Ultramagnetic MCs and Inexplicable Mobility

Rap is acutely sensitive to borders and constraints. The claustrophobic streets, the stifling parameters of stereotype, and the glass ceiling of the music industry are exhaustively depicted in terms ranging from humorous to harrowing. Cynics may write off these lamentations as navel gazing flights of fancy or even melodramatic musings that arise out of a stubborn and outdated persecution complex; it is difficult for me to refute such claims entirely. Clearly, a part of rap’s recurring crossover appeal is linked to the strategic  magnification of localized individual turmoil. How else could a crew from a desolate nine story housing project on the friggin’ north shore of Staten Island convincingly and repeatedly declare itself the voice of the global ghetto struggle? 

 Rap’s obsession with the limitations of youth, anonymity, and poverty is famously counterbalanced by its simultaneous embrace of excess, meteoric ascent, and conspicuous consumption. Among the many thousands of rags-to-riches narratives recorded in the ’90s alone we find a few here and there that attempt to dress up materialism as a means to a more enlightened end, with Nas’ “If I Ruled The World” being the most frequently imitated example. Taking a cue from the seemingly irreconcilable ideologies of D.A.I.S.Y. Age excursions to an Afro-FutureWorld of Cosby-like creature comforts and LL Cool J’s dandyish Walking With A Panther douchebaggery, Nas’ transcendent vision is enslaved to the shallow sophistry his mentors hoped you’d overlook.

In all fairness, most of rap’s forays into freedom dreams have been burdened by the kind of  flimflamming medicine show bullshit artistry they set out to subvert. Digital Underground’s P-Funk revival was purported to be something new and visionary. De La Soul, X-Clan and Dr. Dre thought just as highly of themselves. In each of these instances a vaguely programmatic upliftment of the mind, body, and soul is announced and accompanied by fresh new sounds that felt very much like a more open playing field, a breezy drive along Crenshaw Avenue, the Long Island Expressway, or the neo-Nubian ancestral crossroads. Departure. But the exodus was horrendously temporary – the carefree, libidinous appeal of this music superseded all pretenses of a noble or realist agenda. And so the liberators become the new rulers, their free flowing decrees and anthems sounding more like the stifling same ol’ song.

Misguided attempts to trade one’s youthful bohemianism for the rah rah du jour are quickly discarded by an insulted core audience, which is why every damned one of us prefer Low End Theory to the UMCs trying to Onyx it up on Unleashed. Hell, we even prefer it to De La Soul is Dead; innovation and departure just feel better when the artist doesn’t ask that you join a cult or subscribe to a silly binary reversal. To be a hip hop junkie is to be forever skeptical – the music can cost as little as zero dollars to create and its deeply embedded codes call for the ritual slaughter of any style too stale. And yet the perpetuity of the conditions that allowed the music to flourish – from the inner-city angst of Melle Mel’s “The Message” to the inner-ring suburban ennui defied by L.O.N.S. on “International Zone Coaster” – call for a frequent revisitation of themes and imagery.

How then can rappers critique the status quo, maintain artistic integrity, annunciate a future worth striving for, and flirt with the periphery of the public’s tolerance for next-ness? Is this balancing act plausible or even desirable? If rappers are realistically constrained by genre, song structure, language, or sales anyway, is there a space for subversion, or even room to articulate the next version of freedom or mobility? Without coming across like a paid lecturer or a sweaty preacher or a snake oil salesman or an unkempt hippie? Has a rapper ever managed to truly break the rules without quickly reassembling them, and come off nice?

The questions I am posing are probably as insular as any rapper’s lyrical voyage through the multiverse. For the sixty or so who care about the answers – exhale as soon as possible. A genre so consumed with being fresh won’t tolerate these debates much longer even if YouTube guarantees this music the high-tech mausoleum it deserves. The beat goes on. And yet I can’t keep my mind off Ultramagnetic MCs and their song “Two Brothers With Checks.” I’m not going to bother with a line for line breakdown. Kool Keith already handles this quite skillfully on his own; peep the DivShare widget at the top of this post to hear him dissect his own madness to hilarious effect on Stretch and Bobbito’s immortal show.

I will tell you this though – “Two Brothers With Checks” is worth your time. There’s something going on there. A movement. Between towns and cities, between label contracts, in and out of whatever enclosures might be suffocating this incredible song made by some extraordinary artists. Ced Gee is Chuck D. on acid, wielding a style too unbearable for this world and yet sounding surprisingly comfortable over this beat. Coasting from El Segundo to Pakistan, a world of wonder and prestige unfolding at every turn. Kool Keith is much the same and yet even more bugged out, making moves on the strength of arcane baseball references. Not too different from the Popular Science reading, Sp-12 tweaking, loop and neologism inventing, Bronx-bred subway(tube?) riding goofballs that Brian Coleman depicts in Rakim Told Me. Just moved on from All City to worldwide, and not giving a fuck. 

The flyest and least celebrated to ever circumnavigate in a non-pink Cadillac, a movement without a hypebeast to revive and kill it. Mobile and unheralded and probably not paid in full. But throwing it down, presumably in the wrong era for the right reasons. Can you dig it now? — Thun

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2 Responses to “Ultramagnetic MCs and Inexplicable Mobility”

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. M says:

    this is my family rite here…good look on droppin this…..I gotta show this to Keith and Ced…..

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