Mantronix: The Album
is the first proper album by a Jamaican-born producer named Kurtis Mantronik (nee Curtis Khaleel). It’s about forty minutes of electro-flavored old school hip-hop, a meager seven tracks that managed to subtly change the face of the genre and influence a bevy of upstart electronic-minded musicians. A somewhat large claim, but pretty truthful. It’s one of those ubiquitous old school classics that hip-hop fiends hold in special regard. At the same time though, it’s largely forgotten by most.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have famous adherents; the album’s been sampled by the likes of Dan the Autmator, Peanut Butter Wolf, DJ Q-Bert and, perhaps most notably, the Dust Brothers, who famously nicked the group’s “two turntables and a microphone” line for Beck’s “Where It’s At.” And fans aren’t limited hip-hop heads. On his 7-minute namedrop, “Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy shows love to the ‘Tronix. And then there are the legions of other electronic composers who swear by the name.
But to be quite honest, some aspects of Mantronix: The Album
sound a bit dated by modern standards. The old school raps certainly sound a bit obsolete. MC Tee’s rigid rhymes are punctuated by a cadence that might have been righteous in ’85, but sounds kind of kitschy now. His style, common for a mid-eighties rapper, is playful and boastful and though it has its moments it’s mostly unimpressive. That’s ok, because Mantronix endures not because of MC Tee, but rather the aforementioned Mantronik.
Some twenty years later, Mantronik’s heavy electro beats sound like part of the foundation for a half a dozen movements in the electronic music and hip-hop vernaculars. The blend of Roland TR-808 beats, vocoder raps and synthesized melodies recall contemporary British hip-hop to at least a small degree, unsurprising considering the popularity of the album’s singles on UK charts. Also, as an antecedent to Terry Riley’s new jack swing sound, Mantronik’s production on the first single “Ladies” resounds particularly strong among fans of early hip-hop club hits and electro-funk. And for proponents of nebulously defined 90’s big beat “electronica,” Mantronik provided an inspiration through the unique, thoughtful song craft, more Kraftwerk than Cold Crush, but undeniably influenced by both.
Assuming one can overlook the age rust of the thing, the album is pretty much free of any filler. Many of the beats are still fantastically infectious and subtly complex. Following in the footsteps of Afrika Bambaataa, Mantronik’s productions made him one of the few early hip-hop producers willing to stray from the classic “beat box” rhythms of popular acts like Run DMC, LL Cool J and other b-boy favorites. Tunes like “Fresh Is the Word” apply light sampling to synthesized beats and funk basslines, essentials in the formula for Bambaataa’s electro-funk invention. But a distinguished difference comes from MC Tee’s hooks and rapping, which bring an understated melodic influence uncommon in typical old school electro, especially notable on the first single, “Ladies.”
More than anything, Mantronix: The Album
, might be noteworthy for simply being part of the small group of artists who represent the clear fork in hip-hop’s development that led to modern electronic dance music. And since so few of these artists released albums, coherent or otherwise, Mantronix’s debut seems all the more remarkable. From the squelchy melody and handclaps on “Bassline” to the blippy syncopations of “Fresh Is the Word,” Mantronix make plain fun music.
Arguably, Mantronik’s production was not completely groundbreaking as some might assert; electro had already been around for a couple years before Mantronik hit the scene. But undeniably, Mantronix: The Album
's success and appeal as a dance record and as club music, rather than catering simply to b-boy street party audiences, played a part in the shifting direction of one facet of hip-hop music. And that sort of explains why Mantronix is kind of forgotten for some, beloved by others. This is the diverging aesthetic.