This past June marked the 20th anniversary of a debut that changed hip-hop, Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt. It was an album that delivered a stern message to the rap community that New York City was still the mountaintop of the game despite the successes of contemporaries in California and the South. Combining Big Daddy Kane mic skills with Biggie-esque storytelling into a commercially viable potion, Jay's debut was an overture to the mainstream. But 1996 wasn't just a big year for New York rap because the genre's ascendant superstar was coming into his own.
Across town, a similar revolution was manifesting itself in the form of Company Flow, a multi-cultural trio who dropped their own enigmatic debut EP Funcrusher about two weeks before Reasonable Doubt hit the shops. The collective of El-P, Bigg Jus, and DJ Mr. Len turned the concept of underground hip-hop sideways with a caustic sense of rhythm every bit as menacing as the music of Cocoa Brovaz and Black Moon. But instead of spitting tales of street dreams these guys were waxing dystopic with rhyme schemes inspired by EPMD and lyrical content coloured with imagery from their favorite sci-fi books and anime films.
"I was obsessed with Philip K. Dick," says El-P now, reflecting on the period. "Sort of those dystopic writers: the Orwells and the Bradburys and the Faulkners. That and we were also watching animation and we were watching Holy Mountain. Crazy Japanimation shit. Just anything we could get our hands on, we were just sucking up everything that we loved and were getting into. The rawer it was, the more interesting it was for us. So it was really just this garbage dump of everything we were thinking and everything we felt that was funny or fucked up, and we just tried to fit it into the scope of this real grimy, raw shit."
"One of the lines that really clicked on me was 'Phonetically abort it try to distort it and catch a silent scream, fetus' from 'Bad Touch Example,'" Len remembers. " Silent Scream was a movie about abortion they would show you in health class. So when El was telling me about that verse after he was done recording, I was like, 'Dude, that Silent Scream shit is fucked up!' But that's why we all got along: We shared this real dark sense of humour."
With their against-the-grain attitude—their credo was "Independent as Fuck"— Company Flow represented an essential avant-garde impulse in New York hip-hop culture. Even as the genre was becoming increasingly mainstream and commercial, they were the leaders of a vital countercultural scene. Although their run together was brief and yielded a relatively small body of work, they laid the groundwork, often directly, with subsequent pursuits, for a generation of underground hip-hop to come. In 1996, there was nothing like Company Flow; two decades later, that's still true.
The trio first came together in 1993 thanks to a small Long Island record label called Libra Records, which released the Company Flow single "Juvenile Techniques." El was just 17, attending a vocational school called the Centre for Media Arts and studying music engineering. "I basically went there because my mother didn't want me to be a fucking asshole and get kicked out of more schools," he remembers. "She was like, 'Think of something you want to do, but you're not gonna not do something.' And so I told her, 'I wanna do this music shit full-time.'" At school, through his friend Lou Ballantine, he met the rapper and producer Anttex, who helped run Libra. Jus worked at the label doing college radio promotion, and Len was an intern who knew how to DJ.
"[Anttex] ended up liking my shit and we wound up forming a studio together," El-P explains. "My mother had this place in Manhattan that she had rooms in and rented them out. And so it went from being a loft to like a boarding house that she was using to get extra income, and we all ended up living there. And these dudes put this equipment in one of the rooms, which was essentially the size of a walk-in pantry. And I had met Jus through them, and Jus ended up moving in. That situation didn't last long, but that's how I got on Libra. They heard what I did and wanted to give me a record deal. I was 17 years old and like, 'Oh shit, my dreams are finally coming true.'"
The rawer it was, the more interesting it was for us. So it was really just this garbage dump of everything we were thinking and everything we felt that was funny or fucked up.
Before the Internet, it was college radio that helped put kids on to fresh new music being ignored by the mainstream media. And one of the most popular stations in New York City was WKCR 89.9 FM out of Columbia University, primarily on account of the massively influential six-hour hip-hop show hosted by a pair of hungry, knowledgeable and well-connected industry cats in DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, who were quick to recognise the promise instilled in that first single. Following "Techniques," the trio was soon invited up to the show on a regular basis and would provide Stretch and Bob with new songs as they created them.
"We invited them up, and El just killed it the first time right off the top of his head," reflects Garcia. "It's funny, even to this day when I see him I'm like 'with the viscosity!' because of the rhymes he was coming up with back then. He came up with the word 'viscosity' out of thin air, and we were like, 'Who does that?'" For the next couple years, the group kept making music and developing their sound, but instead of releasing the records, they would pass demos and cassettes of unreleased songs to Stretch and Bob, who became close friends. Among those were songs like "8 Steps to Perfection," "Vital Nerve," "Corners." The cuts became immediate successes.
"When I first played '8 Steps,' it was insane," Garcia remembers. "People were calling the show like, 'Yo! What the fuck is that song?!'" El and Jus were honing their skills in "this crazy game of oneupsmanship back and forth, which both of us just trying to go for it, saying the illest shit in the illest way possible." Armstrong, who worked at the venerated 90s rap imprint Loud Records, tried to get label head Steve Rifkind to sign them, but he'd already used much of his clout with his boss vouching for Mobb Deep just a few days prior.
"Hey, if I was making that choice back then I probably would have signed Mobb Deep," laughs El-P. He'd also been stonewalled by Monica Lynch of Tommy Boy Records, Armstrong recalls: "Basically she said, 'This isn't for you.'" But if these rejections were setbacks, they were also no doubt the seed of the group's "Independent as Fuck" attitude. They simply released the EP themselves under the Official Recordings handle.
Company Flow in 1997 / Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images
"After doing the label shopping process, that's what we did," recalls Jus. "We were already putting out records at Libra, and I had enough knowledge of how to press up records every month." Once they'd pressed up the first copies of Funcrusher, they took the wax straight to Stretch and Bob.
"It was one of the most memorable nights of my life," says Jus. "They would play the demo of '8 Steps' here and there, but when we got the vinyl we drove it up to the show, dropped it off, and then parked the car down near the World Trade Center and fired up the radio, waiting for the show to start. And when they opened up the show with ['8 Steps'], it made our fucking night. The intro was so ill, and it came in so perfect because it had the illest opening line. 'Rugged like Rwanda / Don't wind up far or you get chopped up.' It was monumental."
Soon after, the trio would meet the man who would help the trio take their craft to the next level in Amaechi Uzoigwe, who continues to manage El-P to this very day. Uzoigwe and some college buddies had gotten into the business of directing music videos, and they also had a studio. Although they were admittedly not sure what they were doing, they were starting to get into management as well.
"We had met a rap group from Brooklyn who wanted a video made called Dominant Species," explains Uzoigwe. "They were just signing a deal with an indie, and they wanted to make a video, so they hired us to shoot the video. And in the whole process, they told me that they haven't actually signed their deal and we needed to sit down with the label. So I said, 'Sure', so I set up a meeting in the West Village at some diner, and this 18-year-old kid shows up, El-P. I was like, 'Is this the label?' Whoa." Uzoigwe and El hit it off, and Company Flow eventually ended up recording at his studio as they prepared material for an LP version of the music on Rawkus.
There couldn't have been a more perfect year for Company Flow to emerge as a major force of hip-hop left of the dial than 1996. The separation between the underground and the mainstream had reached a serious state of p by mid-decade, clearly evidenced in how the music was exposed on the streets. Where the likes of Jermaine Dupri and Puff Daddy were bumping in the clubs all over the country, a more visceral and experimental form of hip-hop took root beneath the surface, traded and spoken of like contraband in an underground ecosystem comprised of house parties, tiny clubs and record shops. It was within this network that artists like Dr. Octagon, The Arsonists, Big L, Non Phixion, and DJ Shadow found an audience hungry for beats and rhymes beyond the norm and miles away from the pop rap bubbling up in clubs across America. Angular and knotty, it was music to be dissected for references and listened to closely.
They just had a different and a very unique pissed-offness. They were kind of Philip K. Dick, and they were kind of punk and just very raw but sophisticated.
"Company Flow and our attitude was a reaction to that lull," says El-P. "Our generation grew up on just nasty ass shit, so when there was a shift and it went soft and began to go pop, it didn't feel right at the time. Everyone was still very protective of the art, and everyone was still of the code. So when things began to get commercial, there was a lot of reaction, and hip-hop fans that wanted the next shit, felt pissed off because they were getting what they thought was a step back. It's all debatable whether or not that's true, but that's the way it felt. And I think the first reaction was this really thriving scene that popped outside of it from people who rejected all that shit and were trying to get busy and try to find ways of defining things that was the opposite of what was out there." There was a punk energy to what they were doing that felt entirely fresh.
"You have these periods of time that are defined by a middle finger in the air to where the money is," El adds. "But it wasn't really like 'Fuck everyone else' so much as it was 'This shit is happening. This fucked up, raw-assed shit is happening, and we are going to present it to you. This is how we want to sound.'"
That attitude brought in new listeners outside the world of hip-hop, too. Journalist Charles Aaron, who wrote for SPIN and was one of the first people in the mainstream music press to cover Company Flow , was exposed to the group through the "8 Steps to Perfection" single.
"I just remember how it looked, with the elaborate scrawl of their logo and the 'Independent As Fuck' on the label," he says. "As an older punk rock veteran, it reminded me very much of Fugazi. They just had a different and a very unique pissed-offness. They were kind of Philip K. Dick, and they were kind of punk and just very raw but sophisticated."
Visitor log from Stretch and Bobbito. Image courtesy of the film STRETCH AND BOBBITO: RADIO THAT CHANGES LIVES
"As I got down the line, I only heard about people like Fugazi when people began calling us the Rap Fugazi," El-P says, laughing. "I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know what the fuck that was. The more left turns we could take, the more we could just hit a different angle, we did. We were all lovers of graffiti and guys like Phase 2, and there's an intricacy and abstractness to the stuff that we were into, which made us write the way we wrote."
"I remember when Funcrusher first came out and immediately in my head comparing it to progressive rock," remembers Uncommon Nasa, a longtime protégé of Company Flow and El-P. "I first heard '8 Steps to Perfection' on Stretch & Bob and was like, 'What is this?' It was so different from anything else. And I think it was an influence on El production-wise, at least to some degree. The timing of hearing that EP was right in line when I had first discovered Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and early Genesis and all those groups as a young man at 17 years old. That EP was the sound which coined the phrase 'progressive hip-hop'."
"They were ahead of everybody just as far as continuity and creativity as well," agrees Breeze Brewin of fellow underground NYC heavyweights The Juggaknots, who combined with Company Flow to form the supergroup The Indelible MC's, best known for the classic 1997 single "The Fire In Which You Burn." He wasn't as attuned to the business side of music at the time, he adds, complimenting El's instincts, vision, and acumen. "They lived up to the whole 'Independent as Fuck' credo. That independent vision was something they saw ahead of everybody else. They were like, 'Fuck a deal.' Official Recordings was them."
The group benefitted from independent exposure, too. Jus credits the importance of a local public access show that would come on in the middle of the night "after all the porn shows like Robin Byrd and Al Goldstein." He remembers: "All they showed was this GG Allin clip where he got naked and shit on the floor and rubbed it all over his body. And then they played some kind of Company Flow in-store where we performed I believe '8 Steps' and 'Vital Nerve.' I swear they must have played that same segment for like two years straight. That's how a lot of people in New York heard of Company Flow. It was like someone rented out the time on the channel for like two years straight and played the same clip every Wednesday."
Pressed on translucent green vinyl, the Funcrusher EP quickly became a hot commodity following all this exposure throughout the NYC region. And for young record shops like Other Music, Fat Beats and Bobbito's own store, Bobbito's Footwork, carrying the likes of the EP was what truly separated them from their commercial big box counterparts.
"Most record stores at the time, and especially when it came to hip-hop, were like if it wasn't on a major label they weren't messing with it," states Fat Beats owner Joseph "DJ Jab" Abajian, who founded the iconic New York City record shop in 1994. "The regular record stores were really only carrying what the major labels were paying to have stocked in there. When I opened up, I was always like, 'Yo, if it's good, I'm carrying it.' There's no politics in it. And Funcrusher was one of the records that came in and we were blowing out of them like crazy." Independent record stores became the hubs of a fully-fledged scene.
"I've always felt like '95 into '96 was like this turning point of when hip-hop started going in new directions," says DJ Eclipse, who was one of the Fat Beats store managers. "Our scene out of Fat Beats was actually created because all of the stuff coming out on the major labels we couldn't relate to. So that's when everyone was like, 'OK, forget about doing it with a major label; let's just do it ourselves.' And so that was exactly what we did; that whole scene—Natural Elements, Non Phixion, Juggaknots, Arsonists—that was the beginning of it, but even more so at the forefront was Company Flow. They already had the EP recorded and ready to go, so they were ahead of us in terms of getting out there with a solid project. They were there to establish the scene." Far from being distant and aloof artists, the group's members would constantly hang out at Fat Beats, if not all at the same time.
"We all just knew that was the spot to be," says Len. "I remember the one down on 9th Street. I would go in there and hang out with Mista Sinista and practice with him on the turntables and shit. It was also cool to see all the different people who would come into the store back in those early, early days." Nasa, for instance, remembers coming in and asking for the record, which was sold out at the time, only to be told by Len himself it was being re-pressed.
"I was like, 'Cool,' and left the store thinking to myself, 'Was that guy in the group?'" he says, laughing. To be fair, for a long time nobody really knew what Company Flow looked like, only adding to their sense of mystery within the hip-hop community. It came as a surprise to many fans when they discovered the crew was comprised of a white guy, a black guy, and an half-Asian, half-black guy—but it also made sense in a world where smarts, skills, and talent superseded race, color, and creed.
"I don't think the kids in Queensbridge who listened to our show even questioned El-P's race," recalls Armstrong.
"Not to say I sounded like a black guy or anyone other than a white guy, but no one knew I was white," El confirms. "It was so much to the point where people would meet me and think I was joking or I was the DJ." He remembers an article The Source put together called "White Rappers Who Are Actually Respected," in which he declined to participate. "The bottom line is it didn't matter to me," he says. "I didn't want to be a part of that conversation."
Neither did those in the scene at that time in New York City. Nobody gave a fuck if you were black, white, brown, yellow, green, or blue in the face. Not the fans, and certainly not the artists. As long as you were bringing the quality in the 12-inch singles and cassette mixtapes you were dropping off at Fat Beats and Footwork, killing it on your freestyles after being invited up to the Stretch & Bob show, and bringing the fire to the shows that went down at such classic clubs as Wetlands and Club Vinyl, you gained the respect of your peers.
"It was a competitive environment, but an encouraging one as well," explains Breeze Brewin. "Ain't nobody really thought, 'Yo, I got the number one spot over here.' Everybody would go to everybody else's shows. There was a lot of love. Cats were as much friends as they were artists and we were all there for each other. Like when we went up onstage, the Arsonists were listening. And the next time, Natural Elements were listening. It was a dope time, man. When I grew up listening to the radio, dudes were stars. And I always wondered if Kane hung out with Rakim, or if De La would chill with Ultra Mag. Maybe they did or they didn't. But I know, for us, we all did hang out together."
"That whole community which we were a part of was really, really supportive for everybody, and I haven't seen that since," El-P says.
El-P and Bigg Jus perform in London in 2011 / Photo by Nick Pickles/WireImage
In 1997, Company Flow would go on to expand the EP to a double LP named Funcrusher Plus, kicking off a shaky but fruitful run on Rawkus Records. El, Jus, and Len soon went their separate ways following two years of touring and single releases, as well as an instrumental album from just El and Len. "Nobody ever stopped, everyone just switched lanes and kept on going," Jus explains. The group's final offering, a collaborative EP in 2000 with former El-P protégés Cannibal Ox, was one of the very first titles to be released on El's then-fledgling indie label Definitive Jux. Co-founded in 1999 with Uzoigwe, the label, which went on hiatus in 2010, was a cornerstone of the underground hip-hop scene of the early 2000s.
Each group member continued to release acclaimed music, including such treasures as Mr. Len's outstanding and vastly underrated 2001 solo debut on Matador Records, Pity The Fool, and such Bigg Jus gems as 2002's Black Mamba Serums, 2005's Poor People's Day, and 2012's Machines That Make Civilization Fun. El-P's solo career found various underground successes, too, but, since forming the duo Run the Jewels with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike in 2013, he's been catapulted to an entirely different level, enjoying the biggest audiences of his career. The duo is currently at work on a third album.
"I knew from our very first meeting that El-P was special," says Uzoigwe. "From the start, I was like, 'God, who is this kid?' He was so confident and so sure about what he wanted to do and he studied up on his craft. As a teenager, the dude interned for M. William Krasilovsky, who wrote the definitive book on music law. The more I learned about him, the more fascinated I became, which still holds true to this very day." But much of the magic that has made El-P such a success today can no doubt be traced to the ethos that was there from the very beginning.
We were three dudes who didn't necessarily know what the fuck we were going to be doing with our lives.
"[The 'Independent As Fuck' credo] was just an acknowledgment that we were doing it on our own," El-P recalls. "We were three dudes who didn't necessarily know what the fuck we were going to be doing with our lives." He describes the New York scene of those days as "the family I never had," reflecting on the value of meeting the other members of Company Flow when he did. He adds, "It gave each of us a purpose, and a reason to grow and become who we would become. I'm very grateful for that time. I look back on it, even though it ended prematurely, with great reverence." Without a doubt, there's still a sense of lightning in a bottle that came with the moment.
"Everybody is staying progressive and I, for one, have been the cheerleader for possibly doing another record," says Jus. "At this point in time, a real Company Flow full-length hasn't even been realized." Yet whether or not the day comes when El-P, Bigg Jus, and Mr. Len decide to capture that magic again, the legacy of Company Flow continues to be felt regardless of where they are in their respective careers.
"It still very much resonates with people," says El-P. "To this day, no matter what I do, there's always going to be somebody who is going to say to me, 'I love what you're doing now, but Company Flow was my shit.'"
Illustration by Adam Mignanelli
Ron Hart is teetering on the edge of outer space, spitting buckshots till black holes surround him. Follow him on Twitter.