Still Hitting On That Vital Nerve: Company Flow Interviewed
, July 18th, 2011 07:12
Ahead of their much-anticipated reunion at ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror festival this weekend, Oli Marlow talks to Company Flow's Len about the reasons for their reformation
Albums that leave a mark are one of the most significant memory triggers, capable of instantly transporting your headspace to other times. But every now and then, albums come along that end up standing like milestones for a movement. Few groups paved the way for the noughties' alternative hip hop movement the way Company Flow did. The work the trio made together in New York in the late 90s pre-empts a lot of the introspective, lyric heavy, image laden hip hop that followed it. Today, their stark world - one populated by cold beats, endless rhymes and scissor sharp scratches - is still just as potent now as it was back when they were performing.
To give you some background, Company Flow is the duo of emcees El-P and Bigg Jus and their DJ, Mr Len. The three of them made an album together called Funcrusher Plus back in 1997, which was released on the Rawkus label, then a bastion like outpost of independent, artist led hip hop. The group went their separate ways at the turn of the millennium, leaving a stylistic gulf in their wake. After releasing a super dense instrumental album called Little Johnny From The Hospitul, which was produced by El-P and Mr Len, in 1999, the trio all hit out with separate projects in the years that followed.
El-P gave birth to Definitive Jux, an independent hip hop empire that was home to revolutionary artists like Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and RJD2, releasing his first solo album, Fantastic Damage, through the imprint in 2002. Bigg Jus released work under the Big Justoleum moniker on Sub Verse a year before, putting out a further three solo albums across different labels like Big Dada and MUSH whilst Mr Len worked across projects, releasing his Pity The Fool album through Matador in 2001, later starting his own label Smacks and working with vocalists like Jean Grae and Kice Of Course. It's safe to say that each member has since left their individual mark.
"If you go back and listen to Fantastic Damage, Pity The Fool or Black Mamba Serums; on each one of those albums you can hear what each one of us did on Funcrusher," Mr Len tells me, enthused in the conversation as we recount the Company Flow days ahead of the groups imminent reformation for the Portishead's upcoming I'll Be Your Mirror festival at Alexandra Palace in North London. "The influence we each had on the group as a three member group, it was good to not have that suffer and now, when it comes back around to us being able to be on stage together again, it'll make even more sense to people that have listened to it in the past and to new people who might have only heard Fantastic Damage or Poor Peoples Day from Jus and people that are just kind of stuck on anything I did."
Listening to Funcrusher Plus today and it still stands as a monolith in terms of its rugged production and raw, lyrical content. Tracks like 'Last Good Sleep' are classic examples of artists using hip hop music as an open and brutal catharsis (a theme El-P later continued with solo songs like 'Stepfather Factory'), the heavy hitting content perfectly matching the ominous samples and the power thud of the drum patterns.
Considering the impact of the trio's work on the underground hip hop landscape – Len's production work and stage direction, El's vision of a truly independent artist led collective and Jus' undeniably peerless flow – the question that's always plagued the group, in my mind at least, was why the split? El-P's gone on the record before to state that he loved how "Co Flow came in, destroyed everything and then left," and as such the group have something of a mythical status. They did just that: they appeared, ascended to legend status and then disbanded. But from talking to Len, it seems it was just a natural progression that brought about the break.
"Truthfully I think that we all, at one point, had some little problems, but it's cool because we never actually stopped being friends. It was just one of them things where it was like 'I'm not sure I really wanna hang out with you as much.' I know with me and El, we just stopped hanging out as much as we used to so it was just one of those things. Especially when there's no real beef; there was no real problem. It's cool cause it's not like an angry thing like 'I can't stand that fucking guy, I'ma choke him out;' you just keep going out and trying different things. You stop hanging out as much and it's kinda drifty..." So why choose now to reform? "It's funny because it's not like this is ten years after the fact," Len laments, his voice filling the empty room from behind his smiling Skype avatar. "When we signed off to have El re-release Funcrusher on Def Jux it was like 12 years later and I'd done the Class-X record on my label which was like unreleased and remixed [Co Flow] stuff. Those things are time related, [now] we're being honest with the people who are actually gonna come and check us out."
"[Portishead] contacted Amici, who was our manager, and he hit me up and asked if I'd be interested in doing it and I'm not gonna lie, I thought for a while... then I was like, 'y'know what? Yeah!' He started laughing and he was like, 'El did exactly the same thing.' So there's no concern now, because it's like, we're starting off on the same page. People's timing is a little different," he expands. "To me Jus has always been a little ahead of his own time. He's one of them dudes who will see something in the future and try and have it now rather than do the future. I think with him, he was like 'this is inevitable,' let me start to try and make it happen now. I knew it was inevitable as well, I think we all did. It was just a matter of 'it's not time.'"
Standing proudly on a line up with Portishead, MF Doom, Swans and Godspeed! You Black Emperor for the I'll Be Your Mirror event, the Company Flow reunion is undoubtedly one of the busiest talking points. After 14 or so years and following on from a brief onstage reunion between El and Jus in 2007, the speculation for the reformation has always been rife. It's one of those things that, as Len says, has always been inevitable; something every fan wishes they could get the chance to see.
"It's almost like when people say 'if I knew then what I knew now things would be different,'" Len riddles when asked what he thinks it'll be like being on stage together again. "There's a lot of experience I've gained over the years, doing different shows and especially in seeing different people perform… To a certain extent it's gonna be exactly how it used to be, but everyone's done so much [since]; we're actually gonna step up our performance. Even looking at the rider... there was a time that all we had on the rider was Jack Daniels and money!" He chuckles solidly, "so now, it's like we need this, this and I need this setup for my laptop... We finally caught up with the technology, or the technology finally caught up with our heads and now we can actually do it."
Inevitably our conversation turns to new music and after retelling stories about going through old DAT tapes, re-connecting as much with forgotten samples as each other, there's still no hint as to whether the reunion has sparked any studio creativity between the trio.
"I don't foresee any of us stopping. If El or Jus ever stopped making music, I'll be shocked. I don't even know how they'd do it. I don't think their bodies can even allow that. And for me, if I'm not making it I'm playing it. I will DJ until my arms fall off. To me the party never ends. You guys are coming into my party, but I've never stopped since the last time you saw me."
Words: Oli Marlow
Company Flow play ATP & Portishead's I'll Be You Mirror London on 23rd July.