Revisiting a Classic: Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus (1997)
By Jordan Pytosh
In 1997, if you were to ask the average hip-hop fan about Company Flow and their debut album Funcrusher Plus, they wouldn't have known whom or what you were talking about. Yet Company Flow's combination of punk-rock attitude and experimental rap birthed a hip-hop magnum opus that radically reimagined the boundaries of the genre.
It is worth taking a moment to establish what hip-hop sounded like in 1997. The mainstream landscape was largely dominated by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, who was widely regarded as rap's omnipotent figurehead, a reputation that warranted both acclaim and harsh opposition. His work on Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumous Life After Death undeniably enhanced the project's sonic landscape, solidifying the Brooklyn MC's Legacy, but his own compilation album No Way Out prompted some major backlash after songs like "I'’ll Be Missing You" and "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" copied The Police and David Bowie respectively. These tracks sounded like money-making ploys, capitalizing on the hard work of others without much effort to reimagine the originals. Even so, these hits seemed untouchable at the time, gaining popularity among hip-hop fans and mainstream pop audiences alike. In addition to Diddy's work, tracks and albums by Will Smith, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, and LL Cool J also helped shape the hip-hop landscape of 1997 - a landscape that was completely subverted by Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus.
Company Flow did not mess with the radio, and their signing to Rawkus Records further solidified this stance, bringing the group's mantra to a scene whose aversion to the mainstream ran deep. As a recently converted drum and bass label, Rawkus Records was becoming a mainstay in the underground hip-hop world, and this album marked its inception as such. After years of ideological disagreements, the underground scene of 1997 had become fervently opposed to corporate rappers. MCs like Kool Keith, for example, would deride the corporate aspects of hip-hop in acerbic tracks with derisive rhymes. Bigg Jus and El-P, the two main rappers on Funcrusher Plus, were the products of this 1990s hip-hop counterculture movement, and their content reflected its principles and beliefs.
Funcrusher Plus portrays New York as a futuristic place, inhabited by a variety of characters, each with a dark sense of realism - like the 1981 movie Heavy Metal in musical form. Informed by a deep web of sci-fi influences, El-P finds solace in crafting beats and verses with his cohorts through the lens of an urban citizen, each track filled with lyrics that reflect upon a grimy urban reality. While many other rappers were flaunting wealth and status in their music at this time, the rappers on Funcrusher Plus were delivering cryptic rhymes like beat poets, at times arrogant and swaggering, but always insightful.
Company Flow’s diverse array of influences make their work extremely idiosyncratic. Standout track, "Silence," fo instance, has an electric dialogue sample from Vampire Hunter D that transitions into a muffled beat built upon a looped guitar tone, adding a mellow background to the rappers’ bars. The album also dabbles innew age music: the Smokey Robinson sample on "8 Steps of Perfection" is impossibly smooth, while the Steve Roach sample on "Lune TNS" features ethereal synths that fuse together and mesh into an off-kilter medley of minimalistic beats.
While the inventive production is certainly one aspect of the album's greatness, the album's lyrics were also revolutionary at the time, entirely different from the rest of 90s hip-hop. Bigg Jus's flow, which skips slightly in its melody, perfectly underpins his smooth lyrics about mic skills and allows him to question other rappers' abilities with ease and precision. El-P, on the other hand, is a little more referential and experimental with his lyrics and flow, focusing less on braggadocious rhymes and more on storytelling, with topics ranging from political tyranny ("Population Control") to urban poverty ("Last Good Sleep"). Together, they rap on most of the songs throughout the album, though they sometimes let their production express their ideas instead of their voices, a wise choice that further attests to the album's cohesive artistry. Moments like the sonic collage of "Funcrusher Scratch" and the strange Jodorowsky film samples on "Help Wanted" let the album move away from the rappers' lyrics into more exploratory musical territory.
Many years from now, as hip-hop continues to assume new forms, Funcrusher Plus will still be a classic. If not for its release, the face of underground hip-hop would look entirely different. Other underground classics like Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein would not exist, and modern experimental hip-hop efforts like Oddisee's The Iceberg would be unrecognizable. Perhaps more than any other album released in the 1990s, Funcrusher Plus created a space for rappers who refuse to conform to mainstream expectations.