This month, one of the greatest groups in hip-hop history reunites.
El-P, Mr. Len and Bigg Jus, collectively known as Company Flow, haven’t performed together since 2001, but this month the underground rap godfathers will play live both in London (at the Portishead-curated ATP event I’ll Be Your Mirror, July 23) and their hometown of New York (Manhattan’s Santos Party House, July 16).
Formed in 1992, Co Flow spent the best part of the ’90s building a fanbase on the strength of their iconoclastic, punk rock approach to beats, structure and more before releasing Funcrusher Plus, their staggering debut album for Rawkus Records in 1997. Considered one of the most important hip-hop records of the era, it kicked down the door for a wave of contemporaries (many of them also signed to Rakwus) to pile in, birthing a new era of underground hip-hop music.
The years that followed have been marred with beefs and money disputes: the group left Rawkus under a cloud in 2000, with the label accused of withholding money, blocking artists and more. El-P would prove the most successful of the three Co Flow members as a solo artist, starting his own label in Definitive Jux: for a decent stretch of the last decade, the defining underground hip-hop imprint, with Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Cage, Murs and more releasing on it. He’s also continued to make influential records of his own, notably 2002’s space-rap epic Fantastic Damage.
There are certain things that El-P doesn’t talk about in interviews, but if you’re prepared to Google, you can find out his views on a fair few of them. What he is prepared to talk about is Company Flow: where they were coming from, how they made the impact that they did, why they’ve reformed, and how their influence is still seen on hip-hop music today. FACT spoke to him about all this and more.
“Our whole attitude was to be the rawest we could possibly be, and I think that just came through as something special.”
Company Flow haven’t performed live for years, and disbanded back in the day – so first of all, why the sudden reunion?
“It’s really just pretty simple, honestly. Portishead asked us to do it. And that was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up – we’re big fans. We were honoured that they asked us to do it. That’s really it – we didn’t have any plans to be doing any shows, or to do anything. We still talk to each other, and theres always vague talk of doing something at some point in the future. But this was the catalyst, Portishead curating this thing and us being one of the first groups they reached out to. Very humbling, and we felt we should do it.”
It’s an interesting lineup they’ve put together – you’ll be up there with peers like DOOM, who was better known as Zev Love X from KMD around the time Co Flow came out – did you ever bump into Portishead back then?
“Never met them, always been a huge fan… The lineup is pretty insane, with DOOM and Swans and stuff. It’s a no brainer for us, it made a lot of sense. And it’ll be fun. Why the fuck not.”
It strikes me that there must have been something special in the brew when you were writing Funcrusher Plus – it’s one of comparatively few abstract hip-hop records that still commands attention today, still makes it into the greatest rap albums canon, and has generally endured a lot better than lots of stuff from that era. Why?
“I’ve been asked this a few times… I think the energy of it resonates, there’s a rebellion to the sound, and we were just on some, ‘fuck all this shit’. Our whole attitude was to be the rawest we could possibly be, and I think that just came through as something special. At the time, I don’t think that anyone had really heard our sound before, but our attitude was evidently rooted heavily in hip-hop, in the attitude of hip-hop. And I think it connected with people, it still means something to people. It’s very hard for me, I don’t tend to talk about music very critically, and I certainly don’t have much ability to reflect on what it is that people took from our record. That’s not my place to say to be honest with you.”
But as the group’s producer, you were the one creating those raw, distorted beats that sounded so alien at the time, compared to the jazzy, filtered sound of the era. Where was your head at back then?
“At the time… Well I was a kid. I was coming out of being kicked out of school. I was coming out of a relatively fucked up, or semi-tumultuous childhood. I was an angry and cocky kid. And I was just such a huge fan of music, rap music, and hip-hop culture. And I think that we all, as a band, were coming from an angle of tearing down, burning down all of the softness that certain hip-hop had at that time.
“Hip-hop had just had its first major period of becoming pop music I think, right before we came out. It had gotten a little shiny [laugh]. And that’s not the way that we lived, that’s not the way we came up. We lived the culture, we were into graffiti, we were into different things. That’s not how we saw it. And we wanted was that every time our record came on, it just completely shitted on everyone, and stood out completely. Trying to make our mark. Here’s this fucking devastating, incredibly long song with no hook and the beat sounded like it was made whilst smoking dust, how ’bout that? That was our whole attitude, basically ‘fuck you’. And I don’t think ‘fuck you’ ever goes out of style to be honest with you. I think that energy is important in music like hip-hop, and just for people in general. Every once in a while, someone’s gotta come out like ‘fuck all this shit’, no matter what. We just happened to capture it, and we did it in a way that we were street and arty at the same time. And I don’t think anyone had heard anything exactly like that in a while. It clicked with a lot of different types of people.”
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One thing that people always seem to bring up as their favourite Co Flow moment was the ‘End To End Burners’ video, which had animated graffiti graphics, colourful flows, and was very much ahead of it’s time. It felt like the colour, the movement of words, replaced any kind of narrative.
“Well I think we approached our rhymes like graffiti. We looked at it like wildstyle shit. We weren’t into direct narrative, we were into abstraction to a degree, but we weren’t being super arty about it. Our idea was just to throw imagery out there, whilst simultaneously rapping our asses off. We used the influences that we had, this sorta scattered, hardcore street art. And other elements as well, I’m using graffiti as an example, as it was seen on every street I grew up on, in Brooklyn, New York. All this was around you. You’re right in the sense that there wasn’t really a narrative, it was mostly kinda flying in the face of all that. We didn’t have a narrative, there was nothing! There was nothing familiar about our music except the feeling of fucking driving, dope shit. We captured something I think. We were simultaneously able to do something new, that also reminded people of something they loved about the music, I think. At least that’s what I get from the way people felt about it over the years.”
What music inspired you in the early years?
“We were all different – I grew up in Brooklyn, Jus grew up in Queens… It might have changed a bit for each person. But for me I came up in the ’80s on the golden era shit.
“For the street art thing, I wasn’t something I necessarily understood, it was just something I grew up around. You took the train, every part of it was covered. It was just all around you. This time frame where hip-hop came from was prevalent everywhere you looked. Kinda a part of your existence. And you were either old enough to not pay attention or young enough to have to pay attention, cause that shit was speaking to you directly if you were young. But the shit I grew up on, was everything that happened in the 80s, early 90s. I was hugely influenced by people like Boogie Down Productions, The Fat Boys, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane.. All the shit that people over the age of 30 talk about when they talk about rap! Ultramagnetic MCs, LL Cool J. But it was also Art Of Noise, Talking Heads, The Police, Blondie, even Gang Of Four. There was a lot of shit out there and I just took it all in. It wasn’t until much later that I realised really how much those influences had an effect on me.”
I was listening to Funcrusher Plus earlier and noticed the Bobbito shout out – Bobbito’s show with Stretch broke artists like Big L, Jay-Z and Mad Skillz, and his label Fondle ‘Em went on to release Doom’s Operation Doomsday album, and leftfield groups like The Cenobites – tell me about the community at that time.
“It was an interesting time… Stretch and Bobbito were definitely an important part of it. All these artists you’re talking about rotated around them. They were some of the first, and easily the most important curators of underground hip-hop music in the 90s. They were the ones that made the connections, they were the ones that pulled people in through their radio show. So yeah, everybody knew each other, everybody respected each other.
“It was a different time, cause there was a lot of pride about not sounding like the next guy. It was very different! I’m not complaining about the change in that, it’s just different now. At that time, it was all about being the new shit and finding the new way to say something, and all of these dudes were doing that. People look back on it now and they categorise it into subcultures. But at the time, it would be like, Mobb Deep followed by Company Flow on the same radio show. We were all writing it as we went. Stretch and Bobbito had the right perspective on music, they were the ones that put it out there for everybody at the same time. So no one was able to differentiate, everyone was excited about what the next song they would hear was gonna be. That community was important and we were all really close, looking up to those dudes as the godfathers of this shit.”
“Fuck you is a style that never goes out of fashion”
When you say “it’s different now”, how do you feel about hip-hop in 2011 compared with 1993?
“I’ve never really been the person who was displeased with hip-hop music. I’m not one of these people that sits around and pines for the good old days because if you look at us for example, we weren’t fully appreciated ’til some years later. I always felt there was good shit out there. And that was kinda our point, and what we were doing. I felt there was something incredible going on, even if it was under the radar. I don’t know man, I just do what I do. I love rap music and hip-hop music.
“I know that a lot of people are sorta hardline. For me it doesn’t really matter at this point, I can’t really constantly assess and reassess the state of hip-hop culture the same way I’m not gonna constantly fucking obsess over the state of rock and roll. I look for albums, records and songs, and I’m constantly amused and entertained by the music. Every once in a while there’s a lull where you’re waiting for someone to come out with something, and do something that’s gonna inspire you. But for the most part, I honestly think it’s a pretty fucking good time for hip-hop music.”
Earlier you said “fuck you is a style that never goes out of fashion” – maybe Odd Future are proof of that.
“I think they’re great man. Honestly [where] their energy is coming from, is hitting people in a very familiar way. What they have done to people reminds me of when Company Flow came out, it really does. It’s a good illustration of the kind of energy that’s needed, people who aren’t trying to blow up, just literally trying to say whatever the fuck they wanna say. Odd Future are important for that.
“I think had they come out in the ’90s it would have gone the same way, they remind me of that era, they would have easily fitted in. I’m always a fan of when people come out doing whatever the fuck they wanna do, and blow up because it kinda makes everyone else whose trying to blow up but not doing what they wanna do look kinda stupid. Like, you just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making an album with special guests, r’n’b hooks and you’re trying your goddamn hardest… But some kid just made a fucking album in his bedroom and is outselling you! Maybe you should have a think about some stuff. If you make something that’s fucking true, then people will want it.”
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Company Flow – ‘Vital Nerve’
“I just couldn’t believe anyone liked our shit. It really meant something to me.”
You ran Def Jux for years, a label which was one of the few success stories in abstract rap music, with an obsessive global fanbase. Why did you shut it down?
[solemn tone] “Well, I think the time had come to move on, honestly. I’d done it for ten years, at varying degrees of success. It’s something I loved very much. At a certain point I had to face the fact that… It was difficult. It was really time consuming and difficult. And also, I wasn’t happy. I really just wanted to do music. For years I had been really overwhelmed and wrapped up in doing that record label. And like I said, varying degrees of success – sometimes it was amazing and sometimes I just felt like taking a staple-gun to my face.
“Maybe it would have been different if I had been making millions of dollars, maybe Def Jux would have gone on forever! Who knows. The fact of the matter is that I started that shit cause it was needed and it felt right at the time, and it really was something I loved doing. But I felt like I wasn’t doing anyone any favours by just going through the motions, and at a certain point I felt like I was doing just that. Beyond that, if I couldn’t do for my artists what I wanted to do, if I couldn’t get the result I wanted, and I wasn’t enjoying myself, I didn’t really see what the point was. I’ve never been one to just stick around, when Company Flow broke up we thought it was the right thing to do at the time, we just moved on. That shit just needed to happen. I didn’t want to end up despising it.”
Your most recent album was 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead on Def Jux – what are you working on these days?
“I’m not really sure, my main concern these days is working on my new album, the follow up to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. That’s what I’m doing, every day. I’m producing Killer Mike’s new album, and I’ve got a couple of other side projects. Really though man, I’m just doing music, as much music as possible, which was really the point of me changing my path a little bit, to be able to have that time to do that. I’m gearing up to come out and assault the world again. I’ve given everyone a little vacation from me but unfortunately I’m not gonna be easy to ignore in a little while! [laughs]”
Tell me a favourite memory from the Company Flow years.
“That’s a good question, there are many great memories. One of my favourite moments was not when we were at our peak, but right when we started to blow up and I didn’t really understand what was happening yet. We didn’t really know we were blowing up, there was no way – the internet wasn’t even a factor then. People weren’t blowing up because of the internet, so you couldn’t go online and see people telling you you’re awesome every day. So you just had to like, find out!
“For me one of the greatest moments was when we pressed up the ‘Vital Nerve’ 12” before the full length record came out, before Rawkus pressed up Funcrusher Plus. I headed out to the Bay Area and was hanging out with some people there, and I was at some little club, downstairs in the basement, high out of my fucking mind on really good Cali weed which I was really not prepared for. And all of the [Invisbl] Scratch Piklz were down there, and there was no one else there yet, just me and them and a couple of my boys, all high off our fucking brains, clutching onto these ‘Vital Nerve’ 12″s.
“I remember Q Bert got on the decks, I was obviously a huge fan and was pretty starstruck. He got on the decks, was practicising, doing some shit, and looked a little disatisfied. He looked up and said, “someone give me something to play”. So I walked over, stoned and handed him two copies of ‘Vital Nerve’ without saying a word. He listened to it with the fader over so no one could hear it outside, he’s listening to it, and stopped it, and rewound it, and listened again. And then he brought the fader over and started going nuts with it. I was sitting there in my chair and the beats hit, I was frozen, totally high and overwhelmed. It was so surreal. As he dropped it everyone stopped talking, all the other Piklz started going, “what the fuck is this shit?”. So I raised my hand in the corner, timidly, and they all just ran over and grabbed 12″s off me. That was an amazing moment for me, cause they were heroes of mine, and I just couldn’t believe anyone liked our shit. It really meant something to me.”