For a genre that"s barely reached its middle age, hip-hop sure sports a premature old soul. It"s unsurprising; when you"re living with the streets, you"ve got to grow up quick. The short-lived block-rocking innocence of Golden Age hip-hop barely lasted seven years before the New School took over. And just as quickly, the New School gave way to the inevitable rise of hyper-realistic 90"s Gangsta rap, which peaked not long after hip-hop"s proverbial balls dropped. A decade later and we"ve got a million diverging strains: Snap Music from the ATL, the Chopped "n" Screwed sound of Houston and caustic Grime from the across the pond. We"ve got trappers and conscious rappers, a little bit of Reggaeton and some Hyphy, son. By tomorrow, they"ll be worshiping at the altar of some new creative phenomenon sweeping clubs, stealing hip-hop hearts. It"ll have a spread in Vibe, a feature in XXL and a four-inch blurb in Spin.
If hip-hop seems like a game of seconds, it"s just the obvious truth. As followers of the genre know, hip-hop"s endless evolution is like watching a flick in fast forward; let your guard down and you"ll be left behind with the neanderthals doing the running man. And it"s only worse for the artists. Even when you"re on the cutting edge, the people will still let you slip into the aether of history. Just ask the Ultramagnetic MCs.
Largely remembered, if remembered at all, as the launching pad for Kool Keith"s rap career, the Bronx troupe are generally underappreciated double-fisted proponents of hip-hop"s evolutionary doctrine. Keith, producer Ced-Gee, TR Love and DJ Moe Love, may not have promoted themselves as purveyors of "next-level-***," but in the admiring eyes of many of their followers, the trio single-handedly (maybe accidently) founded the hip-hop underground. Armed with a sampler and some sesquipedalian lyricism, the group attempted the same kind of leap forward other New School hip-hop artists had committed. You know the names: Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, De La Soul. But unlike some of the bigger acts of the late 80"s movement, commercially, the Ultramagnetic MCs fell flat. Popular enough to have classic 12" to their name, but ultimately obscured under mounds of unsold records.
The lack of popularity comes not from any shortage of originality, though. The Ultramagnetic MCs sound developed solely around the sampler, a first for a hip-hop group. To that effect, Critical Beatdown
was exactly one year ahead of its time. Arriving before much loved classics like Paul"s Boutique
and 3 Feet High and Rising
, Critical Beatdown
"s notoriety as one of hip-hop"s first copyright offenders is more than slightly impressive. The album unashamedly nicks from the common James Brown staples and then-popular drum breaks like Melvin Bliss" "Synthetic Substitution." But Ced-Gee, aided by studio engineers, infuses the early New School clich"s with memorable melodies, perhaps most notably the piano phrase from Joe Cocker"s "Woman to Woman," a tune famously recycled for use on the production of 2Pac"s "California Love" by Dr. Dre.
Like most late 80"s hip-hop, these cuts have aged over time. A sense of blind experimentation pairs up with the groundbreaking flavor of songs like "Funky" and "Traveling at the Speed of Thought." Admittedly, Ced-Gee"s general technical inexperience with his SP-12 sampler sometimes ranges low on the fidelity range, not nearly as polished as the material the Dust Brothers and Prince Paul would produce some months later. But in all fairness, that"s the problem with being the forebear to a technique; once you"ve made the blueprint, it"s all the easier to be surpassed.
In spite of this, a good number of tracks stand the test of time from a production standpoint. Critical Beatdown
compares pretty well to the apex of "87 and "88 hip-hop. Relatively, the production on Critical Beatdown
is more dense than that of Paid in Full
, though Eric B. quickly closed the gap by Follow the Leader
. At the same time, Ced-Gee expands into the avant-noise territory of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
on "Ease Back," using the familiar searing squelch of sound the Bomb Squad employ on "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic." Also, Ced-Gee, who knew Boogie Down Production"s Scott La Rock on personal terms, worked with the late La Rock and KRS-One on that group"s first LP Criminal Minded
. Consequently, comparison between the two shows perhaps the strongest of resemblance of all.
Given that most of these artists were working just blocks apart, the amount of influence each had on the others isn"t merely assumed or insinuated, it"s documented and accepted. But there"s no mistaking an Ultramagnetic tune for anything other than a Ultramagnetic tune when Kool Keith"s on the mic. Though not quite as spastically surreal as he would become, Keith displays uncommon talent for the bizarre early in his career, sharpening his skill and defiantly challenging stalwarts like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim for the title of New School New York"s finest. "Ain"t that something, I"m the best MC in the whole wide world," Keith boasts in passing at the end of "Ease Back."
The album"s namesake backs up Keith"s claim pretty effectively. Heads and shoulders above the rest of the album, "Critical Beatdown" has the whole group at peak performance. The bass-laden track rumbles like the L, driving the James Brown samples forward with an imperative funky force. Just above, Keith"s endless braggadocio rhymes churn out catchphrases like the classic, "Pay close attention, I"ll take your brain to another dimension!" sampled years later by Ultramagnetic MCs fan the Prodigy. "Give the Drummer Some," which sports a famously misogynist phrase also sampled by the Prodigy, exemplifies some of the lyrical non-sequiturs that would come to define Keith"s career as an MC, stuff like, "Play MC Ultra as a warning sign of my / Skill, and what my mind deserves / I smell a grape in the duck preserves."
Ced-Gee"s rhymes are less exciting, although a nice balance to the youthful Keith"s squeaky delivery. Tellingly, Keith pens a couple of Ced-Gee"s verses, although it"s as much attributed to the producer"s focus on the beats and a lack of time to properly write rhymes. The tracks where each MC goes solo are easily less exciting than the group joints. A few stand out though, especially "Kool Keith Housing Things," a three-verse Keith banger that erupts from funk-guitars and a typically huge Ultramagnetic groove.
Those grooves, the lyrics and the all around unique feel of the album make for some innovating hip-hop. Ced-Gee"s method of chopping up samples, rather than simply looping them like most of his contemporaries did, essentially changed the way the producer approached the hip-hop beat. One could go so far to call these tracks as genre defining. And beyond that, many of these tunes are completely enjoyable outside of the influence. Later reissues of the album include unreleased gems and out-of-print 12", including "A Chorus Line" featuring Tim Dog, a rapper who would make maybe the first East-West beef track, "*** Compton." Throw in things like the House remix of "Traveling at the Speed of Thought," and it"s apparent that people approached this album from a completely different angle than other New School classics.
So there you have it. For a group that eeked out one slightly obscure classic album and a couple even more obscure follow-ups, the legacy is pretty striking. Of course, Critical Beatdown
doesn"t come without categorically 80"s lumps. The hip-hop historian probably finds this album more easy to digest that the average listener. But a few tracks here are absolutely undeniable, perfect hip-hop not only from a particular era but representative of the genre as a whole. Simply, Critical Beatdown
marks a sign of hip-hop"s early burgeoning creative maturity. Consider the Ultramagnetic MCs the pubes of hip-hop, planted firmly between the genre"s adolescence and its young adulthood, marking a shift in more than one way.