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Pop Playground
On First Listen: Ultramagnetic MCs

he Velvet Underground of Rap Music”. What does that even mean? Of all the rote, buyer’s guide, received wisdom pieces of pop crit rhetoric, that one has always confused me. Do the Ultramagnetic MCs follow in any lineage of Sterling, Mo, et al? Does Critical Beatdown contain the line “What a clowwwwwwn” at any point? Did their manager die of complications emerging from gall bladder surgery? Or, as I suspect, is it just an amazingly inaccurate and lazy way of saying “Very few heard this album when it first came out, but it has proved to be very influential since”?

The thing is, nowadays, thanks to endless “Best Album Ever” polls, baby boomers controlling the airwaves, and their willingness to soundtrack 37.6% of all car adverts, everybody knows what the Velvet Underground sound like. But, until I was commissioned to sit down with this album and write the article, I hadn’t the slightest clue what Ultramagnetic MCs sounded like, outside of a two minute blast in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Which prompted the reaction “Oh yeah, “Out of Space”, right.”

Before listening, I got the feeling it was going to prompt the same reactions in me that Illmatic and It Takes A Nation of Millions… did when I finally got around to listening to them, respectively nine and eleven years after the fact. The problem with innovation is that it’s the first thing to date, and so I was left with lots of head-nodding, lots of “Oh, so they were the first people to do that” moments, and an overall feeling that I’d heard it all before. Sometimes you enjoy the faith more than the prophets.

The first thing that strikes me about the album is how much is going on. Maybe I’ve been conditioned by today’s “minimalism-is-all” approach to production, but bass, drums, breaks, scratches, scratches on scratches, vocal samples, and rapping all jostling for the same track space sounds to me like someone got carried away a bit with a copy of Music 2000.

They pull it back though. “Watch Me Now” sounds like the kind of track DJs spin at 9:30pm when they don’t need to get anyone on the dance-floor and can just spin what they want. It’s also quite apparent that the Kool Keith on show here is a model much younger than the one I’m familiar with. Specifically, he sounds about 13.

“Ease Back” has the producer getting a little over-enthusiastic with the stereo effect, causing me to pause the album to check if a wire had fell out of the back of my speakers. And just as I was about to start typing something along the lines of “As late as 1988 rappers were still happy to adhere to the AABB rhyme scheme so beloved of 13 year olds writing poetry about their parents’ divorce,” they start taking rival MCs to task for using the “the simple back and forth” rhyme style. Specifically, rival MCs with a love of leather baseball jackets and Uh-Dee-Das. “Ego Trippin’” is a good old fashioned “My dick is bigger than” track, the likes of which we’ll probably be taking as the highlight of rappers albums from now until kingdom come. Although it’s hard to imagine a version of “Piggy Bank” with the word “copasetic” in it.

Kool Keith swallows his rhymes a lot as well, in the same way that Bob Monkhouse used to do that weird gulping motion on each punchline. And he needs someone to play off as well: tracks that feature him dropping 32 bars on his own with nobody to interact with get old quickly. “Moe Luv’s Theme” and “Kool Keith Housing Things” back to back is excessive, and goes to show how keen he is to slow things down on his tracks and take everything at his own speed. Compare this to “Travelling at the Speed of Thought,” which whips through two MCs in under two minutes. The more breakneck this lot go, the better they are. Listen to “Ain’t It Good To You.” Realise I’m right.

They do a nice line in verbal diarrhoea as well. Comparing themselves to the smoothness of Elroy Jetson, referencing Edgar Allen Poe for the sake of a half-rhyme, Ced Gee is a “computer rapper for ducks who wanna bite ‘em,” and then on a similar anatidae theme, they beat up some toy ducks. I like to think this was the first album that let rappers know they could chat any old shit to fill bars up. Story rap always sucks, and there’s absolutely nothing in the way of narrative over these 15 tracks.

Who took this template as their own? The further this album goes on, the clearer it becomes. A lot of the album works out as a less coffee shop friendly version of Paul’s Boutique (Critical Beatdown has a year on the Dust Brothers opus). It also begs the question: when rappers claim that they’re aiming for the sounds of the “golden era” of hip-hop, why do they so often make fail to make music that sounds like Critical Beatdown? Is it all passé now? Is it easier to namecheck than to soundcheck? Or is it just that, to be honest, whilst Critical Beatdown is a good album, placing it in any sort of rap album canon seems to be a wilful attempt at praising the underground. It’s feted because it didn’t sell many copies. If they’d have been selling Young MC units back in the late 80s I wouldn’t be writing this now: a) because I’d have heard it before, and b) because nobody would be claiming it as a classic. Just acknowledge it as what it is: a couple of good songs you can do pixelated drive-bys to.

By: Dom Passantino

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