Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ultramagnetic MC's: The B-Sides Companion (Next Plateau Entertainment, 1997)

Here's a slightly edited review I wrote presumably for Addicted to Noise (or was it Sonicnet at the time?) of an Ultramagnetic MC's profit-taker. I need to thank my pal Jesse Hulseberg who with a musician's ear discerned what the hell Kool Keith was up to and then shared his wisdom with me.

Ultramagnetic MC's: The B-Sides Companion (Next Plateau, 1997)

On the inner sleeve of their 1989 album Done By The Forces Of Nature, the Jungle Brothers gave props to a long list of hip-hop inspirations, both past and present. But for the future, they had only one prediction: Ultramagnetic. The Ultramagnetic MC's were hip-hop's archetypal cult crew, and some think they're still ahead of their time. As with most cults, the obsession centers on one genius figure -- MC Kool Keith. Frequently revered as an innovator in the same breath as Rakim, recently recast as the even more cultish Dr. Octagon, disturbingly sampled by The Prodigy right at the beginning of their mega-breakthrough album, Kool Keith is as acknowledged a planter of twisted roots as Alex Chilton.

But it's no mystery why few drank down the spiked Kool Aid of the Ultramagnetic MC's hallowed debut, Critical Beatdown, upon its release in 1988 on Next Plateau. In the easily sopped-up aural environment forged by Public Enemy, Rob Base, EPMD, Biz Markie, De La Soul and many others at the time, Critical Beatdown worked like Randy Newman's 12 Songs. You had to listen hard to figure out what made it special -- so hard that It Takes a Nation and the like naturally eclipsed it with their abrasiveness and/or directness.

Much of what made it special came courtesy of Kool Keith, who worked his magic quite subtly indeed. He took a cerebral scalpel to his rhymes and abstracted a totally unique rapping style from traditional MC boasts. Even though he likened himself to a steady Eveready, he rapped more like an unstable power cable flinging lyrical sparks around like Jackson Pollock flicked paint. Out of nowhere, a surge would occur like this exhilarating one from "Ease Back": "I bought a Saab, a 1990 Turbo. Shining, fog lights in the front. I bought myself no seats for a stunt [here's the surge] cuz I want it like that, I got it like that, I have it like that, I need it like that, it's better like that, I made it like that, I bought it like that, I'm livin' like that." Critical Beatdown indeed. This spew refers to nothing except Kool Keith's own hyper fit and, as such, ushered in rap's expressionist era.

Five tracks from Critical Beatdown reappear on The B- Sides Companion, which should really be called The Remixes Companion since 10 of its 14 tracks are exactly that. Somewhat surprisingly, none of the resettings disturb Kool Keith's groove thing. There are more great power surges as he sputters out of meter on "A Chorus Line 2000": "You never were sayin' or payin' attention to me, my rhyme, my clothes, my hat, my shoes, my shirt, my tie, the glasses on my eye. I try not to cry cuz you're wack as ever."

"Watch Me Now" reveals another facet to this crazy diamond -- the rapper as art film editor: "Everyday when I come outside, you step back, stay inside [brilliant pause] your house while you look out your window. Your girl screams, 'Where Kool Keith go?' Walking while punks keep talking annoying me, MCs hawking ... " Imagine Run- D.M.C. relegating a sucker MC to merely looking out his window. It's such a bizarre dis because it gives the chump the potential for mobility; it doesn't smack him down. He could very easily leave the house (just ask Main Source who was "Lookin' At The Front Door"). But the fact that he doesn't lends the girl's question (but why does she have to scream it?) and Keith's stroll a remarkably vibrant and dream-like cinematic quality. That's because it's not really a dis but rather a stream of consciousness reworking of hip-hop subject matter -- Super Wolf fancying himself Virginia Woolf. 

The B-Sides Companion also does a good job of delineating how nightmarish those dream-like states were. Kool Keith and fellow MC Ced-Gee mention brains on almost every cut, and the majority of those allude to eating them (haven't they heard of laughing disease?). Bearing down on their idée fixe rhyming style makes the progression from a track like the supposedly self-explanatory "Mentally Mad" to the corridors of Dr. Octagon's Horror Hospital easier to grasp.

There's just one teensy thing I've glossed over: the music, the beats themselves. By the end of Critical Beatdown's 47 minutes, it takes a nation of millions to wake me up. Their JB and scratch just isn't as ear-catching as PE's saturation bombs, and for the sheer ID pleasure of voices, Roxanne Shanté cuts Kool Keith's Queazy-E. Where the conceptual thrust of Dr. Octagon's porno skits and spooky sound effects pull me into the movie, little more than critical duty compels me to break the Ultramagnetic MC's' code. 

The B-Sides Companion's duty should have been to help me do that, but its 10 remixes don't do what the best remixes have always done: reinterpret and/or recontextualize. All 10 differ only in uncrucial ways from the originals, and the few remaining live/renegade cuts offer little help. But maybe that's the point. Maybe a remix philosophy that offers little of anything new is more in keeping with the perverse legacy of Kool Keith.


Post a Comment

<< Home