“People are always gonna be jealous of a group like Ultramagnetic MC's,” Kool Keith proclaims. The group's de facto front man, premier potty mouth and word-ologist, Kool Keith (aka Keith Thornton) is talking his usual big game after his pay-as-you-go cell phone finally accepts a call.
“We started a lot of things in rap that they will never respect,” he continues from his home in the Bronx. “We were the first group to fly to Europe and stay in big hotels and get the royal treatment. All the drug dealers and hustlers I respected were always on a balling tip; that was the life of the show. Long limos, gold chains, jewelry and leathers? We did that already. You know, rap is not really rap no more — rap is a show. It's how your sneakers look. That is rap today.”
Rap today would be a much drearier place without Ultramagnetic MC's. Reportedly the first group to use the sampler as an instrument, Ultramagnetic MC's are grand alumni of hip-hop's golden age, along with Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Rakim and KRS-One. Ultramagnetic MC's released three albums of inventive NYC hip-hop boasting mad samples, madder wordplay and maddeningly funky beats: Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau, 1988), Funk Your Head Up (Mercury, 1992) and The Four Horsemen (Wild Pitch, 1993). Though Ultramagnetic never quite engaged the mass consciousness like their fellow urban cohorts, smoking singles such as “Poppa Large,” “Ease Back,” “Ego Trippin'” and “Moe Luv's Theme” found a ready audience with lovers of true-school hip-hop. Using a minimal setup of E-mu Emulator SP-12 and SP-1200, Roland Juno-106 and Akai MPC60 and S900, Ultramagnetic lifted loops and sampled sonic clues from The Meters, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, Herbie Hancock, Rush, Dennis Coffey, Funkadelic, James Brown, The J.B.'s and many, many more. Ultramagnetic MC's Kool Keith, Ced Gee, Moe Luv and TR created a classic sound that remains vital and inspiring.
“Back then,” Ced explains, “I would chop up a bass from vinyl, then multipitch it on the MPC and make an original bass line from there.” Ced (aka Cedric Miller) arrives in a timely manner at Harlem's Satellite Studios, where much of Ultramagnetic's first album in 14 years, The Best Kept Secret (DMAFT, 2007), was recorded. The enigmatic Kool Keith is nowhere to be seen.
“We always wondered,” Ced continues, “what if they had a machine that could do this or that? Now they've surpassed it. When sampling became an issue during the recording of The Four Horsemen, we had to re-create the sounds with different tube amps. On the older CDs, the kicks were so powerful the CDs would skip. Now they master them so they sound powerful through modulation and manipulating frequencies. They eliminate the attack but keep the sub frequency so that it sounds heavy. The music is being stripped as time moves forward.”
The Ultramagnetic MC's reunion has been a long time coming. As Kool Keith (aka Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, Black Elvis, Mr. Nogatco) became a highly visible character in hip-hop's underground, and Ced released the single, “Longevity” (321 Records, 1998), Moe and TR pursued production deals or worked day jobs.
“We never really were apart,” Ced claims. “We just did other things. The only thing that kept the reunion from happening was Keith being on the West Coast. As soon he came back east in 2005, it was set. We started recording in 2006.”
While The Best Kept Secret is not the full-on old-school return that some have hoped for, it does show the old MC's learning new tricks, both verbally and sonically. Ced and Moe provide men's club-worthy tracks — “Porno Star (Part 2),” “Mechanism Nice (Born Twice),” “Party Started” — matched by Kool Keith's warped words and freak-show production. If anything, Keith dominates the album; his “Late Nite Rumble,” “Underwear Pissy” and “Pop Bottles” form a psycho trinity of mind exploration, scatological goof and champagne-spilling frivolity. With its older-school beats and incisive lyrics, The Best Kept Secret retains the MC's underground, underdog persona.
THE WORLD IS HIGH
“People think I am crazy, but that is a misconception,” Kool Keith asserts when asked about his production/writing methods. “When I made ‘Poppa Large,'' it became this massive stigma, people saying ‘Oh, he is a mental guy; he was in Bellevue.'' But I haven't been in the mental hospital. I don't have to smoke PCP to be this way. I write to entertain people who do some blunts and weed 'cause the world is high itself. I say, ‘I am murdering your mother. I'm hacksawing your family to death.'' I am actually having an orgasm cause I know a magazine will say, ‘Another Kool Keith record of piss and crap fetishes.'' People still look at me like I am the guy in the straitjacket.”
Preproduction for The Best Kept Secret began at various home studios around Manhattan and the Bronx. Ced's rig includes an Akai MPC60, E-mu Emulator SP-1200, Moog Voyager and a Yamaha RS7000 (also used by Moe Luv). Meanwhile, Keith works an Akai MPC2000, Clavia Nord Lead, Korg Triton, Roland Juno-106 and Digidesign Pro Tools LE. Keith is particularly concerned with his vocals.
“I use a Neumann U 87 into the Manley Mono Mic Pre,” he explains. “It brings that original Kool Keith voice that people try to duplicate. It is basically set natural, a bit dry, and I add that sprinkle of wetness. Andre Harrell [producer of Critical Beatdown, Heavy D & The Boyz's Living Large, Mary J. Blige's What's the 411?] always told me that star vocals are up in everyone's face. So I come out of the booth and listen if the star vocals are there. You put them right up in the front of the mix and make sure the words are coming through clear. I like to sound like a man. People don't realize my voice has changed since those early Ultra records.”
You can't discuss Keith's production without getting an earful of “The World According to Kool Keith,” which is…awesome. His rants? The Neptunes: “With Spankmaster [Keith's 2001 solo album on TVT], I did all the original beats. Then The Neptunes came out of nowhere with the Chinese dude and that other kid, Pharrell. The next thing I see is Chad Hugo [who is actually of Filipino descent] holding up new keyboards and all that. They had the publicity, and they bluffed the world.” Then there's Timbaland: “He came from down south. But I was ahead of that stuff on the underground level when I did Black Elvis and Dr. Dooom. I was servicing the brand-new beats and the new sounds.” And Outkast: “They did elements of Black Elvis, and the machine got behind them. They ran off with the music and image. But I was the guy with the new sounds and the new shit. It made me strong. It made me create characters like Dr. Dooom and Octagon. I didn't let them defeat me. I was the guy who invented the next shit.”
Thankfully, Keith is a bit more down-to-earth (just a little) when he gets down to business. He describes two of his new Ultramagnetic tracks, “Late Nite Rumble” and “Pop Bottles,” with the same energetic wordplay that makes his own records so funny.
“I played the drums live on the MPC2000 on ‘Late Nite Rumble'' with the snare drum and the hi-hat moving a little fast. It is more of an up-tempo record with a boogie type of swing. I thought about people slam dancing for that beat. I rapped a certain way: ‘Beat you! Stomp you!'' I got into that; it sounded like some monster-type shit. I used the Korg Triton for those farting sounds. There was nothing I could add to it. Simple, but spacey. Times have changed; you don't have to make a song with 20 tracks like the Bomb Squad.”
While “Late Nite Rumble” sounds surreal with a head-snapping beat and calls to “shake your bon bon,” “Pop Bottles” imitates a futuristic polka on crystal meth, a popgun beat blasting tiki-wiki 16th-note hi-hats, silly synth sounds (“worm parts,” Keith calls them) and cartoonish vocals.
“This song will make you pop bottles even if you don't drink champagne,” Keith insists. “It is a fast grunge record. I programmed it all on the Triton with the MPC2000 for hi-hats. I added the bass-line part from the Triton, just three simple hits looped in Pro Tools. My whole thing is the mean bass lines; I never really make the sweet stuff. I played some unpredictable stuff on the chorus because a lot of the best records are made on a whim. Those little worm parts in there came from that idea, played live on a Juno-106. Sometimes I will do a whole record and let a dog bark on it. Woof, woof! Then the dog leaves the studio.”
Together, Ced and Kool Keith are the yin and the yang. Ced is quiet and thoughtful, prompt and serious. Keith is an engaging character lost in the here and now. Even Popeye's chicken and strippers couldn't make him show up for his last scheduled Remix interview for his 2006 album, The Return of Dr. Octagon (OCD). (No joke — At Keith's request, Remix was actually going to photograph him eating chicken, surrounded by strippers.) When you can nail him down, Keith's mind jumps between subjects like his guises change names. Ask about Ced's influences, and he'll salute some greats from hip-hop's past: The Treacherous 3, Fantastic Romantic 5 and Cold Crush Brothers. But Keith jabbers with an endless eye toward self-promotion.
“I ride the train and feel the grime,” he says. “I ride the subway and smell a bum. I build my mind up for that stench. Then I go home and write some crazy rhymes. My next record, King Service, will be raw, about chicks going to dinner and eating for free, and chicks farting. Chicks do fart. You can whiff some of my pre songs [what he calls ‘screw-hop''] on my MySpace page. One song is called ‘Tony Roma's,'' about taking a girl to dinner. And I have a song for the critics, ‘Pubic Hair.'' I speak for God in many ways.” Uh, okay….
Ultimately, with The Best Kept Secret, the legacy of Ultramagnetic MC's remains an open book. The group continues to change and morph, adapting past to present, assured of their place as hip-hop innovators yet with a caustic eye toward today's commercially entrenched hip-hop scene.
“We will never get our due,” Ced concludes. “If you look at the history of music, black artists have always been portrayed as being unintelligent. So early Ultramagnetic, which involved a vast use of vocabulary, is not how America wanted to portray young people of color. They didn't want the community looking in books; they want them looking at guns. We are not bitter. We just keep going. We are multidimensional. We can't be defined. That is why some people won't accept us. It will keep changing as long as it is Ultra. We won't do this type of album in 10 years; we'll just keep growing. The legacy of Ultramagnetic MC's is that they were never scared to do what they felt.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Akai DR16 HD recorder
Alesis ADAT AI-1 digital interface
Apple Power Mac G5-dual 2.7 GHz computer
Digidesign Digi 002 rack, Pro Tools|HD and LE systems
MOTU 2408mk3 interface
Tascam DA-30 MkII DAT, DA-88 eight-track recorder
Sampler, drum machines
Akai MPC4000 sampling workstation
Alesis D4 drum module
Roland MD-1 bass/drum module
Kurzweil 1000 AX+, 1000 PX+ modules
Roland FP digital piano, Juno-106 synth and MKS30 module
Yamaha KX-88 keyboard
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
AKG C 414 mic
ART Dual MP, DPS II and TPS II mic preamps
Ensoniq DP/4 effects processor
Focusrite OctoPre preamp
Klark Teknik DN500 compressor
Manley Mono Mic Pre
Marc Levinson ML-1 preamp
MindPrint En-Voice preamp/EQ
Neumann U 87 mic
Neve Prism V-Series channel strip
Sony MU-R201 reverb
Summit Audio 2BA-221 Mic & Line Module
TC Electronic Finalizer
Universal Audio 1176LN Limiting Amplifier