” land mines, and flak flying from every direction. At first, it’s unclear why El chose to go back to Vietnam. Then it’s obvious. The El-P of 2002 fears the possibility of another draft, another war. Roughly year shy of the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, that fear was more than merited.

Of all the tracks on Fandam, it’s “Stepfather Factory” that goes furthest into the future. It’s the most focused, highly conceptual of all the songs on the record, and the most well executed. El takes on the persona of a CEO hell bent on creating “robotic relatives” fueled by alcohol that may or may not abuse those who own them. It is dystopia meets modern day filial nightmare — powerful, poignant, and absolutely horrifying.

The rest of the record continues to wrestle with this constant shuttling back and forth in time, the non-linear, Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness of El-P’s raps. That’s probably why the one actual love song is called “T.O.J. (T.ime is O.ut of J.oint).” It’s not certain whether El’s speaking to a woman or whether this is his address to hip-hop, an admission that all of Fandam might be futile, though he hopes it isn’t.

Whatever the case may be, after hours upon hours sorting through the distorted, unrecognizable samples, the grinding guitar stabs and the rapid-fire, laser speed lyrics, I finally realized that Fandam actually is love record. It’s the document of a man trying to hold it all together when the two things he loved most dearly, N.Y. and hip-hop, seemed to be crashing down, El’s reevaluation of his life, his work, and his future in relationship to both in the wake of national tragedy. For that reason, Fandam is the most honest of love letters, the “de-Disneyfication” of “luv.” That’s why the album never made it on the radio.

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