The Anniversary

Fantastic Damage Turns 20

Definitive Jux
Definitive Jux

Sept. 11, 2001

Several high-profile albums were impacted by the most vividly remembered day of the 21st Century. The Strokes had to cut “New York City Cops” from Is This It. The Coup had to answer for the prescience of their original Party Music artwork. Slayer faced scrutiny for the promotional materials reading “GOD HATES US ALL: 9-11-01” that accompanied their album of the same name. System Of A Down’s Toxicity hit #1 that day and its big single, referencing “self-righteous suicide,” was promptly banned from the radio. Only Jay-Z emerged unscathed — his Blueprint dropped that day, debuting at #1 and finally winning over the rock press.

But music actually responding to the World Trade Center tragedy is a different beast, mostly limited to either rote American pride shlock like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” or a one-line reference in an otherwise unrelated song (see: Eminem, Cam’ron, Talib Kweli). It’s understandable — that’s a spicy meatball upon which to base an entire entrée. Among the few albums that get pegged as “9/11 responses,” as if American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 were diss tracks, is El-P’s furious solo debut. Fantastic Damage turns 20 tomorrow; the added distance helps to show that a terrorist attack is just one of many vivid scenes that inspired its rage.

As El recently confirmed on a podcast, all but “one or two” of Fantastic Damage’s songs were finished by Sept. 11. The obvious exception is “Accidents Don’t Happen,” which has El mourning the “flight of the accidental tourist” and those who “sleep at ground o below” before he and Cage engage in some light conspiracy theorizing (to wit: El follows the line “Metal bars of ancient Rome dissolved from the scenery” with an indignant “What the fuck?”, perhaps presaging “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” memes).

Most other connections drawn between Fantastic Damage and 9/11 are incidental, albeit in a way that even El finds perplexing. “I’m saying, ‘When the city burns down I’m gonna go to Disneyworld,’ and I’m on my roof watching planes hit the fucking buildings,” he relayed on the same podcast, referencing the “Dead Disnee” hook that was completed prior to the attack. He couldn’t argue with people that called his words prophetic. His debut album was the latest in a long line of morbid connections to the World Trade Center — a song by his former group Company Flow sampled audio that El himself had recorded at the prior 1993 bombing of the buildings, and years later, on an ecstacy-fueled nighttime sojourn to the Twin Towers, he left an addled voicemail on a friend’s answering machine predicting that they would soon come down. (Seriously, listen to that podcast excerpt linked above, it’s insane.)

Everyone ascribed a “post-9/11” sentiment to Fantastic Damage because they were finally catching up to the corroded worldview that El-P had been espousing for years. His skepticism, fierce independence, and ravenous appetite for sci-fi had already rendered Company Flow’s 1997 debut, Funcrusher Plus, one of underground rap’s most jagged, head-fucked cult favorites. And as the primary producer for his independent label, Definitive Jux, he had already left his warped, cacophonous mark on the scene. Left to his own devices, El burrowed deeper into his psyche, communing with his memories of growing up in New York but also capturing his city’s hellish modernity in ways no other pen or MPC has, before or since.

June 14, 1998

Stuck in Bronx traffic after watching the Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians 4-2 off the strength of three Tino Martinez RBIs, an off-duty police officer’s Pontiac was approached by Antoine Reid, a man who made a meager living by offering slapdash carwashes to stranded motorists. When Reid applied soap to the officer’s car, the officer got out and, according to several witnesses, cursed at Reid and chased him across several lanes of traffic before shooting him in the chest. A year later, the officer, who had previously racked up six or more complaints of excessive force, was acquitted on all charges. The judge ruled that, as the defendant, the officer did “not have to prove that he acted in self-defense.”

Fantastic Damage’s second track borrows the popular name for this widely publicized incident: the “Squeegee Man Shooting.”

El’s beat pairs the idyllic with the foreboding, with tinkling keys and a sun-splashed vocal sample offset by a rhythm section lurching towards more menacing territory. Paralleling this mood, his narrative uses the recent shooting as both a portal to a rose-colored era of youthful discovery and a dark prophecy looming ahead. He describes the scene of going to catch kung fu flicks with his father in Times Square, back when the future tourist destination was filled with cheap theaters and — on streets that still allowed cars — squeegee men. “We had, at the car wash that cost less cash, a blast,” he raps, citing the standard 25-cent rate as a plus.

The bulk of the song unfolds in those bygone mid-’80s, “the Koch era frame,” El calls it, always wont to set the scene by naming the presiding NYC mayor. This is when he first fell in love with hip-hop, chopping a sample of an unspecified live performance of the jazz standard “Red Top” in his first attempt at making a beat, studying Kool Moe Dee and Slick Rick’s cadences, putting his name into their rhymes and then practicing it.

In 2002, let alone in 2022, few would criticize El-P for being a nostalgic traditionalist. His production — for himself, for others on Def Jux, and more recently for Run The Jewels — has always garnered praise for being futuristic. He’s now 47 but rarely seems like the old guy lashing out at younger artists and longing for “the golden age.” But this reputation often distracts from the fact that El is a dyed-in-the-wool New York City B-Boy, someone whose entire world revolved around the famed four elements of hip hop — deejaying, emceeing, tagging, and breakdancing. “Back in ’86,” he raps on Fantastic Damage’s “Deep Space 9mm,” “I lived for the four-course artistry.”

His solo debut is built atop a roiling bedrock of samples, the bulk of which come from either left-of-center ’60s and ’70s fare like Silver Apples, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Mike Oldfield, or more obscure 20th Century detritus commonly known as “library music.” El creates something jarring by bouncing the futuristic sounds of yesteryear off of each other, but lurking among the chaos is the grounding presence of the hip hop that raised him. The drum breaks, as creative as they may be, pack a neck-snapping slap indebted to boom-bap. On “Deep Space 9mm,” El paraphrases a line from BDP’s “Philosophy,” and on “Dead Disnee,” one from Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” You can hear Kool G Rap scratched into “Tuned Mass Damper,” warning, “You’re not promised tomorrow.” Going back even further in time, El gleefully sings along with the vocoder from Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s “Scorpio” on the “Constellation Funk” intro.

“Constellation Funk” is, in part, a response to being dissed by Sole, a co-founder of rival indie rap label Anticon. According to El, the Maine-raised Sole claimed he was “more artistic and advanced than the inner city tune is,” but knew “nothing of the culture that created hip-hop music.” “We steep with veteran sense in our refinement/ We see the beauty in chaos and misdirection,” El continues, summing up his mission to honor rap’s rich history while also flipping the form on its head. Like most other white rappers who have made lasting careers beyond a few pop hits, El-P did the work.

More worrying than the influx of knowledge-deficient rappers, though, was the iron-fisted police presence that Mayor Rudy Giuliani brought to New York in 1994. This new regime was “Quick with a long arm that wasn’t designed to carry ya,” as El raps on “Lazerfaces’ Warning.” Although he too fretted about rising rates of gun violence — “Tell history I’ll be right here hiding from guns,” via “Deep Space 9mm” — he was more worried about “broken windows” policing erasing so much of what he held dear in his youth.

On “Squeegee Man Shooting,” he snaps out of his flashback to mourn the loss of a pre- millennium institution:

Adult life, squeegee man shot, cop’s hand
That’s a lot of bad conversion, that’s certain
Homeless hustle lost to the dark of the blue curtain

November 17, 1994

“In his continuing assault on so-called quality-of-life crimes,” read the New York Times, “Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani yesterday announced a sweeping program to use more than a dozen city agencies to combat graffiti.”

Since 1972, when then-mayor John Lindsay first declared war on graffiti, New York had been trying to snuff out its vibrant culture of guerilla public art. Lindsay’s successor, Abraham Beame, put 10 cops on the anti-graffiti beat. Amid the Koch era in 1985, the city announced the “Clean Train Movement,” targeting the subway cars that had become the most visible, prestigious canvases for taggers. In 1989, the MTA announced that the last graffitied train had been removed from rotation.

Giuliani’s effort was the most draconian to date, as was his style. It not only devoted unprecedented resources to stamp out graffiti, but also banned the sale of spray paint cans to anyone under 18. “Graffiti is a metaphor for urban decay perhaps best shown in A Clockwork Orange, ” he smugly told the Times, “and New York City will not be like that.”

On “Deep Space 9mm,” El-P offers a slightly more imaginative metaphor, perhaps drawing on another ’60s sci-fi classic, Dune: “Metal worms took turns showin’ off colors and shit/ Like I invaded a mating dance ritual.”

Throughout Fantastic Damage, graffiti is a rallying cry for creativity. El remembers a childhood spent obsessed with artists like Stay High 149 (who gets a shoutout on “Dead Disnee”), back when his thoughts, as he raps on “Truancy,” “Followed the color chart on the A-train country.” But what began as an “unmatriculated brain hobby” soon ballooned with importance due to the twin factors of the city’s crackdown and the medium’s potential as a memorial for dead friends.

“Tuned Mass Damper” is dedicated to Matt Doo, the artist behind the Funcrusher Plus artwork who took his own life in 1998. On it, El pits his and his friends’ small-scale rebellions against the astronomically more nefarious activities of the powers that be: “They playing global thermal nucleus games/ Let’s rearrange the whole complaint/ Who the fuck is down to steal me some paint?” But the main thrill isn’t petty theft, it’s leaving a mark that people will remember long after life squishes you like a bug, a primal urge that’s hounded mankind since the Paleolithic era:

We could get ancient with this shit
On some cavernous wall description, I’m lit
Trying to draw this figure eight with a twig
As if the symmetry alone is a prescription to live

Born in a mid-’70s landscape gutted by Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway and ravaged by drugs, hip-hop thrived on repurposing broken scraps of urban decay. DJs tapped into the city power grid via lamposts for block parties, dug through dusty vinyl for cast-off drum breaks, busted open barely functioning turntables and remade them as instruments. B-Boys made dancefloors out of cardboard boxes and canvases out of crumbling walls. And then one by one, those outlets were snuffed out. The city cracked down on the outdoor jams and the graffiti. The RIAA cracked down on samples. To be a hip-hop devotee who’d lived through the golden age and into the modern one was to witness the systematic dismantling of the artform around which you’d based your entire life.

Remembering the vibrant metal worms he used to love, El reflects: “Criminal now/ Why the things we find beautiful undermine power?”

September 21, 1993

The start of the new school year had already been pushed back 11 days, the longest such delay in over 25 years. In August, investigators deemed all previous public school inspections unreliable, sending the city into a panic about the presence of asbestos, a mineral that was widely used in building materials until news broke about its potential to cause cancer if inhaled. Mayor David Dinkins ordered reinspections of all schools. The turnaround proved overambitious — even by the extended deadline of September 21st, over 100 school buildings remained closed, forcing kids to overcrowd into any available classroom.

By this point, El-P was 18 and out of the public school system. He’d been kicked out of two high schools and instead opted to attend the Center For The Media Arts to learn music engineering. The 1993 school delay didn’t impact him, but the idea that his already-miserable time spent in K-12 might have also included inhalation of cancerous chemicals did. He says as much on “Truancy”: “I became toxic allotted in badly shaded cement fuselages.”

Asbestos gets a namedrop less than three minutes into Fantastic Damage, the first of many times El would reference it in his lyrics. Elsewhere on the album, phrases like “black lung exhaust” and “vomiting rotted language addict” conjure images of a childhood spent breathing in toxins that the powers-that-be were too callous to care about. This theme of societal abandonment echoed throughout New York in the ’70s and ’80s — the infamous 1975 Daily News headline “Ford To City: Drop Dead,” the aforementioned birth conditions of hip-hop, the AIDS crisis — and it courses through Fantastic Damage like a poison.

“After house of the Deadheads fled, it’s just the city moans,” El raps on the title track, perhaps speaking to the faded promises of the Greenwich Village hippie scene as well as the white flight that filled suburbs in the tri-state area. Left behind was a “malignant kid in it with sentence of sinister conferred” who “rock[s] that wound aesthetic.” “Truancy” elaborates, explaining how hip-hop became the refuge that school never was, the source of meaning in a world unconcerned with his well-being. This all begs the question if El would have actually enjoyed a more stable childhood devoid of the repellent factors that led him to B-Boying. When he raps, “You can’t save the children, we weren’t worth the effort,” on “Deep Space 9mm,” he almost sounds triumphant.

The legal, structural, and chemical blights on New York left an indelible mark on El, turning him into a prophet of a rubble-strewn existence. Without that chaos, we might not have the splattered collages of his beats or the anarcho-futurism of his lyrics. Once again invoking Dune on “Dead Disnee,” El envisions himself creating the tool that helps natives of Arrakis detect deadly giant worms: “Born to make a thumper that warns the scorched earth.”

Undisclosed Date, 1987 Or 1988

The most powerful song on Fantastic Damage is its lead single, “Stepfather Factory.” In it, El-P pits himself as a spokesperson for a company manufacturing androids marketed to single mothers as a stable male presence in their household. Its hook wails with the clangor of the rest of the album, but the glossy, syncopated whirrs behind its verses are more disconcerting. It’s like finally infiltrating a smoke-belching mega-factory and finding a spotless, efficient assembly line of untold horrors.

Around the album’s release, El penned a brief essay for Vice explaining the song (major trigger warning on that). When he was 12, his stepdad brutally beat his mom while he and his sister huddled together in the next room. The words delivered by a robotic voice towards the song’s end, “Why are you making me hurt you? I love you,” are allegedly what his mother’s abuser yelled at her that night.

El’s writing on “Stepfather Factory” is incredible, a dead ringer for the sci-fi short stories of his favorite author, Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, he expresses the very real concerns of the present under the guise of a far-off future, a truncated timeline of human evolution both exotic and profoundly depressing. Even more frequently than Fantastic Damage gets tied to 9/11, El’s entire life’s work is lauded as “dystopian” or “post-apocalyptic,” to the degree that it’s now a music critic cliché on par with describing Elizabeth Fraser’s voice as “ethereal,” Roger McGuinn’s guitar sound as “jangly,” or post-punk as “angular.” But despite his fondness for alien synth sounds and technobabble — to be fair, he does describe his city as a “dystopia” and himself as an “apocaloid” on the album — El is first and foremost a realist. Nowhere is that more evident than Fantastic Damage’s frank discussion of the abuses that women endure.

“Lazerfaces’ Warning” abruptly pivots in its second half, with El lashing out at misogynistic pop culture mainstays like MTV Spring Break, Girls Gone Wild, and Woodstock ’99, as well as their inherent hypocrisy: “Thanks a lot, be safe, be young, be sex/ Be at Woodstock, kumbaya, be wet, belong, be raped.” El’s sister had been sexually assaulted in the past, and he viciously calls out her attacker on “Accidents Won’t Happen” as well as “Constellation Funk,” the latter of which comes in the form of a startling mission statement:

Now I’m grown and I still can’t protect my sister
But I know she has her mother’s strength within her
And maybe I can tap that strength and flirt with greatness
Expose these alcoholic stepfathers and rapists!

In 2002, El still carried some of the fouler aspects of ’90s New York rap with him, namely the blind bigotry of the homophobic slurs peppering his diss tracks. But especially during a time when the biggest white rapper on the planet was engaging in gleeful, bloody rape fantasies, El’s deference to the women in his life was further proof of his commitment to nonfiction. This persisted even in less dire circumstances.

“T.O.J.” is a letter to an ex whose dumping of El “sparked a change” in him, and this “time out of joint” (a Shakespeare-ism by way of Dick) response is colored with gratitude and admissions of El’s emotional shortcomings. This naked honesty didn’t come easily for a chest-beating shit-talker (“I don’t really, uh, feel very clever right now,” El ad-libs midway through the song), but he’s able to sum up that necessary struggle with a space-related metaphor: “Before I could become a new sun I had to fall apart.”

Fantastic Damage shows that sci-fi signifiers don’t make explorations of real-life modernity less insightful than stuff that heralds itself as nonfiction. In fact, futuristic parallels might enhance the point being made. El’s production shows that no matter how dear the founding ideals of hip hop are to you, you can always flip those elements into daring new shapes. The knee-jerk demarcation of Fantastic Damage as “9/11-inspired” shows that large-scale televised disasters are only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s to the grisled warrior poets on the ground telling us that shit’s always been fucked up.

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