Friday, August 26, 2011
Before forming as a hip hop group, Ultramagnetic MCs members Cedric "Ced-Gee" Miller, "Kool" Keith Thornton, DJ Moe Love (Maurice Smith), and TR Love (Trevor Randolph) from The Bronx, New York were break dancers for the New York City Breakers and People's Choice crews. They recorded a demo, "Space Groove", in 1984 and released their first single "To Give You Love" in 1986. Other singles, including "Space Groove" and "Something Else", became popular at block parties and earned the group notice in the underground music scene, eventually leading to the group's signing with dance-oriented record label Next Plateau Records.
The group made a stylistic breakthrough with their subsequent 1986 single "Ego Trippin'". The song boasted dense, minimalist production, featuring synthesizer riffs and a drum sample from Melvin Bliss' "Synthetic Substitution", and erratic lyricism by Ced-Gee and Kool Keith. The group's 1987 single "Funky" showcased Ced-Gee expanding on his production style, incorporating a piano sample from "Woman to Woman" by Joe Cocker. Before the release of Critical Beatdown, he contributed to production on albums such as Antoinette's Who's The Boss (1989), Criminal Minded (1987) by Boogie Down Productions.
The dynamic, choppy production on Critical Beatdown was handled primarily by Ced-Gee, who used a E-mu SP-1200 sampler. His sampling of early recordings by James Brown, particularly their guitar and vocal parts, added to the music's abrasive, funk-oriented sound and exemplified the growing popularity of such sampling sources in hip hop at the time. In the second edition of The Rough Guide to Hip Hop (2005), music journalist Peter Shapiro notes its music's energy as reminiscent of The Cold Crush Brothers and writes of the album's musical significance, "It may have been a stunning explosion of early sampling technology, but Critical Beatdown remains a devstating album even in an age of 32-bit samplers and RAM-intensive sound-editing software." He also views that the technological limitations of using such a sampler added to the album's style, making the music "rawer, more immediate, and more febrile, like a raw nerve." Hip hop production team The Bomb Squad has cited the album as a major influence on their production for Public Enemy's 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Shapiro dubs it one of the greatest hip hop albums and comments on its musical legacy, "Recorded at a time before 'street' and 'experimental' were mutually exclusive terms, it ushered in hip-hop's sampladelic golden age and laid the foundation for several generations of underground rap."
Kool Keith's and Ced-Gee's lyrics on the album are characterized by abstract braggadocio, stream-of-consciousness narrative style, and psuedoscientific terminology. The Anthology of Rap, published by Yale University Press, makes note of such terminology in Ced-Gee's lyricism on the album's 1986 single "Ego Trippin'", particularly the lines "Usin' frequencies and data, I am approximate / Leaving revolutions turning, emerging chemistry / With the precise implications, achieved adversively". Kool Keith's rhymes are manic and expressed in a staccato pace. His lyrics on "Ego Trappin'" also criticize the musical aesthetic of old school hip hop artists at the time: "They use the simple back and forth, the same old rhythm / That a baby can pick up and join right with them / But their rhymes are pathetic, they think they copasetic / Using nursery terms, at least not poetic".
Allmusic editor Stanton Swihart praised the album's production as "forward-looking" and called it "an undeniable hip-hop classic [...] one of the finest rap albums from the mid- to late-'80s 'new school' in hip-hop." He noted the "lyrical invention" of Kool Keith's and Ced-Gee's respective styles, adding that "Somewhere in the nexus between the two stylistic extremes, brilliant music emanated. Critical Beatdown maintains all its sharpness and every ounce of its power, and it has not aged one second since 1988." Trouser Press journalist Jeff Chang called it "an amazing debut" and complimented Kool Keith's "shifty rhyme patterns", while writing that Ced-Gee "pushes sampling technology to its early limits, providing sonics that are less bassy and more breakbeat heavy than most of their contemporaries." Pitchfork Media's Alex Linhardt called it "a flawless album—one that stands tall today as one of Golden Age's most ageless," lauding Kool Keith's "lyrical ingenuity" and citing Ced-Gee as "the source of the album's most insane, digitalk-quantum gibberish, spouting lines [...] [T]hey should be studied in seminars alongside general relativity." Linhardt attributed its music's "surging psychosis" to DJ Moe Love's turntablism and Ced-Gee's dense funk sampling, particularly his arrangement of vocal samples, writing that they "are ingrained in the very fabric of the beat, concealed and crippled amidst the relentlessly fuzzing bass. And like most great rap albums, many of them come from the patron saint of yelps, James Brown, and flurry and flux with such abstraction and chaos that they make the beats feel deceptively fast-paced."
Melody Maker stated in a retrospective review, "full of scratch-tastic heavy beat, gold plated hip hop which manages to combine the minimalist ground-breaking Sugar Hill sounds with the show-no-mercy aural assault of the then-emerging Public Enemy." NME gave it a nine out of 10 rating and called it "a bona fide classic." Sputnikmusic's Louis Arp noted the group's sound as "developed solely around the sampler" and stated, "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' [...] Those grooves, the lyrics and the all around unique feel of the album make for some innovating hip-hop." Arp commented that the album "marks a sign of hip-hop's early burgeoning creative maturity" and praised 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," adding that "One could go so far to call these tracks as genre defining." Rolling Stone writer Peter Relic gave the album four out of five stars in a June 2004 review, citing it as the group's "quintessential release." Writing in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), journalist Kembrew McLeod gave Critical Beatdown four-and-a-half out of five stars and called it "a bona fide classic of hip-hop's 'golden age' of the late '80s and early '90s, an album that was mostly ignored at the time but whose reputation has grown exponentially in the years since."
Critical Beatdown ◄ (13 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1988
Funk Your Head Up ◄ (6 versions) PolyGram 1992
The Four Horsemen ◄ (9 versions) Wild Pitch Records 1993
The Basement Tapes 1984-1990 ◄ (2 versions) Tuff City 1994
New York What Is Funky ◄ (2 versions) Ol' Skool Flava 1996
Mo Love's Basement Tapes ◄ (2 versions) Ol' Skool Flava 1996
The B-Sides Companion ◄ (3 versions) Next Plateau Entertainment 1997
Pimp Fiction Spoiled Brat Entertainment 1997
Smack My Bitch Up ◄ (2 versions) Tuff City 1998
The Best Kept Secret ◄ (2 versions) DMAFT Records 2007
Ultra Laboratory Stories ◄ (2 versions) Black Pegasus 2011
Singles & EPs
To Give You Love / Make You Shake ◄ (2 versions) Diamond International 1986
Ego Tripping / Funky Potion ◄ (4 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1986
Traveling At The Speed Of Thought / M.C.'s Ultra (Part II) ◄ (8 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1987
Funky / Mentally Mad ◄ (3 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1987
Watch Me Now / Feelin' It ◄ (4 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1988
Ease Back / Kool Keith Housing Things ◄ (3 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1988
Critical Beatdown (Album Sampler) (12", Promo) FFRR 1988
Give The Drummer Some / Moe Luv's Theme ◄ (6 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1989
Traveling At The Speed Of Thought / A Chorus Line ◄ (3 versions) Next Plateau Records Inc. 1989
Make It Happen / Chorus Line (Pt. 2) ◄ (5 versions) Mercury 1991
Poppa Large ◄ (3 versions) Mercury 1992
Two Brothers With Checks (San Francisco, Harvey) ◄ (4 versions) Wild Pitch Records 1993
Raise It Up / The Saga Of Dandy, The Devil And Day ◄ (5 versions) Wild Pitch Records 1993
Watch Your Back (12") Tuff City
Ultramagnetic MC's Featuring Kool Keith - I'm F**kin' Flippin' (12") Tuff City 1994
Bait (7", W/Lbl) Roadrunner Records 1997
Make It Rain (12") OMW (Oxygen Music Works) 2001
Mechanism Nice (Born Twice) / Nottz (12") DMAFT Records 2006
Chilling W/ Chuck Chill Out (10", S/Sided, RE) Dick Charles Recording INC. 2010