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Classic album - El-P on Fantastic Damage: "I was throwing everything I had at these tracks - anything could become a bassline if you pitched it down"

EL-P
(Image credit: Press)

This was the album El-P never intended to make. His previous group (the indie rap gods, Company Flow) was going to be his career. They were blowing up. Then they broke up. 

“It took me a second to come around to doing the idea of doing a solo album”, he says. “I’d conceived of that group. It was my baby. Now, I had to go it alone...”

He bunkered up in his Brooklyn bedroom studio and considered what it meant to be a soloist. “I needed this album to be a documentation of who I was. You’d heard Company Flow and we were dope, and smart, and talked shit. I could either do that, or I could start mining my life for material.”

Over three years he’d pick away at his own deep psychological wounds for lyrics. From the horrors of domestic abuse (Stepfather Factory), to paranoia (Accidents Don’t Happen), and self-destructive relationships (T.O.J.). Nothing was off the table.

The process was part autobiography, part therapy session, and empowered the rapper to tackle his rawest emotions. “It was very cleansing,” he says. 

This newfound freedom of expression crucially spilt over into the beatmaking. Armed with his Ensoniq EPS-16 Plus sampler, El-P set to work crafting noises, tones, loops and layers until he had the perfect sonic tapestry for his complex personal rhymes to weave through. 

“Musically, it was a dense record,” he says. “It had to be. I was throwing everything I had at these tracks - anything could become a bassline if you pitched it down. And millisecond samples could be looped into tones. If it sounded cool, I’d use it.”

The final piece of the puzzle was DJ Abilities, the turntablist whose deft cuts were used by El-P as further sample ammo. 

“I told him, ‘We’re gonna play with structure here, and take your scratches and fuck with them to change the rhythm and the tone of the songs’. It gave the album that unique sound. 

“Yes. It was raw and probably unpolished. But we thought that sounded great.”

Originally released in 2002, Fantastic Damage made its streaming debut at the start of the year. An all-new 18th anniversary vinyl edition is also being issued.

El-P has a slew of material out right now. Aside from power moves with his latest crew, Run The Jewels, he’s scored the recent Tom Hardy movie, Capone. 

Fans of his early work should also check in with Fat Possum Records. Besides the Fantastic Damage reissue, they’re also handling the follow-up, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which has been commercially unavailable for nearly a decade.

Fantastic Damage track by track with El-P

Fantastic Damage

“This started off as a remix for a Rawkus [Records] compilation. And they couldn’t handle it. They were like, ‘It’s too much’. So, I was like, ‘You know what? It ain’t too much for me, guys. This is where I’m headed’. 

“The beat was all over the place. It is literally not sequenced. It’s just me playing the whole thing out with different chops on the EPS-16 Plus [sampler]. I thought it was nasty! I was like, ‘This shit is fucking raw!’ It’s a screaming intro. It’s kicking the door open.”

Squeegee Man Shooting

“This was based on this old newspaper article in New York. The title was the headline. It always stuck with me: somebody shot one of those guys that tries to clean your car windows and asks for money. It felt like New York; my childhood. It brought back memories. 

“This was the first record that I was making under my own name. I needed it to be a documentation of who I was. I needed to start mining for this kind of material in my life.”

Deep Space 9mm

“I was influenced by [Outkast’s] Bombs Over Baghdad. It felt chaotic and fast and funky. It appealed to me, as I dealt it a bit of chaos myself, you know?

“I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick novels as well. He introduced the idea of the steel and cages of ancient Rome still being under the surface. ‘You’re behind the walls of new Rome/You wanna buy the farm, but it’s not yours to own’. It was sort of a commentary on how western religion thinks about suicide. I’m not sure a lot of people got that.”

Tuned Mass Damper

“A tuned mass damper is the weight at the top of a skyscraper that slides depending on which way the wind is blowing it. I had stumbled on those words, and that concept, and I started to relate it to the way we deal with trauma and grief.

“I was really playing with the beat and evolving it, too. And that was one of the first pieces that I did where, by the time the song ends, it was really not exactly the same piece of music anymore.”

Dead Disnee

“In my mind Disney World was the perfect metaphor for the cognitive dissonance of capitalism versus reality, and the dark truth of America. Disney World is the fantasy of what America is supposed to be. But if you look into it you start to realise what a nightmare it really is. They have jail cells under Disney. They don’t allow anyone to die there. They’ll keep you alive to drag you off the property so they can say, legally, that you didn’t die at Disney World.”

DeLorean

“This was just a joke. We were referencing Back to The Future in the chorus with the, ‘Great Scott! We need to go back in time to when muthafuckers can rock’. That was me and Aes [-op Rock], just fucking having fun and trading bars. That was it. I don’t think there was much of a high concept to it.

“In the breakdown I used a Company Flow track called Simian Drugs with Ill Bill. I always wanted to deconstruct it and use it somehow on this record, because it wasn’t on an official album or anything.”

Truancy

“This is one of my favourite songs on the album. It has Rob Sonic on. He has a great voice, so I had him come in and do back-up vocals for me.

“On this record, there was a lot of that. I didn’t do any ‘features’ in the track titles. I loved using people for little things. It’s like George Clooney playing the gay dog on South Park. They got him in, but just to bark as a gay dog, you know? That theory is something that I’ve applied to my music.”

The Nang, The Front, The Bush And The Shit

“This is two-tier, layered, metaphor. It was a way for me to tell the story of how I got into music, and not finish school, and also comment on the phenomenon of army recruiters selling you a dream.

“The second half of the song was about being in The Shit. You’re in the war. It was The Tour. It was a tour of duty, and also the tour of being a musician. Trying to get yourself out alive, desperately trying to hang on to the leg of the last helicopter out of there.”

Accidents Don’t Happen

“This was meant to be the absolute most paranoid fucking jam possible. I brought in Cage and Camu on this. I was like, ‘I know two dudes who can be paranoid!’

“The way I made this beat was with a crazy tone. On the EPS-16 Plus you have a beginning and the end of the sample, and they’re represented by numbers. If you play with the arrows, it gets so tight that the notes change as you go. So, when you hear all that [mimes a super high-pitched note scale] that’s me, playing it live, on my sampler, with my fingers, all the way through. Just fucking around with the result of making that sample so small that it just becomes a tone, and literally changing the notes by inching it and edging in one direction or another.”

Stepfather Factory

“This was me telling the story about my mother being abused and us witnessing it. By then I had a more sardonic perspective on it. I could darkly and humourlessly talk about it. I prefer that objective perspective to be darkly humorous about tragedy. 

“I just imagined the idea that if you were to build a robot stepfather, it would still get drunk and beat the shit out of your mom. I used it as a metaphor to talk about broken families and mothers, out of guilt, trying to fill that position in the family with inferior models.”

T.O.J.

“I had a really big love affair around the time of writing this. It only lasted probably about five months, but it was the first time I had fallen deeply in love. And it was this explosive, very passionate thing. It didn’t work.

“This was my way of saying to the woman, ‘Look. All this flailing and screaming and wishing aside, you’re important to me and I’m proud of you. And I will be there for you in whatever way I can. Even though I’m hurt’.

“I’m still friends with this woman, 20 years later.”

Dr. Hellno And The Praying Mantis

“That was me just talking about good old-fashioned raw dog fucking!

“It was supposed to be funny, and about real sex, and the joy of that, and being grimy and all that, but with respect. Like, ‘Put my tongue up her ass crack/Until our future children hatch’, you know?

“The idea of the most savage, raw, unhinged, fun sex, with someone you’re in love with. You’re in your 20s and you’re like, ‘Damn! That’s what they’re talking about. This is sex, as advertised!’”

Lazerfaces’ Warning

“This was a mushroom trip through the neon chaos and pop culture of New York city. It was based on doing ‘shrooms with Vast Aire and Camu Tao, in a taxi. 

“Now, up until that point in my life I hadn’t done ’shrooms. And these were pulsating with psilocybin – I’ve never even seen ’shrooms like them since!

“I’m in the back, screaming at the top of my lungs because I think there’s light shooting out of my face! I can’t close my mouth because I’m screaming, ‘There’s lazers coming outta my face!’ and I’m laughing hysterically. This poor fucking cab driver, man. 

“I feel so bad to this day. I’m sure it shook him to his core.”

Innocent Leader

“That’s just an instrumental. It was sort of to bring it down a little bit. There were little vignettes throughout the record. 

“I always liked that about records when they did that. I attached bits to ends of records to ride you out. There’s one on the end of The Nang, The Front, The Bush And The Shit. And this one was just that, as well. 

“It’s a bit of an ‘intermission’ before the final act, I guess.”

Constellation Funk 

“I love that jam, too. Ultimately, I was talking about how my family had encountered some brutal shit, and how I wasn’t unable to protect them from it. As a young man I wrestled with that in a big way. 

“I wanted to express to my sister in a song how that had defined me as a man. I wanted to use their strength in overcoming that as victims as a signifier as what it meant to be a man.”

Blood

“'Pop loved the ladies/And mom kept the babies /And do right, do right, do right, do right, do right’ – I had C-Rayz [Walz] sing that, but it felt like a good enough ending statement on who I was, you know? The truth. Broken down in the simplest way. 

“You know? ‘Do right!’ You know? At the end of the day just fucking try to do right. It’s not a judgement. It’s not a critique. This was the life. The core of it. Childhood.

“I recognised that I was really making a statement about myself on this record. Laying out bare, for the first time, in a way, who I was, and why I was.”

In the studio with El-P

“I made the album in my apartment in Brooklyn. I had the turntable and an Ensoniq EPS-16 Plus sampler. It was kinda fucking thoroughbred, at the time. The filtering and the sequencing and effects were really unique to it. You really could get something out of that, creatively. And changing the envelopes would fuck with the samples too.

“I had a Kaoss Pad. We used that quite a bit as a sort of an effects pedal, to a degree, with DJ Abilities. 

“I had one of the shittier Oberheims. An OB-12. It barely worked. I bought it as a display model from Guitar Center. There was none of that sophisticated shit. It was a while before I managed to make sense of all that. The screen kept blinking in and out, and you wouldn’t know what the fuck was happening.

“We barely even used ProTools. A lot of it was, in essence, tracking stuff directly from the EPS-16 to ADATs. DA88s, actually. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.”

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