Ultramagnetic MC’s – Critical Beatdown

Critical Beatdown

Ultramagnetic MC’sCritical Beatdown Next Plateau PL-1013 (1988)

The Ultramagnetic MC’s somehow got lost in the shuffle. While a steady following of fans and critics have sung praise since the beginning, they never quite had the album sales they deserved. Not your typical hip-hop album, Critical Beatdown remains an essential album, one of the best debut albums by a group in any genre.

Hip-hop always was underground, but by 1988 there also was stuff above ground too. Some groups like the Ultramagnetic MC’s stayed underground and laid the groundwork for a movement in the 1990s. Their lyrics were smart, and mixed with complex new beats. After fifteen years hip-hop had a whole new vocabulary, made possible largely through new technology like the sampler. The rhymes are faster more intense. Also, the focus is decidedly urban. The lyrics go beyond the simple themes so common a few years earlier. “Travelling [sic] at the Speed of Thought,” “Kool Keith Housing Things,” and “Give the Drummer Some” are showcases for master genius of rap Kool Keith. He comes in with his “usual” style; he delivers a vocal rhythm that no other MC can duplicate or even match. While his lyrics look simple on paper, his delivery flows backwards. The substance and form is different, but Kool Keith has the same command of words as the beat poets.  On “Feelin’ It” it’s easy to miss the line: “but I guess I’m white/ while others are wrong.” All Keith’s lyrics are biting and intelligent. He disses everybody.  But why not?  With a record like this, the Ultramagnetics were the top game around.

The group’s urban flavor is never bleak. The lyrics simply accept circumstances and pump out great tunes. A subtle shift from merely rhyming about lyrical superiority, the Ultramagnetic MC’s turned that tradition sideways. They explained why their rapping superiority mattered.  Hip-hop moved to a higher order of complexity. More than just a necessary mode of oral history, new hip-hop chose to go to the farthest reaches of pure technique. An album like Critical Beatdown just gets better over time.

“Critical Beatdown,” “Ease Back” and “Ego Trippin’” feature the combined assault of all the MC’s, trading rhymes at breakneck speeds. They work together, never letting individual talents work against each other.

What set this record apart in its time was use of the sampler. The sound was fresh, and subsequently overused as a gimmick by lesser groups. Critical Beatdown may have been a continuing experiment with new techniques, but it still works today. These guys even mix in a Mark Hamill line from Star Wars (advising to “go in full-throttle”).  Such eccentric samples would be fluff in any other hands. The Ultramagnetics flex their rapping muscle just enough to give us a taste — true masters.

This album is a classic, and never received its due. Hopefully, revisionist history will be kind to the Ultramagnetic MC’s who never got the fame they deserved.

dead prez – Let’s Get Free

Let's Get Free

dead prezLet’s Get Free Loud 1867-2 (2000)

dead prez are not a passive kind of group. The duo’s logo is the hexagram “Shih” (the army) from the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes). This represents the power collectively residing in the people. Lets Get Free unabashedly tries make use of that power. stic.man and M-1’s raps are direct. They can be more purposeful than elegant, but that is part of the uncompromising artistic position dead prez take.   Lets Get Free has a southern sound with little treble and a whole lot of bass. The first side of the record is a cynical condemnation of American society. “‘They’ Schools” is a broad critique of a defective educational system only responsive to white interests. Side 2 makes plans for the future. “Discipline” and “Animal In Man” reveal some diverse talent. The instrumental “You’ll Find A Way” has a smooth, assured attitude and keeps the record fresh. “Hip-Hop” was the underground hit.  There are some cringe-worthy songs here, but mostly this is good.

Methodman & Redman – Blackout!


Methodman & RedmanBlackout! Def Jam 314 546 609-2 (1999)

I’ve said it before, but when you do something obvious you can’t make any mistakes.  Fortunately, that’s the case on Method Man & Redman’s collaboration Blackout!  The two MCs work together well, bolstering each other.  They certainly seem like minded.  They have a lot of funny raps, kind of in the style of Cheech & Chong stoner bits, and while skits and shticks like that usually are the bane of hip-hop albums, these guys are actually funny enough to pull it off.  This breaks no new territory, at a time when lots of other hip-hop was going to totally new places, but who cares?  This duo has things to say that they can express in the old styles effectively.  They have an enthusiasm that carries this far.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

The Heist

Macklemore & Ryan LewisThe Heist (2012)

My first encounter with Macklemore was when he appeared on the “Saturday Night Live” TV show.  I thought, “Who is this Vanilla Ice motherfucker?”  I was not impressed with his performance.  At some point I heard “Same Love” on the radio, and thought it was local group Atmosphere.  I loved that song.  Eventually, I put two and two together and realized the song on the radio was actually Macklemore.

His breakthrough and success is quite fascinating.  He and Ryan Lewis have put out what is arguably the most successful independently-released album in U.S. history (though the duo did hire a mainstream company to do promotion, after the album met with initial success).  Although it is hard to assess such things, some try.  One of the most well-known music sales charts (I’ll let it go nameless, but you know it) changed its method of calculation shortly before the release of this album, which as much as anything allowed independent artists like Macklemore to sneak onto the “charts” and thereby gain credibility in the eyes of the establishment that ignores other measures.

There are a lot of detractors out there though.  My take is that they fall into two main camps.  The first are part of the deeply conservative core of hip-hop audiences.  The sound here is a little more melodic than certain hip-hop and is therefore dismissed by the reductionist essentialists that seem to be helping ensure the genre dies out.  Forget them, though.  There’s good stuff here, even if The Heist has only about an EP worth of good stuff and a fair amount of filler.  The second camp is more insidious.  These folks cling to the failed doctrines of identity politics, which posits that minorities and the oppressed should claim their own personas, and essentially guilt the majority into accepting minority power over the majority on the basis of the strength of their personas.  In simpler terms, this is the foundation of the “politically correct” movement.  It fails, largely, because those in power, or their lackeys, often act like borderline sociopaths — they have no guilt.  That, plus identity politics tends to be neutralized by tokenism, something as simple as hiring a minority (“sellout”) to be the lackey.  This camp thinks Macklemore shouldn’t be speaking for the LGBT community, or whatever, because he’s not speaking from within it.  This sort of view fails because it contradicts itself — if minorities can only speak for themselves because the majority doesn’t understand them, then the majority doesn’t understand them and the “authentic” minority representative will never be understood.  It is why Johnny Cash and Marlon Brando made effective champions of Native American causes decades ago (surpassed only by the disruptive power of groups like AIM).  Looking at Macklemore, he proves surprisingly articulate here with the amazing, long-overdue “Same Love”.  I like to think that if somebody like Macklemore can reach out and make statements like this, in an era when in my state (in the United States) young people turn out in droves to vote down a bigoted, homophobic proposed constitutional referendum while not even bothering to vote for a presidential candidate on the same ballot (true!), I think the future looks like it has promise.  Macklemore engages real issues here with compassion and a refreshingly positive attitude.

Hopefully America and the rest of the world can find more ways to make room for independent voices with something to say.  The Heist makes an interesting case study of how it was possible for an instant.

Jungle Brothers – Done By the Forces of Nature

Done By the Forces of Nature

Jungle BrothersDone By the Forces of Nature Warner Bros. 9 26072-1 (1989)

By the late 1980s, hip-hop was evolving.  It wasn’t just about sneakers, nursery rhymes, eating boogers and dancing anymore.  But while plenty of artists of the newer generation went for documenting the grimmest aspects of life on the streets or being part of the underclass, a group of artists calling themselves the Native Tongues tried something different.  The Native Tongues groups focused more on the positive aspects of what they would want things to be like.  Part of that was about respect for the historical contributions of Africans to world civilization.

Unlike most multi-MC groups, the Jungle Brothers didn’t have one MC who overshadowed the others.  Everybody shares duties on the mic, and there is never a letdown when another MC takes over from the last.  In fact, that is one of the group’s real charms.  Part of the reason Done By the Forces of Nature works is that the MCs tend to all use the same vocal rhythm, rather than their own idiosyncratic ones.  It is a very staccato, percussive delivery, free of any of the more melodic kind of rapping that emerged a decade or so later. This rhythmic emphasis is a shared approach.  So when one MC passes the mic to the next, there is a kind of stylistic commonality that tells the audience that these guys are trying to get at some big, heavy stuff, not trying to cut each other, or anybody else.  This is a style that perfectly fits the thematic sentiments of the songs.

The lyrics hint at a new view of masculinity, at least within hip-hop.  There is caution and skepticism.  This isn’t all bravura (though there is plenty of that).  In way, their sexist posturing kind of gives way to brief admissions that all that is just desperate attempts at something they can’t really grasp, leaving open the possibility to maybe taking a new and different look at the world.  It would be too much to call these guys feminists, but the ways their songs veer off course from the usual testaments to alpha male status open the door to other things.  Most often those other things are testaments to afro-consciousness.  But the crazy thing is that if the album had nothing but testaments to afro-consciousness, the people who probably need to hear those the most might not listen, and even those that do maybe would  have only focused on everything else.

A clear influence on the Jungle Brothers was James Brown.  A really funky beat is absolutely constant.  It is a big part of what makes Done By the Forces of Nature so damn infectious from start to finish.  Their debut record used a “house music” producer from Chicago, and that gave it a tight, tense, nimble sound.  That goes out the window here.  A little bit of that is retained, perhaps, keeping this music dance friendly.  But the beats meld with the lyrics a lot more here.  Take the opener, “Beyond This World,” there is a lot more wordless shouts of “yeah” or “uh” for rhythmic effect.  These guys seem much more comfortable, less beholden to the structure of the beats.  They make this music their own.  These seem like raps over music these guys had lived with.  That suits their artistic outlook, giving the album a friendly, down-home brightness that rewards the optimism of the lyrics.  It helps that this album was recorded in the “golden age” of hip-hop, before the crackdown on sampling that began in 1991 with a lawsuit against Biz Markie that made choice samples unaffordable to many acts.

Hip-hop was still a semi-unproven commercial prospect back in the late 1980s.  It was a kind of specialty genre, with its adherents who probably were insiders to hip-hop culture.  Done By the Forces of Nature comes at a key transition, when the forms of early hip-hop were fully refined, but when the scope and direction for the next generation was only being sketched out.  The positive, open-minded approach that The Jungle Brothers and other Native Tongues acts put forward didn’t quite catch on like the ghetto tourism aspects of “gangsta” rap.  Still, this album hasn’t aged much in two and a half decades.  It still has good beats, true to the funkiness of James Brown, though the beats are part and parcel of the overarching sense that these guys were making the kind of music that they like.  By extension, they suggest that maybe they could also do what they like when it came to the subjects they rapped about.  This is the really subversive edge.  The journalistic chronicles of gangsta rap held everything in stasis.  They told things as they were.  The Jungle Brothers suggested what things might become.  Their visions might be a little inept an inarticulate in places.  Stumbling in an interesting direction proved a bigger achievement than just being the black news (journalism) network.  This was black philosophy: asking better questions.

Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly

God Loves Ugly

AtmosphereGod Loes Loves Ugly Fat Beats 6591235001-2 (2002)

Basically these guys scale back the misogyny, homophobia, and other lame elements usually endemic to hip-hop.  They lessen those liabilities, but the problem is that they still employ all the usual styles.  Here, ANT and SLUG don’t recognize the tension between method and content the way they do elsewhere (When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold).

OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik


OutKastSouthernplayalisticadillacmuzik LaFace 73008-26010-2 (1994)

The TV channel VH1 aired a documentary “ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game.”  At one point there is a clip of OutKast’s André 3000 responding to an unruly, angry crowd at a 1995 hip-hop magazine’s award show booing OutKast, after “East Coast” and “West Coast” rappers had been feuding throughout the entire event, by saying, “The South got something to say!”  (Here, remember that at that very award show OutKast also asked for open-mindedness, listening to what any original MC had to say…).  The tone of the documentary was that Atlanta hip-hop musicians felt neglected as media focus was exclusively on New York City and Los Angeles.  But the problem with putting André 3000’s declaration in this context is that it makes it hardly more than an arbitrary statement of chauvinism.  Did the Midwest, the Southwest or the Northwest not have something to say too?  This reveals an important insight into the dead-end aspirations embedded in a lot of hip hop in the 1990s.  The goal wasn’t some kind of fundamental equality.  It wasn’t like this was a noble fight so that everybody, no matter their origins, could have a chance. Instead it was just a narrow battle to put Atlanta, alone, at, or maybe even above, the level of New York City or Los Angeles.  It was about a distinct “Atlanta” identity having some kind of precedence over other identities.  This represents the narrowest possible expansion.  It is sort of a defense of the status quo, with just one specific fiefdom added to the inner circle of nobility in the largely patriarchal estates of the hip-hop realm

Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik starts strong, but runs out its welcome a bit as it goes on.  The rapping is, really, nothing too special.  The lyrics are all about players/playas, which is to say they are about the bravura of young men angling to achieve “alpha male” status.  They render that mindset well.  By adopting a slightly ironic distance from some of it (“Ain’t No Thang”), though, OutKast allow themselves to perpetuate the sorts of misogynistic, materialistic claptrap that they occasionally poke fun of, yet always seem to be preoccupied with (“Player’s Ball (Original)”).  It could just be a youthful mistake.  As much as this album is suppose to announce the arrival of a unique southern style of hip-hop, it mostly recalls New York boom-bap and early 1990s East Coast gangsta rap.  Yes, the tempos are a little slower, the bass is a little heavier and more insistent, and the overall vibe is a little more laid-back.  Also, the music has more melodicism in the raps than most hip-hop at the time.  It remains just a slight variation on the basic template of hip-hop from elsewhere.  While Outkast tried to rise above the confines of mainstream hip-hop, their earliest music couldn’t.  It tripped up by being just the same old gangsta hip-hop with a less aggressive posture.  They didn’t really have a new objective.  All they had was another horse in the same old race.  Maybe they wanted this music to be more than that, but they don’t always get there.  They bring it on a few tunes, but there is plenty of ho-hum filler too.  After a while the album gives way to what sounds more like third-tier R&B than hip-hop as such.  At that point it becomes quite tiresome.

The big stars here are the producers, Organized Noize.  The rappers, Big Boi and André 3000, seem like they are along for the ride.  They are up for it, but they don’t really seem like they are driving the procession.  That would come a few years later.  They were still kids.  Much of what they started here was more compellingly delivered on Aquemini (1998), and then they went in really new directions with Stankonia (2000).  But, really, it seems like OutKast wouldn’t have become what they did without first setting off in the direction they took here, then exhausting the need to push a “player” identity and instead making music that spoke to everyone on a new level.

Kool Keith – Black Elvis/Lost in Space

Black Elvis/Lost in Space

Kool KeithBlack Elvis/Lost in Space Ruff House WK 52000 (1999)

This is, without question, one of my favorite hip-hop albums.  Kool Keith is inimitable.  Maybe that’s partly because there is (or was) hardly anyone even attempting his kind of abstract, surreal vision of hip-hop.  This solo release came somewhat on the heels of the critically lauded Dr. Octagonecologyst album.  It seems like a lot of people like to talk about how Black Elvis isn’t as good as the Dr. Octagon disc.  Well, motherfuckers, I’m gonna say the exact opposite.  I think in every way that counts, Black Elvis is the better album.  On Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith’s vocals are relegated to a decidedly secondary position.  Just listen to “3000” to hear producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura chop up the vocal tracks and–subtly–undermine the natural rhythm of Keith’s vocal delivery.  Now, The Automator is okay.  I’m not convinced he’s that great though.  But I am convinced that Kool Keith is a motherfuckin’ rap genius.  To take anything away from Keith’s vocals is, in my opinion, a big mistake.  Now, there’s the Black Elvis album.  It begins as kind of concept album, with Keith’s alien Black Elvis character descending to Earth and rapping about all that he sees from the point of view of this outsider rock star.  I mean, the “Intro” track alone is one of my favorite hip-hop songs.  Then it transitions to some songs that reveal the Black Elvis character to be just that, a public persona…he’s a guy that has to go home and live a life like everybody else.  The end of the disc (which might benefit from trimming a few of the lesser tracks) goes out with a bit of a whimper on some pretty “normal” tracks.  But that’s nothing really.  Through it all, the focus is on Keith and his vocals.  In that respect it corrects all the errors of the Dr. Octagon project (“Rockets On the Battlefield” even claims this is “better than Octo”).  Plus, the electro beats make the perfect foil.  I would go so far as to say this album has no direct precedent in hip-hop.  Some of Antipop Consortium‘s albums like Arrhythmia follow in its path, but even then, there weren’t even many people following up on what Keith did here.  It’s just completely left-field hip-hop.  The lyrics are loaded with the kind of hilarious non-sequiturs I adore:

“mechanical legs, mechanical legs”, “R2D2? Me too” (on “Rockets On the Battlefield”)

“in my monkey green rag-top Seville” (on “Supergalactic Lover”)

Keith’s disfigured, amplified vision is just so incisive and insightful here that it gets me every time.  No, this isn’t a perfect album.  But I love it.  I wish more people, including Keith himself, would step up and try to make more hip-hop this daring.  Outside of a few acts like Antipop Consortium, Sole, cLOUDDEAD, MF Doom (and aliases like King Geedorah), few have made the effort.

De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead

De La Soul Is Dead

De La SoulDe La Soul Is Dead Tommy Boy TBCD 1029 (1991)

De La Soul is lionized as one of the great hip-hop groups.  Their debut is acknowledged as a classic, and their sophomore effort De La Soul is Deal is occasionally mentioned as being as good or great an achievement, even if as a dark horse.  What I hear on this evidence is something entirely different.  I came to this while reading Thorstein Veblen‘s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).  Taking Veblen’s theory as a starting point — and if you’ve ever read him you know it becomes hard not to! — what I hear on De La Soul is Deal is an exercise in demonstrating affluence.  This is a group that spends more time crafting in-jokes and distracting skits than they do forging proper songs.  It becomes clear that much of what they are doing is posturing.  In some eyes it was a refreshingly different type of posturing.  Nerds in hip-hop!  But this was also a middle class type of posturing, which reflected the decadence of having time to goof off and make dumb jokes rather than toiling away at activities that provide sustenance.  In Veblen’s terms, it’s conspicuous waste.  I listen to this and can’t help feeling impatient that they seem to avoid getting to the real music.  They do get there, eventually.  But I’m left with what seems like a lot less than an album’s worth of artistic craft.  Listening to this along with fellow Native Tongues group Jungle Brothers‘ finest achievement (Done By the Forces of Nature), this pales.

Antipop Consortium – Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp

Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp

Antipop ConsortiumAntipop vs. Matthew Shipp Thirsty Ear THI57120.2 (2003)

As one of the smartest and most talented musical groups of their day, Antipop Consortium broke away from the self-imposed restraints of hip-hop on their last full-length album. Antipop made a stand for music as music, with no fixed forms or techniques. They explored something more jazz than hip-hop and more hip-hop than jazz, maybe best termed hiprovisation or something of that sort. Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp may be highbrow, but, adopting Matthew Shipp‘s “jazz as boxing” concept, it is a well-executed confrontation of the forces shaping the future of hip-hop (and jazz). This fluid and engaging album is easy on the ears.

Antipop Consortium’s debut Tragic Epilogue showed a lot of promise that they have certainly made good on in following years. They did manage to incorporate electronic styling into hip-hop on their superb Arrhythmia. The British IDM (so-called “intelligent dance music”) scene seemed an ironic place for a new school (new wave?) hip-hop troupe like the Antipop Consortium to fight hip-hop’s stagnation, but it seems to have helped them incorporate improvisation into their vision of hip-hop. Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is the final album from the Antipop trio of High Priest, Beans and M. Sayyid as they each pursue solo efforts. Apparently the group actually fell apart quite literally during the recording process, with Beans coming through to finish off the last tracks with Shipp after Sayyid and Priest departed. Though the breakup marks the end of a great group, they accomplished a lot in their brief existence.

Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp explores the interface between the toxic recontexualization of hip-hop and the individual expressionism afforded by improvisation. It is a program of continual redefinition for the individual performers as well as for the group dynamic. From hip-hop, they show a reorganization of musical elements lain out by circumstance. From improvisation, they develop transparency in the process. The developing interface allows spontaneous selection of what from the past might still be valid in the present.

The ambitions of this album get the better of Antipop at times. But these few errors are but part of a bigger success. Spontaneity breaks the typical rhythmic time constraints of hip-hop. Antipop’s control is not yet complete, but the day when the total clarity of vision they contemplate appears to be fast approaching. They propose new attacks and counterattacks with fluid succession, and their lackadaisical raps add a random factor that codifies the interface of hip-hop and jazz. Antipop’s mere presence on this interface is itself a statement of defiance and creation.

One extraordinary quality of Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is the spectacular lyricism. Antipop have that down. “Coda” goes: “You used to/ move like the breath of truth/ you used to . . . Your eyes/ just like mine . . . Suddenly, death/ something inside of me is gone/ Antigone how did we end up like this?”

Matthew Shipp’s crew brings an array of skills to bear. They send jabs and hooks at Antipop where the result can emerge from the flow of the fight. “Staph” makes full use of Guillermo E. Brown‘s powerful, shifting rhythmic sense to bolster Antipop’s lyrical platform. Brown’s lyrical and textural drumming colors the sound enough to keep the structure from ever sounding like a limitation. His style is certainly an outgrowth of the Max Roach school of thought. “A Knot In Your Bop” takes the rhythmic textures to their highest point of the album, as fuzzy rides on the cymbal contend with dark, pounding chords from the piano. Later, “Monstro City” puts the synchronous rhythms of Brown and bassist William Parker front-and-center to keep the album moving forward (at what seems to be 9/8 time).

“Staph” is a standout because Antipop never do too much. Their restraint is important. They know when to stop. As such, the album concludes with “Free Hop” reaffirming the Shipp crew’s input.

There is still plenty of room to diversify, which makes this a vital release in the continuing discovery of how man relates to his world. Antipop know that 4 = 4, but they also know that 3 x 3 – 5 = 4. Inputs from Shipp’s crew make the mathematics suitably meaningful, making the album a revelation.   Antipop understand the complexity of the equation and the alternative ways of reaching its incontrovertible balance. They can envision arriving at that equal sign by more significant than swift measures.