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Ultramagnetic MC's - Critical Beatdown: An Oral History

 

I was reading this piece by Teddy C.D. on the excellent T.R.O.Y. blog today and thought now would be as good a time as any to post the following material. Critical Beatdown is one of the greatest of all hip hop albums, and in 2004 I was asked to provide a sleeve note for a reissue of it from Roadrunner, the rock-centric indie which acquired the rights to the catalogue of the original label, Next Plateau. This is that note, including interviews with the key figures involved in the creation of the album. If you don't own a copy of Critical Beatdown, this is the version to get (box art above) as it includes the full original version of the band's debut single, Ego Trippin', as well as the essential post-LP b-side, A Chorus Line and other notes by Ced Gee and Liam Howlett of The Prodigy. I don't know if it's still in print - it's not listed at Roadrunner's online store, though Amazon still have copies in stock. I'm still boycotting Amazon, Play.com don't have it and you won't get the note on iTunes, so apologies for the lack of a link to a buy-it-here page. But I'm sure you'll find one somewhere.

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Like all the best things in life, the album you hold in your hands began with a friendship. "Kool" Keith Thornton met Cedric "Ced Gee" Miller at the DeeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, New York. Since the release of this, the first full-length opus the duo put together after forming the band Ultramagnetic MCs, critics and fans alike have struggled to explain its idiosyncratic excellence, but their alma mater must have had some weird subliminal influence. Take a look in the alumni roll call of DeeWitt Clinton: all the clues are there.

Richard Rodgers, who gave the world The Sound Of Music, graduated in the class of 1919, two years after the renowned jazz piano legend and formidable all-round entertainer Fats Waller. Burt Lancaster helped the school team win the Bronx basketball championship pennant in 1930, while Ralph Lifshitz changed his surname to Lauren after leaving DeWitt in 1957. And the creators of both Batman and Spiderman - Bob Kane and Stan Lee - would learn how to construct stories in English classes at the school during the late '20s and '30s.

That makes for as good a definition of Critical Beatdown as you're likely to find. Blend classic, epochal musicality with an expressionistic, entertaining freedom of expression; throw some showmanship and silver screen stardust into the mix, along with a streetwise obsession with high fashion; bring to the boil with science-fantasy heroes battling evil, and you're done. Critical Beatdown is all that, and more.

The story of how it came to be made is one best told by the two key figures in the record's creation. Taking us back to the Bronx in the late '80s, Kool Keith and Ced Gee remind us of a time and a place that doesn't at first glance seem so alien, but in its detail is almost a lost world. As talk turns from sampling technology and the archaeology of breakbeats to freestyle rhyme writing and life in the South Bronx of 1988, we're reminded of an era that's almost disappeared, yet without which, the musical landscape of the present would be almost unimaginable. One or two of their peers also help explain the importance of the Ultra sound and style, illustrating how, even in those different times, what Keith, Ced and their band-mates Trevor "TR Love" Randolph and Maurice "Moe Luv" Smith did was both of its time, and unique.

THE BEGINNINGS

Ced Gee: Me and Keith went to DeeWitt Clinton High School together. At first, Keith was [rapping] with another guy. I've forgotten the dude's name. The guy wasn't that good, but he used to act like he was all that.

Kool Keith: Ultramagnetic was originally not supposed to be a group. Me and Ced had solo intentions before we made an album together. But we teamed up because it was more sensible economically.

Ced Gee: Run DMC was doing so well, I guess, we said we'd do a group thing. It was just me and Keith, then we brought Moe in as a DJ. He's my cousin, we used to be in a DJ group called People's Choice Crew. Then we needed an extra DJ in certain situations, and a hype man, so we brought Trev in. Trev used to work at this record store, called Rock And Soul, in Manhattan, which was where we met him. The group was already formed and doing shows before he became involved. Keith came up with the name.

Kool Keith: We used to do records in Ced's house, the Ultra Lab, then we went to a big studio to mix it. We were chippin' our money together to put records out. Ced was working, he had money. Moe's mother had money. I didn't really fund a lot of things. It was just Moe and Ced basically, and Ced's brother Pat.

Ced Gee: My late brother, Patrick, he had a keyboard, a 4-track [tape machine], a Roland 707 [drum machine]. We started doing stuff for the 4-track, and eventually I bought a old Akai 12-track. It was a piece of garbage, but it served its purpose. I spent more repairing it than I spent on buying it! There was no vocal booth. We had a Sennheiser microphone, a good mic. A $700 mic. And we had all the silver wallpaper in the room. That was the set-up for the Ultra Lab. It was at 169th and Washington Avenue, in the projects. The eighth floor. Patrick was an R&B cat. He was the one that got all of us going - me, Keith, Scott La Rock. He was just knowledgeable about the music thing. That's how I found out about the SP-12 [E-mu SP-12 sampler/drum machine].

BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS

Kool Keith: Ced was mostly doin' production for Scott, so we didn't really feel competitive with them [Boogie Down Productions, Scott La Rock and KRS-ONE]. They came out a little bit before us because they had their deal first.

Ced Gee: Me and Scott grew up together. I knew Scott's whole family. With BDP's Criminal Minded, my input was more of showing Scott how to use the sampler. When the SP-12 came out, a lot of engineers just looped. But I would take sounds and chop 'em up - even if it wasn't a full sound I'd make it sound full. I was the first person to chop samples on the SP-12. Soon everyone was doing it.

Chuck D [Public Enemy]: After Marley Marl, and Rakim, these other guys come and change the whole style of rhymin' and the whole other sense of production again, with organic sounds. And that was Scott La Rock and Ced Gee of the Ultramagnetic MCs, who combined with KRS-ONE as Boogie Down Productions. And they changed the whole game.

Ced Gee: Kris [KRS-ONE] would bring the record, I would take it, chop it, rearrange it. I did the whole album, apart from four songs. I didn't do Criminal Minded, South Bronx, My 9mm and Elementary, but I did the rest. But I got jerked on the credit. Scott kept telling me to stay on the back of the guy who ran the label. 'I'm telling you,' he said, 'he's sheisty'. I'm like, 'Nah, he said he got me'. And when it came out, it didn't say 'Produced by Ced Gee and Boogie Down', it said 'Produced by Boogie Down, special thanks to Ced Gee'. Me and Scott didn't fall out, but it cost me money.

EGO TRIPPIN'

Kool Keith: Ego Trippin' was our first single. I was listening to [Eric B & Rakim's] I Know You Got Soul, and I said to Ced, 'You know, we should just do a rap over a breakbeat'. And then Shan came out with The Bridge, so I thought, 'What could we do with that same format?' So we went to the studio and looped that Melvin Bliss record [Synthetic Substitution].

Ced Gee: It wasn't I Know You Got Soul, but Eric B Is President. I Know You Got Soul was way late in the game. Eric B For President came out and it was hot. So we said, 'We need to do something more raw'. And when I heard that [the Melvin Bliss record] at a block party, I said, 'That's the one we need to do'. Luckily Keith knew someone who had it.

Kool Keith: I borrowed the Melvin Bliss record from my friend in Parkchester, New York. We looped it, and I put a bassline on there. There was this guy named Mike with us, he was doin' production with Ced's brother. They had an R&B group. I got Mike to go in the booth and say 'Ultraaaa!' And we made the voice deep with effects. So he said 'Ultra', we pitched it up, and from then on, the record hit the streets.

Guru [Gang Starr]: Oh my God! That's one of my favourite records. 'Ultra! MC Ultra!' They was one of my favourite groups. That shit used to make me go crazy. When he used to say 'Let the Technics turn for the UL-s, the Ts, the Rs the A, every day, watch the record play'. That was hype!

FUNKY

Kool Keith: I had lots of records in my house. My pops had all types of different records. George Duke, Dazz Band, War, Creative Source, all them funk things. He had a lot of 45s too, a stack of them. And one day I pulled out this record and played it, and I called Ced. I said 'Yo, I got something for you'. That was Woman To Woman by Joe Cocker, and that's where Funky started. I took that record round to Ced's house and let him hear it. He looped the piano part, and put the drums on it. We went to the studio and mixed it down, put a bottom on it and a little kick, gave it to [DJ] Red [Alert] and it just jumped off. Red debuted it one night and it went into rotation. I used to hear that everywhere, coming out of the cars, just like they do now with 50 Cent.

Ced Gee: This was the beauty of the relationship with Eddie O'Loughlin and Next Plateau. It had its ups and downs, but this was the good part. We would do something like Funky, and we would bring it in, he would say 'I like that', then he would play it for Red Alert. Red would test it, at the club or on the radio, and give the response to Eddie. And if it was a good response, he just went ahead and pressed it up. That was beautiful, you know? Now, the game's changed.

CRITICAL BEATDOWN

Kool Keith: We was on a high when we were doin' Critical Beatdown. We was on a bugged-out, spaced-out high. When I was making Critical Beatdown, people was getting killed in my projects. People were throwing other people off the roof. Right then, making that album, I was still living that type of lifestyle: urban centred, in the core of New York City. I could've wrote whatever I saw, but I didn't. We recorded Critical Beatdown through walking past crackheads every day, walking past stick-up kids, police cars, all kinds of regular stuff on the street. We could have wrote about what we saw in the street: that's the bugged out thing. We could have wrote about, 'It's hard, there's killers in the hood', but we didn't. Critical Beatdown was more like a dust record, a dust album - for people who smoke dust. Mentally, it was like embalming fluid. We were just making an album for those people. It wasn't an eclectic album, people just took it differently.

Posdnous [De La Soul]: I think the only people that we looked to for a blueprint when we were making 3 Feet High & Rising were the Ultramagnetic MCs. They were very different as well, how they rhymed, but they still had more harder-edged beats than what we were presenting. 
 
Ced Gee: Most of the album we did in the Ultra Lab, but we mixed at Studio 1212 in Queens. We just took the 12-track in and mixed them there. That's where we met Paul C [studio engineer who produced Give The Drummer Some and mixed the album]. He knew certain things about the SP-12 that were technical, and he would show me that. I knew a lot of things that weren't in the manual, and I used to show him, and blew his mind!

Kool Keith: Paul C was the person that really made me get tight on my lyrics. I was so egotistical that I thought nobody really could tell me to rock my vocals over. But he was the coolest person, and the first person of my studio life to get me in that area of not rockin' a bad verse. He would say, 'You didn't sound like you meant it on Break North, you didn't sound like you wanna hit it on Ease Back'. And for Give The Drummer Some, he had the drums, he had the Dee Felice Trio record [There Was A Time, sampled on Give The Drummer Some].

Ced Gee: That was one of the things Paul showed me: sometimes the drums would be clean on one channel, so you have to pan the sound. You have to pan the drums on the Dee Felice Trio record to get the sample we used in Give The Drummer Some. Once we started panning records, it was crazy.

Chuck D: I thought that the future was Ultramagnetic MCs. With their production, with Ced Gee, they came in once again with those organic sounds. It was like Marley Marl, Ced Gee, Scott La Rock, all those cats together wanted those organic sounds. Kool Keith was one of the guys, along with the rest of the Ultramagnetic emcees, who instituted that scatterbrained style, that scattershot style.

WRITING LYRICS

Kool Keith: I had a lot of inspiration in basketball when I was writing. I never really had no particular subjects. When we made those songs they were just so freestyle-written. We didn't have any boundaries - we just wrote it because it sounded good. Eddie never said nothing, the company never said nothing, they never censored lyrics or nothing; it wasn't like we were cursing all the time or shooting people.

Back then T La Rock, Just Ice, us, LL [Cool J], everybody was using the big words. You know, 'Construction!' 'Destruction!' 'Corruption!' Those were the words to rhyme with back in the day. Everybody was still using '...ation'. 'Concentration!' You know, like KRS. 'Dedication! Frustration! Imitation!' We were the first guys to go more into words that wasn't '...ation', but they were still big words. You know. 'Circulatory'. 'Attitude'. We took it to that level.

I was just having fun. We were reading a lot of UFO books, satellite books, space books. Documentary stuff. We took words out of magazines. Popular Mechanics - I would read that. I was reading a lot of other stuff. Me and Ced would just read more books that had big words. And we would watch a lot of programmes that were elevated. Like Star Trek.
  
Ced Gee: I had a job - I did clerical work for a company in the Pan Am building in midtown, what's now the Met Life building - and we could only record at weekends and evenings. We was trying to get the album done fast. Keith was a faster writer than I was.

Kool Keith: Ced wrote a lot of his lyrics but on certain songs, like Break North, Critical Beatdown, I wrote his verses. Sometimes we'd all go in a huddle. Critical Beatdown came out so good vocally because of that.
     
Ced Gee: On Moe Love's Theme, I was actually supposed to do the second verse, and I wrote the first half of that rhyme. But I was kinda stuck so Keith finished writing it, and I said 'Well, you might as well do it'. I'd be playing around with the beat for a track like Break North, so he wrote my part. It was just whatever needed to be done.

AND THOSE DISSES...?

Kool Keith: I don't really dis anybody on the album. They're not really disses, they're more competitive lyrics. Even with Rakim. He wrote a rap that went something like, 'I can see as far as the planets', about 'balls of clay'. He said 'As far as the eye can see, not even a satellite...' Something like that. [Follow The Leader, by Eric B & Rakim.] So I said, 'Your satellites are weak, I can see your balls of clay'. I just dissed the line: I said something bigger. They were more lyrical battles than personal - it was about topping the line he said. If he said he could see the stars, I'd say I could see beyond the stars. Him and [Big Daddy] Kane used to go at it, but I would say something different. Me, Rakim and Kane was more like a different genre. It was like battling with metaphors.

A CHORUS LINE

Ced Gee: After the album, we did the Chorus Line. That was when Tim Dog joined. Tim was living with me and my family, and he kept saying he could rhyme. He got on the Chorus Line because Keith had a boy who wanted to get on there too, so Paul and I said, 'Whoever's got the best rhymes gets it'. And Tim beat him up. That was the start of him. And from Chorus Line you had F--- Compton [Tim Dog's 1991 solo single], which I worked on as well. I've been watching these documentaries on the beefs in rap, and that really was the first east coast-west coast thing, but they buried it. There's not even a mention. But F--- Compton was the first east-west record.

BEING SAMPLED

Ced Gee: I thought it was good when The Prodigy sampled us [Keith's lyrics from Critical Beatdown and Give The Drummer Some were used on The Prodigy's Out Of Space and Smack My Bitch Up]. When you start influencing people outside of hip hop, it lets you know that what you were doing was working. Eddie O'Loughlin charged them for that. I don't work any more - Critical Beatdown mechanicals still pay the bills!

Kool Keith: A rapper would say, 'I smack my bitch up like a pimp'. That lyric was to represent rage. I remember listening to The Prodigy's record and thinking, 'They took one line and made a whole song out of it!' That was the crazy thing. I had never even heard that other record [Out Of Space]. I used to see that on my royalty statements and think 'What is this record?' For a good two years I didn't know what it was!

LOOKING BACK

Kool Keith: The '80s were harder than now. People were snatching chains, cutting people's faces with razor blades, taking people's sneakers: they were doing pettier things back then. Groups right now come out and they represent a life but don't really live the life. My fans, they don't know my life: they think my records reflect who I am. But at the end of the day I still walk around the projects, say 'Hello', spend time. Take a rapper today right now and they can't really do that. They have to take 20 bodyguards to go round their way.

Ced Gee: When I look back, what I remember most is just how real it was. And, at that time, if I'd have known it wasn't going to be like that ten years down the line, it would have made it even more precious. I thought that making records would always be like that, but it's not. It hasn't been like that for a while, where artists are actually allowed to just create.

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