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El-P’s Fantastic Damage turns 15 today—too bad you can’t find it anywhere

El-P (Photo: Prince Williams/Getty)
El-P (Photo: Prince Williams/Getty)

Today marks the 15th anniversary of El-P’s debut record Fantastic Damage, a bombed-out, paranoid masterpiece of underground hip-hop. If that’s got you feeling nostalgic, like you want to go and listen to it right now, sorry: The record has somehow been eaten by the internet. It’s one of those strange albums that’s not available on any major streaming service, which is an infrequent but not totally unheard-of occurrence. But other options are equally unsavory: A vinyl copy will cost you $200, while a new CD version goes for $30. Even a used copy will run you around $12.

Apple doesn’t sell it on iTunes, and over on YouTube—which is normally a go-to for older rap records that, for whatever reason, haven’t made their way to proper streaming services yet—it only shows up in officially unsanctioned 240-bit streams. Google a download of it and you’ll run across a bunch of post-Napster blogs with defunct Megaupload links, and a few seemingly legal downloads from questionable sites like eMusic and the clothing retailer Daylight Curfew—which, if you’re looking to spend $9 and haven’t heard the record, you’re welcome, it’s a goddamn classic. Realizing it was nowhere online, I went home and ripped my old CD copy to my desktop, then dragged those files to my iPhone, just as God intended us to do back when the record first dropped in 2002.

Still, there’s something fitting about Fantastic Damage being subsumed by the internet like this, its seething vision of shrieking synthesizers, malfunctioning beats, and boiling-hot Brooklyn rage somehow too dangerous for mass consumption. You half-imagine a shadowy group of suits—record execs, Bush administration officials, Rawkus also-rans, pissant cops—working tirelessly to conceal it throughout the early aughts. The reality is much more boring. “Basically once I got the rights back from our old deal with our former distributor I haven’t had time to put it back out there yet,” El said via email. “I am hoping to have it (and others from my back catalog) up this year. I blame my constant touring for the absence.”

Still, even among the critical establishment, Fantastic Damage has not been granted some of the more exhaustive retrospectives afforded contemporaries like, say, Madvillainy. There are a handful of dewy-eyed remembrances online, generally peppered with defunct embeds, and a scant Wikipedia page roughly equal in length to the page for Puddle Of Mudd’s 2002 hit “She Hates Me.” This seems odd for a record that has gone on to be revered as one of the singular documents of millennial hip-hop.

Fittingly enough, some of the best musings you’ll find are buried in the comments on those low-rent bootleg streams, with acolytes still returning to shake their heads in amazement as El-P brutally massacres a bunch of baby cartoon animals on “Dead Disnee,” or transmutes a troubled childhood into bleak sci-fi satire on “Stepfather Factory.” I’ve been listening to the record for, well, 15 years now, but it still exists in my mind as this 70-minute monolith, a byzantine, derelict spaceship I’ve gotten lost in countless times but never even partially mapped. The rap-lyric analysis hub Genius is great for this, and its crowdsourced lyrics sheet serves as another digital altar to El-P’s serpentine, skull-fucked lyrics. Like another masterpiece of early-’00s rap abstraction, Supreme Clientele, it’s hard to imagine ever getting a bead on some of these verses, but it still helps to have a lyrics sheet on hand when parsing lines like, “The hot shit, hopped up and shifty / Shift shit sickly / Monster / Ancient makeshift ministry mic on / Nervous slur.” You’re not making any more sense of that with time, but it’s nice to read along.

The music speaks for itself—it still sounds as much like a revolution as anything since the heyday of Public Enemy. Revisiting it (via janky YouTube upload, iPhone earbuds, or whatever else) is always worthwhile, but particularly in 2017, when the American government is uncovering fun new ways to mislead and misuse its citizenry and are cheered on by a decentralized, anonymous cabal of digital nihilists. Together, they form the perfect enemy for El. Hip-hop has always been a rebellion against capitalist centralization of wealth—both cultural and literal—but on Fantastic Damage, he wields the microphone like a javelin ready to toss through the droning 1984 telescreen.

All that sonic disarray, which is at once fatiguing and soothing in a way El’s later work sometimes struggles to match, creates a post-industrial nightmare setting out of which his words haltingly, fumblingly lead the listener. He comes across less as a prophet of the wasteland than as a wiseass scavenger, as fucked up and discombobulated as the rest of us, but slightly funnier and savvier. He knows the way through the tunnels. None of which was necessarily new—El-P cites his sci-fi inspirations regularly and aggressively on Fantastic Damage—but, if 1984 gets to enjoy a resurgence in the popular mind following Trump’s election, why can’t Fantastic Damage get at least a better upload on YouTube?

El-P has, of course, gone on to much wider success since then, first through the record’s two excellent follow-ups and then with a trifecta of grenades as Run The Jewels. FanDam peaked at No. 198 on the Billboard charts; December’s RTJ3 came in at No. 13. But that only underlines its urgency. It’s fair to assume that his debut has a larger possible audience today, when he’s liable to pop up in a late-afternoon slot on the festival circuit, than it did in 2002, when he was coming off a well-liked record with Company Flow that was early on its path to becoming its own sort of cult classic. That he’s maintained his relevance over two decades without ever shaving off any of his sharp edges is to his endless credit, but you also have to assume a good portion of the festival mosh-pit crowd throwing up RTJ hand symbols has yet to get lost in Fantastic Damage. It’s long and unwieldy and frequently unpleasant. Now’s a great time to discover, rediscover, or simply revisit it, assuming you can dig it out of somewhere.