Soft of voice and gentle in demeanor, you'd never guess that Kurtis el Khaleel is a towering figure in the history of hip-hop. Returning to the music business after a lengthy '90s hiatus, the man behind Mantronix currently produces and remixes multiple artists (Kylie Minogue, Junior Senior, Darren Emerson, Simply Red), but he readily admits that his past looms large.
“I thought I was doing wicked-mean hip-hop that everybody could understand and relate to,” Khaleel, aka Mantronik, says from his London apartment. “I was trying to push the envelope a little bit. I was doing my interpretation of the hip-hop of the time. But most people hear ‘Fresh Is the Word’ and don't think of Grandmaster Flash or early hip-hop; to them it comes across as being slightly different. I thought I was doing hip-hop, but it didn't come across that way.”
The seminal mid-'80s Mantronix smashes — “Bassline,” “Fresh Is the Word,” “King of Beats,” “Ladies” and “Needle in the Groove,” all heard on Mantronix: The Deluxe Edition (Sleeping Bag/Warlock/Traffic, 2008) — provide a glimpse into the origins of electro-funk, with the tracks' sharp, stabbing beats and brittle synth saturation as relevant today as it was yesterday. Mantronix's influence on music is undisputed; the band's classic tracks have provided plenty of sample fodder (and considerable melodic cache) for Beastie Boys (“Jimmy James”/”Fresh Is the Word”), Chemical Brothers (“Song to the Siren”/”King of Beats”), Future Sound of London (“Moscow”/”Who Is It”), Prodigy (“Hyperspeed”/”Bassline”) and Beck (“Where It's At”/”Needle in the Groove”).
Born in Jamaica but raised in New York, the then 17-year-old aspiring artist was influenced by Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and the SoulSonic Force, reconfiguring their urban chaos into something entirely original. Mantronik met Haitian-born MC Tee (Touré Embden) at Manhattan's Downtown Records and founded Mantronix, and the fledgling act soon recorded the blistering demo for “Fresh Is the Word” (Sleeping Bag, 1985). Mantronix conceived “Fresh Is the Word” working with an E-mu SP-12, a Technics SL-1200 and a Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer.
“I had never heard anything like Bambaataa's ‘Planet Rock,’” Mantronik says. “He used the TR-808. My idea was to use the 808 at a much slower tempo to make it sound really big and boomy. ‘Fresh Is the Word’ is really the sound of the TR-808. I liked its crispness, the fatness of the kick, and because it was slower it had more of a guttural feeling. I didn't hear anybody use the 808 like that then, keeping it raw to its intended form, putting a loop on it and slowing it down. ‘Planet Rock’ had all kinds of production tricks, but ‘Fresh Is the Word’ was all 808. I didn't think I was doing anything new or different, it just felt good to me.”
Eventually adding Opcode Systems Studio Vision, Sequential Circuits Studio 440 and a Linn 9000 to the Mantronix arsenal, the duo continued to storm the charts with hits taken from the debut album Mantronix: The Album (Sleeping Bag, 1985) and the follow-ups, Music Madness (Sleeping Bag, 1986) and In Full Effect (Capitol, 1988).
“For the song ‘Bassline’ I switched over to the Roland TR-909,” Mantronik explains. “It had a 1-track MIDI sequencer; I plugged its MIDI out into the Roland TB-303. I was triggering the 303's bass notes from the 909. I had both machines going, locked together, one doing bass, one doing beats. I couldn't figure out syncing tracks up with SMPTE, so I did it all in one pass. Basically on ‘Bassline,’ all the drums are on two tracks, the bass line is on another track, and there is stacking nonsense on other tracks.”
Rapper MC Tee remained with Mantronix until In Full Effect, after which he joined the U.S. Air Force. Mantronik enlisted rappers Bryce “Luvah” Wilson and D.J. D (his cousin) for 1990's This Should Move Ya (Capitol). Vocalist Jade Trini joined for 1991's The Incredible Sound Machine (Capitol).
Exhaustion and a dearth of hits in the '90s eventually drove Mantronik out of the business. He married and relocated to London, where he remains. His career returned to prominence, however, with I Sing the Body Electro (Oxygen Music Works, 1998) with female rapper Traylude, which was a critical success. Chart-topping UK success continued with Joyce Simms' “(You Are My) All and All” (Warlock, 1999), Kurtis Mantronik presents Chamonix “77 Strings” (Southern Fried, 2002) and the tracks “Promises” and “Obsession,” which he wrote and produced for Kylie Minogue's Body Language (Capitol, 2004).
Currently working in Apple Logic Pro 8 on a MacBook Pro, using Native Instruments Pro-53, LinPlug Albino, U-he.com Zebra 2.2, Logic's EXS24 sampler for beats and Genelec 8040As, Mantronik is oddly reserved when discussing a possible comeback album.
“I feel I am letting people down if I don't come out with something fresh and completely different,” he admits. “So I hold back as opposed to releasing everything.
“The early Mantronix was magic. I was a young kid who was just excited and loved music and no one was judging me. My label believed in me no matter what I did. That happened in the '70s, too; bands could do what they wanted to do and they made great music.”