"On the stage, any time
I'm cold chillin, I'm wearin the rhymes
to keep warm, with the beat that's playin
You hear me now, you know what I'm sayin
to you, you and you
Your whole organization and crew
Just watch, as I enter your mind
Decorate, and paint my sign
I'm hazardous, so scatter this around
I'm Kool Keith, knockin MC's down
Just watch me"
To clear up any confusion right at the start there are currently TWO versions of "Critical Beatdown" on the market - there's a reissue of the original Next Plateau release along with a 2004 update from Roadrunner Records with bonus tracks. Why would two versions of any album more than twenty years old be necessary though? Good question. Let's take a moment to delve into the answer before we continue our journey Back to the Lab.
When the fab four of Kool Keith, Ced Gee, Moe Love and TR Love first came together in the Bronx back in 1984 their plan for hip-hop dominance included no small share of arrogance - in fact their very name implied it. "Ultra" literally means "beyond," so in short these artists saw themselves as ahead of the very rappers then dominating the airwaves. Naturally being "ultra" would also lead to being "magnetic," as an advanced musical and lyrical style would attract fans and listeners to their sound. Their choice of name was as bold as it was correct, as it wasn't long before twelve inch singles like "Ego Trippin'" attracted a following in New York City that quickly spread past those boundaries. The difference between Ultra and other artists of the era is that they weren't afraid to take risks. Kool Keith in particular gained a reputation for not being willing to obey the conventions of rap structure. Sometimes he'd rhyme one bar halfway through the next instead of at the end, and sometimes he just wouldn't bother at all. The futuristic name led to a futuristic attitude, and the expanding cult following appreciated Keith's willingness to get scientific on the mic - LITERALLY. The Ultramagnetic MC's didn't insult your intelligence - they challenged it.
"Well I'm sonically, high bionically
for you dummies, ironically stupid
What are you, Cupid?
You steal my rhymes, and then you loop it
Wrong! Back this way
Follow me now, head this way
into this, while I rap on through this
For many germs, who never knew this
switches, upside down
Turn around, look in the mirror
You rap catchers are makin a error
Every inning, I'm back to the dugout
You on the field, I'm ready to bugout
like a manager, smackin up your team
Male or female, ducks who dream
of takin me, on the mic and makin me
rack up, MC's I stack up
Foreign precinct rappers need to back up
quickly, I'ma rip your brain off
Throw it down so the blood can drain off
my hands, while I wave to a fan
I'm Kool Keith, not a Bill or a Dan"
Through the years the legend of the Ultramagnetic MC's grew even as their frustration with the music industry grew. Despite being auteurs of some of the most innovative rap singles of the 1980's and releasing their critically acclaimed "Critical Beatdown" debut, the relationship with Next Plateau never really took them to one. To be sure they toured, they made money, they were beloved by the fans everywhere they went, but their own label put all the focus on the commercial crossover success of female trio Salt-N-Pepa. The ladies definitely deserved and earned their right to shine as rap pioneers, but Ultramagnetic arguably got promoted like the redheaded stepchild in comparison. The tension between members over their position on the label in general and the rap scene in particular led to the famous "creative differences" that have broken up many successful groups - and Ultra was no exception. They'd reunite, they'd give it another go with a different label, and then break up again. By 1993 this pattern had exhausted itself and Kool Keith went on to have his now famous (and bizarre) solo career. A 2007 reunion attempted to recapture the sound of old, but by then the magic was long gone.
In the decades since those heady days of the 1980's "Critical Beatdown" has nearly transcended it's status as a rap album to something far more legendary. It became one of THE records rap connoisseurs had to have if they were worth their salt, which led to many reprints of the album over the years (bootleg or otherwise). It also led to various attempts by the split up members of the group to cash in on the Ultramagnetic name through solo albums or by releasing old demo tapes of questionable quality. Through it all though the CB album came to represent a cornerstone not only of New York rap but of what now is often lumped together in the catch-all term "progressive hip-hop." If you were willing to do something exceptional, different, weird, avant garde or all of the above as a rapper in the 1990's, chances are you were inspired by "Critical Beatdown." Even more telling is that rappers of the last decade were inspired by THOSE rappers, so the torch was passed down to a new generation and the legend grew. That's why it wasn't sufficient just to reissue the original "Critical Beatdown" any more - by 2004 it was time to cash in with a "deluxe version."
At this point in 2011 it's easy to be skeptical if not outright cynical about whether or not any album that's been so lauded for so many years deserves that much praise. And to be fair the production on "Critical Beatdown" can be achieved these days by rappers working from a laptop in their own bedroom. In saying that it's also fair to consider "Critical Beatdown" in the context it came from, and compared to other albums that came out in 1988 "Critical Beatdown" was definitely cutting edge. The sampling techniques that Ced Gee used to create the musical backdrops were no simple beat loops - he surgically dissected instrumentals and reassembled them in a way anyone who has used Audacity would recognize today - but without the computer power that's so cheaply and widely available now. Personal PC's were Commodore 64's, not MacBooks. Samplers, turntables, drum machines and recording studio tracks made up the difference between then and now and he played them like a virtuoso played the violin. "Travelling at the Speed of Thought" was an apt description of Ultra lyrically and musically.
Kool Keith: "I'm taking ya brain from the back
I'ma pull out ya ears cause I'm sick
Traveling hard, ill off, another lunatic
Smacking germs, eating bugs, biting mouse
Roaches wonder why I'm traveling
on to Bellevue cause I'm sick
Traveling hard at the speed of thought"
Ced Gee: "Ruff and hardcore, I wanna encore
I'm Ced Gee, I'm in an uproar
Taking breaks, snatching, giving X-rays
Read ya cells or should I say
Hey, it's nothing, I'm simply rushing
Into ya skull and merely crushing
Cells, leaving you blind
The more you look, the more you will find
Me, traveling at the speed of thought"
Who would have thought Ced could take "Louie Louie" from a beloved pop rock tune from the 1950's and 60's and turn it into hardcore hip-hop? Ultra did. While Ced's lyrical contributions on "Critical Beatdown" occasionally border on the simplistic, the sonic landscape he provides more than makes up for it. It is on this album that Kool Keith really rockets into outer space lyrically, using tracks like "Ease Back" to seemingly invent new rap styles on the fly. The tone is set at the start as an ominous scratched sample seems to promise nuclear annihilation, before Ced mixes up loops by The J.B.'s and The Meters and lets Keith loose on the beat:
"I'm back, back to smack attack
those who wack and lack my experience
On the microphone holding my own ground
Change the sources, punks takes losses
Enough cause it's me on the mic
Feeding on words, smart like a nerd
Haven't you heard this - change of rhyme?
Continuing the land of time
For my incredible, highly elevated
Smooth in the mind, more sophisicated
Motivated, as I relate it, verbal
Dissing a mouse and smacking any gerbil
I bought a Saab, a 1990 Turbo
Shining, fog lights in the front
I'm by myself, no seats for a stunt
Cause I want it like that, I got it like that
I have it like, I need it like that
It's better like that, I made it like that
I bought it like that, I'm living like that
For, YOU WACK EMCEES!
Who go on the mic and blow on the mic
And perpetrate frauds and making mistakes
Like an amateur, but I'm a 20 year veteran
And better than, including the rest of them
I chew 'em all and spit out the best of them
One by one, I'm teachin my son, to ease back!"
It's a bit infuriating when Ced follows this verse with the almost retarded "Whassup? It's me again." Really Ced, really? We know it's you. And yet Ced Gee's raps were the perfect foil for Keith's raps. While Mr. Thornton lorded his superior creativity over the "gerbils" and "germs" of the 1980's rap scene, Ced kept it grounded and declared himself "the wizard of know how." If Treach needs his Vinnie, if Chuck needs his Flav, then Keith needs his Ced Gee. Later on when Keith got a little (okay honestly a lot) more crazy he could carry off being a soloist with ease, but on "Critical Beatdown" the yin and yang between him and Ced was a perfect marriage. Of course that leads one to ask what exactly TR Love and Moe Love do for the group; the answer is NOT MUCH. At least the latter got a song dedicated to his role as the group's turntable specialist called "Moe Luv's Theme":
Keith: "Ok, now Moe is on the mixer
So get ready, cuz here's another twister
About the way he gets the crowd to move
And groove and dance to the things he do
And prove the way he sway and lift and shape
And rock hard, all night he's on and on
Swiftly slicing, cuts are nice and smooth like rice and
Beans, another cut rises
Moe surprises more than one
2, 3, 4, 5, the jam packed crowd
Of biters and writers
Accumulating reciters observing
Cuts from the master as I move faster
Pass the wack DJs
Going on, flowing on, smooth and sailing on
Moe Luv is on the mix tonight, Moe Luv"
As far as I can tell TR's role was something like that of an executive producer, although you can occasionally hear him exhorting the other members to achieve greatness on songs like the musically layered "Feelin' It," where he can be heard between verses: "Yo, Ced, you ready to get on and tell em how you feel?" He did. Many songs are more than just a feeling though - they're incomprehensibly great even today. "Break North" is arguably the pinnacle of the Ultramagnetic MC's sound. The song literally wills itself into existence out of thin air, kick-started by a pounding bassline and a scratched Star Wars sample saying the words "rebel base." Hearing those two words alone is enough to make any old school rap fan smile. It's thematically and literally the science fiction cutting edge of 80's hip-hop:
Ced: "I'm like a merchandise, a customized item
Computer rapper for ducks who wanna bite 'em
Stand back, watch the man recite 'em
It took a minute a second for me to write 'em
and type 'em and hype 'em and psych 'em, up
Change my rhythm, before I get stuck
in an altitude, beyond my own level
I smack rappers, and send em to the devil"
Keith: "Here's your brain for your girl I can give her
messages, clues from a murderer
And if she's ugly, I never even heard of her
telling, bugging detectives
I wear a bag, four contraceptives
and aluminum, wrapped in all foil
I play a game, slick to be oil
for the other roaches, MC's I boil
and roast, mega degrees
I swarm around with a thousand of bees
Absorb earth and the honey from trees
I'm the King Bee, my girl's the Queen Bee
And when you're stung, you never even seen me
vanish, Kool Keith here to damage"
If you came of age with "Critical Beatdown" it's the kind of rap record that never gets old. Keith is so braggadocious it's almost comically absurd, and yet it fits perfectly. "Rockin for a standing room only crowd of fifty-five million, eight-thousand nine." As impossible as that is, it makes perfect sense when he says it, and it should. Ced was able to take the adventurous mind of Kool Keith to newfound heights, and while Keith was clearly the star he was ably supported by the crew around him whether on or off wax. That's the reason people are still buying reprints of "Critical Beatdown" over twenty years after it was released, and why you won't regret it if you do so as well.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: January 25, 2011