he evidence is mounting and persuasive; conspicuous use of electronics over more ‘traditional’ instrumentation and arrangements in order to ‘progress’ the genre; lyrics and themes taken liberally from across mythology, history, and science fiction; repeated and portentous depiction of apocalypse scenarios; records regularly weighing in at traditionally double-LP length (70 minutes) and longer; deliberately ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’ music that makes self-conscious moves away from ‘pop’; a preoccupation with being an alternative to the mainstream; defiant sense of self-importance in both artists and fans: ladies and gentlemen, El-P’s Def Jux label is guilty of establishing the genesis of prog-hop. The two final nails in the accusation coffin? El-P himself, and his nomenclature’s appropriation (deliberate or not) of the well-known and much-maligned acronym for Emerson Lake & Palmer, and now this – a full-blown and deliberate hip hop ‘concept album’ from Bostonian Def Juxian Mr. Lif. Because that’s what I Phantom defiantly is.
Of course hip hop found its roots in 20-minute twin-turntable jams that have more in common with Can than Will Smith, but the genre’s real steps into prog territory were taken by DJ Shadow with his evocative and conceptual mid 90s compositions, embodied by his stellar debut Endtroducing, less music for block parties and break dancing than spiritual journeys and navel-gazing. Trip-hop was a misnomer; the downbeat, dubby English splinter of hip-hop has much less to do with prog and much more to do with ambient dance and chill-out music; DJ Shadow is much closer to Pink Floyd than Eno, The Orb or Massive Attack, El-P and the Def Jux progeny even more so. It’s to do with demanding attention, a level of self-importance and intellectual/aesthetic weightiness totally at odds with the dub/ambient axis, which has always been much happier to stay in the background, and never, ever had pretensions of educating or enlightening its audience the way that hip hop or prog do.
Perhaps hip hop has reached the stage of its evolution where it is splintering into definite ideological and artistic factions the way rock did in the late 60s/early 70s, groups much more distinct than mere East Coast / West Coast or Gangsta / Daisy Age rifts. DMX could be seen as goth-hop, P Diddy as adult-oriented-hop, Missy as dance-hop, Will Smith as pop-hop, the loose hip hop equivalents of, respectively, The Sisters Of Mercy, Phil Collins, The Bee Gees and Robbie Williams (I wouldn’t wanna say who Ja Rule is). If this is indeed the case then the Def Jux stable is firmly rooted in prog-hop, alongside Common and The Roots. Of course it’s silly to talk like this though; hip hop is not a simple reflection of rock music, it has not developed along the same lines and will not; history does not repeat itself, trends are not repeated but rather refracted and echoed and seeded into future trends; distinct and exact parallels and comparisons between the two genres cannot be drawn any more easily than they can be between classical music or jazz or dance and rock. Nevertheless, there’s definitely a defiant whiff of prog about Def Jux.
I Phantom, then, is Mr. Lif’s debut long player cut, a cohesive themed story told via the first and third person, “an exploration of the dynamics of everyday life, and the pursuit of our dreams, in a rapidly decaying society...”, a movement from a dream of death through an observance of the 9-5 grind, the erosion of the sanctity of the family unit, and finally to a vision of the apocalypse. It tells you so in the sleeve notes, man... Lyrically Lif’s taking in the struggle to maintain one’s soul in the face of capitalism, man’s spirit vs the controlling media, the government, the system, et al. “The function of a life is just to work and consume” he states, like some 21st century Marxist street poet. How long can it be before hip hop has the whole base & superstructure system explained to it? Before Missy’s exhortations to “git mo’ paper” are seen as the antithetical-to-spirituality proclamations of materialistic greed that they really are? Can’t be long now, can’t be long now. No matter how funky the beats or how clever the wordplay.
El-P produces roughly half the cuts here, his synthesis of beats + electronic noise toned down from the noise-warfare of his own remarkable Fantastic Damage LP or Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, a confrontational interference much less necessary when paired with Mr. Lif’s easy flow rather than El-P’s own arrhythmic stutter or Vast Aire’s filthily blasphemous boom. "A Glimpse At The Struggle"’s remarkable second half even showcases an otherwise neglected mastery, as El-P produces a skittish old-skool beats marathon, battling Lif to see who can move through hip hop’s history fastest, Lif name-checking the founders and praising the spirit while El-P twists the fastest, funkiest, lightest beat this side of 89. Fakts One and Insight contribute 2 and 4 tracks each respectively, both offering Mr. Lif more sample and groove based cuts than El-P is prone to producing these days. The album highlight is the Edan produced "Live From The Plantation" though, both lyrically and musically, as Lif guides us through the modern freeman’s slavery of the 9-to-5 grind, while Edan shows incontrovertible evidence that he is the absolute master of fat-assed funkiness, cutting head-shaking beats with body-moving bass and arm-waving horns.
I Phantom is a weird mixture of anti-capitalist nu-age hip hop spiritualism, part Paradise Lost, part The Divine Comedy, part b-boy celebration. The sleeve notes suggest it should be taken seriously as an intellectual and spiritual movement through life and music, but referencing PT Anderson’s Magnolia over The Communist Manifesto or the wisdom of the Buddha. Whether you wanna take note of the concept or not, I Phantom works as an album of beats and thoughtful, realist rhymes, hip hop climbing out of the ghetto, the drive-by fantasy and the childish ego-driven one-upmanship, and starting to find its feet in the office block bind, the good-time vibe and the responsibility of fatherhood. Neither as head-spinningly awesome as Fantastic Damage or as back-in-the-day brilliant as Edan’s Primitive Plus, Mr. Lif has managed to make one fine album. Eyes on this one.