In the Company of Flow

In the independent hip hop of DefJux, New York's old b-boys meet the sons they never knew they had

"Hip hop has never been recorded," insists Sir Lord Scotch, enunciating each word in slow, sonorous Brooklynese. "When we started this thing, the press and the cameras didn't come; the police came. That's when you know you're doing it right. It's revolutionary."

The man addressing the room, his eyes weary but intense, looks more like a compact, pugnacious Alan Rickman than an older sibling of Everlast. Standing in the audience near the front of the Brooklyn Museum of Art auditorium, the thirtysomething rapper has engaged the floor in a rare conversation. Of the hundreds who attended a screening of the 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars, some three dozen or so are willing to miss the first innings of the Subway Series to stick around for a panel discussion about hip hop's future. Onstage sits Grandmaster Caz, the Cold Crush Brothers MC whose unrecorded lyrics were ripped off for "Rapper's Delight." Having thus inadvertently launched hip hop as a national, commercial culture, he has just released an answer record on an independent label--20 years after the fact.

The panel is filled out with academics, activists, journalists, and filmmakers, including Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn and cultural critic Kevin Powell, who has guest-curated the touring exhibition Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage at the museum. But the audience teems with experts insisting they are just as qualified to be onstage. Caz's old crewmate DJ Toney Tone is present. So are many faces from the documentary--older, more animated, and glad to see one another. This is a room where b-boys approaching middle age will remind you that Kool Herc carried crates for Disco Whiz, splitting historical hairs into the evening like Upper West Side communists still taking sides over Stalin.

Their beef with the panel is twofold: 1) Who are you to tell me about[rhyming, scratching, fill in the blank], and 2) hip hop has nothing to do with "the rap industry"--an entity roundly despised here.

Like almost everyone who speaks, Scotch feels that something he helped create has been warped to evil ends. His name draws recognition both onstage and off, and he takes care to offer his résumé in a room where what you are weights what you say. He says he was hyped as "the first white MC" back when the Beasties had mohawks, but he refused to "sign on the dotted line."

"How many cats with ice on their hands are coming back to the neighborhood and putting shorty on?" he asks. "I'll tell you: none. Hip hop has nothing to do with economics. This isn't about getting paid: It's about coming back to the block and kicking it to that next kid."

Soon the debate moves entirely to the floor. "The guys making a million dollars are part of our legacy," says a twentysomething break dancer. "When we say they aren't real, we're taking away from ourselves."

"Do you know what popping is?" responds Fabel, a muscle-bound man with a graying mane and long goatee.

"Sure I do," says the dancer, and he lets a familiar old spasm ripple through his body.

"Nah, nah, that's the boogaloo," Fabel says. "Popping is a contraction of the muscles." And he demonstrates, in slow motion, saying this is how he learned it from the dance's originators. "That's why this shit is so important. If the next generation chooses not to follow the recipe that we laid down, then we need to cut them off."

"You can cut them off," says the younger dancer, "but you can't say they're not real."

And so it goes for hours, until the person with the least hip-hop cred in the room musters the courage to stand up. "Maybe economics has everything to do with how [pure] hip-hop culture can be revived," I say, expecting to be heckled all the way out to Eastern Parkway. Instead I score novelty points for being a white boy from Minnesota, and soon I'm gratified to be referred to as "the brother who brought up independent labels."

Still, my question to the room goes unanswered: "What do you all think of the example set by Company Flow?"

 

I've never been to Puffy Combs's front door, but I'm reasonably certain he never greets his guests with, "Please excuse the smell of cat piss." Of course, El-P is an unusual hip-hop icon: the first MC to loudly, proudly, and repeatedly denounce the major-label system from the certain high ground of an independent label and still sell more than 100,000 copies. The rapper's crew, Company Flow, helped launch the seminal independent Rawkus label (which would go on to break MCs such as Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch) with a muddily recorded, scatologically fixated, and aptly titled 1997 debut album, Funcrusher Plus. Success on the industry's fringes--"the underground"--also helped finance the cluttered, spacious Brooklyn loft that El-P leads me into one afternoon, days before I bring up his name at the
Brooklyn Museum.

El-P grabs Murphy, a well-fed tabby, who has slunk out from behind a pile of records with a prize in his mouth. "Don't eat plastic," the MC scolds, fishing out the six-pack holder as he sits down in front of an embankment of home-studio electronics. This bulky, pale 25-year-old, who could be actor Michael Rapaport's baby-faced cousin, slips into a hip-hop patois when he answers one of his various phones.

"Yo," he answers, gesturing that this is a call he has to take. It's MTV. Zack De La Rocha has just announced he is quitting Rage Against the Machine, and a reporter wants El, who is producing the singer's new album, to comment. But the breakup is news to him. And the collaboration is news to me. Perhaps El-P has never been better positioned to champion MCs he likes: He's the only degree of separation I can think of between Rage and Minneapolis's own Slug, of Atmosphere, with whom he has recorded a track and cultivated a friendship. ("At his best, he's one of the best," El says.)

Now El-P has left Rawkus to parlay his production company, DefJux, into a new label that might boost other non-jiggy acts. "We decided to get back to the way we want to do things--the way we've always wanted to do things--which is to do it ourselves," he says, winking but hedging when I ask if there's any bad blood with his old label. "I frankly wouldn't even talk about it if there was. If anything, Rawkus just reinforced how we felt about our own paths. We don't want to be superstars; we don't want to sell a million records. The important thing is that no one is going to care as much about our music as us."

His first-person plural no longer refers to his crew, however. In fact, DefJux's first release is also Company Flow's last: DJ Mr. Len and El-P will continue to collaborate, but will record solo albums next year. Still, Co-Flo fans might note that the more remarkable half of the crew's new split-EP, released this month via Fat Beats distribution, belongs to Cannibal Ox. Ox's Vordul Megilah and Vast Aire are both Harlem-reared members of the Atom's Family crew who have moved in with El to record and learn, sharing a small, poster-papered room with two mattresses.

"I don't want them to go through what I had to," says El, who admits he has always had "authority issues," and was marked early on by a particularly bitter experience with a small label he won't name. In Ox he has found younger friends he can "put on," to use Scotch's phrase, and El has clearly poured effort into landscaping the Alec Empire-like crunch of the crew's epic, echoing space funk on "Iron Galaxy." During a rally for Ralph Nader in Madison Square Garden, El even brought the duo onstage. "I was there to throw in my support for the philosophy that the options we have are too limited," El says, withholding an official endorsement in interview.

 

Anyone who doubts that Company Flow's music and rhetoric have had a deep (if narrow) impact on hip hop hasn't been paying attention to Chuck D's press releases--and, to be sure, many Old Schoolers haven't. Yet while the showcase of independent hip hop held in the West Village club S.O.B.'s the night after the Brooklyn symposium is officially part of the CMJ Music Marathon--for which the Chuck was keynote speaker--it has been promoted by flyers posted deep in Bed-Stuy. And MC Scotch isn't the only Brooklyn resident present to see masked cult headliner and old pal MF Doom. Doom's old crew, Native Tongues heirs KMD, had the poor but common luck of being underpromoted by a major label, Elektra, which refused to release their second album. Now Doom has gone indie, headlining a set that includes Atmosphere, the Micranots, and All Natural--with El-P and Cannibal Ox's Vast watching in the wings.

Perhaps perplexed by the electric reception afforded Atmosphere, Scotch pays closer attention to Doom's set, which zooms along nicely until Doom is suddenly, inexplicably, clocked by his partner, Megalon. Though the fight was supposedly staged, Atmosphere's Eyedea later reports that the blows to Doom's head looked real enough, and Vast blames the evils of "firewater."

Speaking of drink, sometime during the evening's confusion, Scotch recognizes me and asks how to compute a 20 percent tip on a $70 bar tab. I know it's his debt alone--he tells me so, in slurred words. And I suddenly wonder if there's a sense of sadness behind his remark the day before that "true hip hoppers have a day job." That statement was duly interpreted by an irate teacher in the audience as "Don't quit your day job," which missed the MC's anti-materialist point: Artists do art for its own sake, not the residuals. Still, one might hope that hip hop's stern elders would take a page from El-P and see materialism, at least of a more dialectical kind, as nothing to run away from. A willingness to appear onstage in this industry-sponsored gig--to engage the wider culture in the present day--might be a start.

Yet when I ask Scotch if he'll join in a freestyle onstage, he retreats into Old School cant and braggadocio. "I'll battle anybody, anytime, anyplace," Scotch says. "But on the streets or on the train. Not here."

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