19Feb/100

ULTRA, Magnetic, Magnetic


ULTRA, Magnetic, Magnetic

Sometimes we never really know how good something is until it’s gone. Often times, especially in this hip-hop game, the greats go unnoticed, and when we’ve finally learned to appreciate their work, poof, they’re done. That’s just the way it is, the way it’s always been in this ever-evolving game. The Ultramagnetic MC’s are one such group. A lot of you probably know of them now, but they never really received the props they deserved until years later, when hip-hop starting going downhill. Well, now we’re bringing them back to you.

Straight out of the Boogie Down South Bronx, Ultramag was a four-man group (five if you include Tim Dog) at the forefront of the new school movement in rap. With their obscure lyrics and groundbreaking beats, these cats were some of the most creative artists to ever step foot in the game. They formed in 1984 with a few unsuccessful singles, until they broke out in 1986 with their quintessential jam, “Ego Trippin’.” The song, with its Melvin Bliss break beat, futuristic sound-scape and polysyllabic rhyme styles, was the first for many to experience the freshness of Ultra. They even had the nerve to get at Run D.M.C. on wax: “Say what, Peter Piper? / To hell with childish rhymes!” and “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 and pathetic, they think they’re copacetic / Using nursery terms, at least not poetic.” Damn. Neither Run nor D.M.C. later responded to “Ego Trippin’.” That’s heart.

Two years later, Ultramag debuted with the classic LP Critical Beatdown, they’re most well known and acclaimed work to date. At the time of its release the album was pretty unsuccessful commercially, but now it’s just about their only album to receive the props it deserved, from fans and critics alike. Most songs involve Keith and Ced Gee trading verses, acting as foils to one another over a collection of funky samples and ass-shaking break beats. Everything about the album was ahead of its time, from its vocals to production. Even today, the album still stands as one of the greatest in hip-hop.

Kool Keith was the most popular and well-known of the bunch, and his high-pitched voice and bizarre lyrical imagery are still the group’s most recognizable trademarks. When you think of influential lyricists, cats like Rakim and G. Rap come to mind, but to me Keith was just as important in his own, weird way. His wacky and abstract lyrics coupled with his off-beat delivery changed the way people rhymed—he could literally spit about anything and make it work on wax. Over the years his lyrics became even crazier and more obscure, leading many fans to believe he was genuinely insane. The video for “Poppa Large (Remix)” even has him rapping in a straight jacket with a birdcage over his head. All of this led to a popular myth that Keith once spent time in a mental institution at Bellevue hospital; whether or not this is true, I can’t confirm. But crazy or not, he’s always been up there with the best of the best. If you want to know where alternative and underground rap found their roots, look no further than Kool Keith.

As good as he was, though, Keith had a shit load of help. His running mate, Ced Gee, goes down in the rap history books as one of the most underrated and overlooked artists to ever step foot in the game—both as a producer and an MC. While Keith was garnering most of the attention, Ced was the glue guy in the back making it all work. And man did he put in some serious work. A lot of people seem to forget that Ced produced most of the tracks on the classic BDP album Criminal Minded, even though he went unaccredited. KRS-One even stated that he almost became a member of Ultramagnetic back in the day. Most songs from Tim Dog’s classic LP Penicillin on Wax also owed their production to Ced Gee, including the infamous “Fuck Compton.” On Critical Beatdown, Ced traded techniques with the late great Paul C. (R.I.P.), and produced one of the freshest collection of beats ever assembled. His sampling methods with the SP-12 spearheaded the Golden Age style of beatmaking.

Ultramag’s debut album was so good that it overshadowed the rest of their later work, but it really shouldn’t have. Their next two albums were classics in their own right. Funk Your Head Up, the group’s sophomore release, may have been the most overlooked album of the 19-naughties. It was here when Ced Gee’s beats became progressively darker and more complex, while Keith’s lyrical style began to take full form. But at a time when West Coast gangsta rap was pulling away listeners to the opposite coast, the album was commercially unsuccessful, and many fans and critics couldn’t get their heads around the change in sound.

They reached their most creative and expressive peak with their last worthy album, The Four Horsemen. Ced Gee’s beats, with help from The Godfather Don, were at their darkest and most haunting stage. The production on this album was one of the finest ever, a vivid collage of beautiful jazz samples, soulful boom-bap drums and deep bass. And of course, the production was paired with some of the most bizarre and diverse lyrical content 90’s rap has ever seen. Keith and Ced rhyme about everything from their signature sci-fi themes, to comic book heroes and villains on “See the Man on the Street.” One song in particular, “Saga of Dandy, The Devil & Day,” pays an honourable tribute to baseball’s Negro Leagues. Even the bizarre sexuality Keith displays in his later solo work is evidently rooted here, on a few of the cuts.

Something has to be said about the chemistry shared between the Ultramagnetic MCs in their heyday. Ced Gee was more than just a producer, and he consistently held his own on the mic alongside Kool Keith. When you think of the greatest MC duos, it’s hard to picture Tip without Phife, Run without DMC, Rae without Ghost. It’s equally as difficult to picture Keith without Ced, and vice versa. Even TR Love, the group’s second producer and third MC, blended well with the other two. If you heard him rap, his voice was like a middle ground between Ced’s deep bellow and Keith’s nasal pitch. Although TR contributed significantly fewer vocals, the songs on which he did (think “A Chorus Line”) were instant bangers. And of course, enough can’t be said about DJ Moe Love’s operation of the turntables, which was just as much a part of the Ultra sound as the beats or lyrics.

As good as the Ultramagnetic MCs were, however, and as important as they were to the development of new-aged hip-hop, they weren’t perfect. Some of their later releases seemed to lack the creativity they had built upon in previous years, and a lot of their sexually explicit songs—though some hilarious—weren’t as rewarding or fun to listen to. It gets tiresome hearing songs like “Smack My Bitch Up” after a while. Ultimately following The Four Horsemen, the group officially disbanded. In 2007, after more than a decade-long hiatus, they attempted a comeback with The Best Kept Secret. As far as I know, it’s the last Ultramagnetic group effort we will ever hear, and the signature sound that made them great before might already be gone. Here’s hoping it isn’t.

Kool Keith went on to have a prominent and successful solo career, often taking on the pseudonyms of Dr. Octagon and Dr. Dooom. He became even more experimental, weird, and imaginative on his solo cuts, and the loyal fan base he has developed shows that cats are still willing to hear something fresh. Ced Gee has also stayed grinding, and most recently he worked as a producer for Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency. Not too shabby himself.

All in all, the Ultramagnetic MCs will be missed, and, sadly overlooked by much of the hip-hop community. What still appeals to me most about them is how smart they were; here was a group of artists capable of imagining anything in the studio. Through their first three albums, their lyrics covered or referenced such diverse themes as science, chemistry, martial arts and Bruce Lee, literature, comic book heroes, the baseball Negro Leagues, street fighting, mental insanity, and outer space. All while keeping it real, hardcore, and danceable. They were Outkast before Outkast, Wu-Tang before Wu-Tang, the Fu-Schnicks before the Fu-Schnicks, and everything we enjoyed in Golden Age to the 90’s before either really kicked off.

And now they’re finished, like much of the hip-hop we’ve come to love over the years. At least now we can sit back, enjoy the old tracks and reminisce.

Critical Beatdown: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=BA6AB3HI

Funk Your Head Up: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=MGDQN6FX

The Four Horsemen: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=WGDYHWD3

The Basement Tapes: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=8OUR6E7U

The Basement Tapes are a collection of unreleased songs over their initial half-decade span. A good complimentary piece to any fan’s inventory, it’s nice to hear some of the old cuts on here that should have made the LPs back in the day. Others, however, suffer from a lack of sound quality, often because the records were damaged in studio. Ced Gee even points out that the engineer to “Ya Not that Large” got high and erased half of the track—a real pity once you listen to what’s left of the song. It would have been a sure fan favourite.

The B-Sides: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=CH74C1HT

The B-Sides are a compilation of remixes and alternate takes to several of the group’s biggest hits. They are a good listen, but many of the tracks don’t feature that much of a noticeable difference. My favourite has to be “Ego Trippin’ 2000,” an updated layer of instrumental to essentially the same lyrics and beat as the original.

It’s been a pleasure making my debut with T.R.O.Y. Blog. Stay tuned for more.

Peace,

— Teddy C.D.

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