This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Ultramagnetic MC’s – “Critical Beatdown” (Next Plateau, 1988)

This month’s Classics Critiqued choice is a sometimes overlooked cult classic hip-hop album by one of the genre’s most ground breaking and off the wall groups. In this article I will explore Ultramagnetic MCs’ originals, the making of “Critical Beatdown”, investigate ideas commonly discussed around the album, its lyrical content, production techniques and the context in which the album was released. I’ll also discuss the legacy “Critical Beatdown” has left.

Ultramagnetic MCs were formed in 1984 by the MC Kool Keith (aka Keith Thornton), Ced Gee (aka Cedric Miller) – MC/Producer, Moe Luv (aka Maurice Smith) – DJ/Producer and TR Love (aka Trevor Randolph) – MC while they were members of the New York City Breakers and People’s Choice break dance crews. After misfiring with their first single “To Give You Love” (1986) Ultramagnetic MCs released their first groundbreaking 12” the minimalist “Ego Trippin”. It featured the first use of the “Synthetic Substition” drum break by Melvin Bliss (later sampled by the likes of Naughty By Nature, Redman and Gang Starr and becoming a hip-hop staple) and some simple but devastatingly effective synth stabs. Amazingly the next 12” was even more innovative “Funky/Mentally Mad” showcased the two key talents of Ultramagnetic MC’s. “Funky” highlighted Ced Gee’s production skills. Based around a Joe Cocker piano sample (released almost ten years before Dr.Dre took the same sample and turned it into a bona fide hit in “California Love” by Tupac) it was a revolution in underground hip-hop. Meanwhile “Mentally Mad” showcased Kool Keith’s incredible freestyle abstract rapping style that dealt with everything from space exploration to sex. These 12” singles received critical acclaim and much support from New York’s biggest hip-hop DJs, setting up Ultramagnetic MCs as hip-hop next big act.

While he was working on the debut album that would become “Critical Beatdown”, producer Ced Gee worked on another nascent hip-hop act Boogie Down Productions’ debut album “Criminal Minded” (1987) which showcased a harsh minimalist brand of hip-hop not unlike that of Ultramagnetic MCs. “Critical Beatdown” wasn’t released until the following year, 1988, and this explains in part why it’s often overshadowed by classic albums by Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Jungle Brothers and Slick Rick, as well as competing with other sterling efforts from EPMD and Stetasonic. In short 1988 was water shed moment for hip-hop. Augus Batey (who wrote the sleeve notes for the 2004 reissue of “Critical Beatdown”) put it another way in a recent article on Ultramagnetic MCs second album “Funk Your Head Up” (1992) “Their 1988 masterpiece, Critical Beatdown, wasn’t the all-conquering hero history tends to have turned it into: crafting their inspirational unique style over a series of 12″ singles, Ultra would have achieved the impact their music merited had the paperwork permitted the LP to come out a year earlier. Throw it in the mix next to the three acknowledged foundational classics of New York hip hop’s early Golden Age – the 1987 debuts by Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions – and we’d today be talking about hip hop’s four horsemen, not the music’s holy trinity. “Critical Beatdown” is not only every bit as good as those records, a case can easily be made that it’s better than each and every one of them. It was hailed as a great album, but by ’88, it was just another one among many.”

When the album did arrive it showcased not only Ced Gee’s excellent sample choices and Kool Keith’s lunatic lyrical style but also Gee’s skills with the Emu SP-1200 sampler and his undeniably brilliant flow. Ced Gee was the first hip-hop producer that chopped up the breaks and instrumental samples instead of simply looping them, which soon became the norm for hip-hop producers the world over. The technique preceded the first sampladelic masterpieces “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys and De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” which would be released a year after “Critical Beatdown”. In fact, Posdnous of De La Soul admitted Ultramagnetic MCs’ influence in the 2004 reissue notes – “I think the only people that we looked to for a blueprint when we were making “3 Feet High & Rising” were the Ultramagnetic MCs. They were very different as well, how they rhymed, but they still had more harder-edged beats than what we were presenting.” Another innovation on the album was the proto-drum ‘n’ bass breaks of ‘Ain’t It Good to You’, a track that felt like it was tearing the very fabric of the samples apart as it hurtled towards its conclusion. Other highlights on the album include the organ driven ‘Ease Back’, turntablism anticipating ‘Moe Luv’s Theme’, the fantastically funky ‘Give the Drummer Some’, the tough hardcore ‘Break North’ and the ‘Louie Louie’ sampling ‘Travelling at the Speed of Thought’.

While Ced Gee and Moe Luv provided the ground breaking music it was Kool Keith who was the centre of attention when it came to the lyrical content of “Critical Beatdown”. Though he would later give himself over completely to lyrics about varied subjects such as sex or space exploration he still had one foot in the reality of the street on “Critical Beatdown”, which meant he was taken more seriously by critics and fans. However, the group chose not to focus on the negative things that were happening around them instead going with whatever “sounded good”. Keith’s style was freestyle both in the way he wrote and the way he delivered his mind-boggling rhymes.

“Critical Beatdown” would become instantly influential with Posdnous of De La Soul and Chuck D of Public Enemy praising their unique sound, lyrical content and flows would influence the creation of the former’s “3 Feet High and Rising” (1989) and the latter’s “It’ll Take A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988). The influence and innovation of Ultramagnetic MCs and “Critical Beatdown” can be heard in a huge amount of underground hip-hop and gangsta rap artists, everyone from Main Source to Cannibal Ox and many, many more.

Let me know what you think of “Critical Beatdown” in the comments or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Critical Beatdown” here.