Released as a bootleg onto the Detroit underground rap circuit in 1997, Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
is the kind of record that might rearrange the bona fides of even the stodgiest connoisseur of hip-hop lyricism. The album, lodged in its cult classic status, nonetheless appears to suffer critically for its creators’ adherence, nay dedication, to freestyled raps that sure sound like it: thoughts trailing off, boilerplate phrases traded in for each other, “The woman look so good she’d make you masturbate,” and so forth. There’s undeniably some kind of content underneath the helter-skelter form of the freestyles offered up by T3, Baatin, and 22-year-old producer extraordinaire J Dilla, but the raps mostly palpitate with the pleasures of genre. From the early chorus “I don’t know why the *** I’m ***ing with you” to Dilla’s admonition “You ain't gotta grab the microphone to pay your rent” on “Forth & Back (Rock Music),” Slum Village slip into the grooves of their songs despite the gravity of their extemporaneous boasts. Such dissipation may not be to the taste of those who believe in the purity of the expressive qualities offered to the words and cadences and flows of the greatest rappers.
Yet even hardened cynics can find their way into outlier classics like this album given the right hook, and Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
has the greatest hook of all: the production talents of J Dilla, whose enigmatic and unforgettable approach to sampling and percussion is operating at a career-high level here. Meeting or even surpassing such later peaks as Donuts
and Vintage Vol. 2
, Dilla’s work on Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
is a nonpareil of clear vision in the tone and affect of an album’s overall production. Part of this vision is structural; spread out of 22 quick tracks, five of which are “remixes” of earlier album tracks, Fan-Tas-Tic
is set up to allow Dilla to keep proceedings subtle, focused on one small melodic idea at a time before shuffling on to the next. Yet it’s the sonic particulars of how Dilla operates within this structure that earns my outright admiration. Even the slightest of the production ideas on display on Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
, like “How We Bull***” or “Estimate,” show an unmistakable intuition for dynamics and melodic inflection. Drums are never too loud or too quiet, and the samples always benefit from their sonic intersections with both the extra production elements and, indeed, with the rappers themselves. And that’s to say nothing of Fan-Tas-Tic
’s best moments, like “The Look of Love” and “Forth & Back,” both of which belong in the pantheon of hip-hop beats—“The Look of Love,” in particular, looks forward to the smooth guitar patterns of Nujabes, visionary and corporeally satisfying in equal measure.
It can be tough to reconcile these two elements of the album’s sound and effect in one’s head: is Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
a masterpiece grafted onto an aimless rap session? Or do these ad-libbed boasts partake of the same creative energy as the mercurial beats which undergird them? I’ve continued to listen through this album’s plethora of aural pleasures until the whole package has come to seem inevitable: I wait with bated breath for the opening purr of “Fantastic” and the hilarious “Nah bruh, life ain't gotta be like that / All you gotta do is grip yo' meat, laugh at her / Massage her, take a bath with her / Devour her” that comes along with it. And then I look forward to the hopping bassline of “Keep It On” and T3’s “ridiculous / Deliciously relentless” rhyme. And from there, to the most intellectually stimulating James Brown sample ever on “I Don’t Know”…Humanizing as their stopgap rhymes remain, Slum Village are operating at another musical level here, spinning magic from the most basic threads of hip-hop attitude and sound. As one digs deeper into the little nuggets of deep groove on this record, it becomes harder and harder to separate out the “high” from the “low”—all you want to do is listen again. This intoxicating effect makes Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
a classic and an eminently replayable record. Dense with enticing sonic details and served to us rough at the edges, Fan-Tas-Tic
is the kind of mix of leisure and genius they tell you doesn’t exist, too radical the romance and fascination of the world it compels us to imagine.