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The Producer: Beat Poet

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Though sonic geniuses like Afrika Bambaataa and Prince Paul were once the norm in hip-hop, El-P is one of the few rappers left with a vision beyond the street. This is no accident: His father is a jazz musician, and he grew up listening to rock, jazz, soul, and the blues (he's even got finely honed critical skills; when asked about "neo-garage" bands like the Hives, he snorts derisively and says, "Oh, you mean that retro late-seventies shit?"). But it was hip-hop that caught El-P's imagination when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-eighties. "It was everywhere, coming out of cars, boom boxes, houses," he says. "The excitement has never worn off for me."

El-P would create rhymes with schoolmates at St. Ann's in Brooklyn; anyone who dared doubt that a white kid could rap would incur his lyrical fury. "If a guy would say four things in four bars, I'd say eight things in four bars," El-P remembers. "I was on this pigheaded mission to prove that I was the best, nastiest cat out there."

In 1992, El-P and neighborhood friends Bigg Jus and Mr. Len formed Company Flow with a similarly in-your-face ethos they dubbed Soundbombing. In the hip-hop world, bombing is slang for graffiti writing. Company Flow's music would be the sonic equivalent of graffiti: tongue-twisting, highly verbose rhymes backed by anarchic soundscapes that refused to heed the genre's rules. Even more radically, they'd be independent from record labels large or small. "We sold our own records, and they sold well," El-P remembers, "so our attitude was 'We don't need a record deal. If someone wants to do a deal with us, then they're gonna do it on our terms.' "

When Company Flow was approached by the then-fledgling independent Rawkus in 1996, the group presented the label with its take-it-or-leave-it offer, which included a clause that it wouldn't sign a multi-album deal, a standard music-industry practice that keeps acts at labels for years. "They took it," El-P says, still sounding amazed. "We signed with Rawkus because they were desperate enough to do things our way." At the time, Rawkus was home to a mishmash of uninspired reggae, drum-and-bass, and rock acts. The Company Flow signing gave the label instant street cred, and the release of the trio's debut, Funcrusher Plus, in 1997 ushered in a golden era of hip-hop at Rawkus that included now-classic albums by the likes of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Shabaam Sahdeeq.

But Company Flow's relationship with Rawkus was on the rocks by 1998, and after releasing an uninspired album of instrumental tracks in 1999, the group split from the label in 2000. While El-P refuses to talk about Rawkus now, he more bluntly stated his feelings on a cut from Fantastic Damage. "Signed to Rawkus?" he rhymed. "I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious." The experience has hardly left El-P embittered. "It's about making the dopest music on the planet," he says, "so that if I do decide to step to a major, I'll have a lot of leverage."


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