The Outer Limits: Kool Keith and the Ultramagnetic MCs
It was 1988 and space was, indeed, the final frontier. A brief history of rap until that moment might have read like this: first they toasted, then they shouted. Next came the couplets and syllables, uttered coolly, so as not to break a sweat. And then crash-landed the Ultramagnetic MCs – a band of brothers from another planet who came to reset the system. Why rhyme when you could fly in style?
High school friends Kool Keith and MC/producer Ced-Gee formed the Ultramagnetic MCs in 1984, eventually adding Ced’s cousin, DJ Moe Luv, and T.R. Love. When they first started recording in the mid ’80s, the sound of hip-hop had yet to settle – it was still transitioning from the abrasive sound of shouting over drum machines in an era when the likes of Davy DMX possessed starpower – to a more sample-oriented approach typified by MC Shan and Marley Marl‘s breakthrough single “The Bridge.” More importantly, the image of the ideal MC was solemn and stoic. Anything that strayed, like the portly underdog Biz Markie or the borderline-mental Funkmaster Wizard Wiz, seemed gimmicky.
The first few releases by the Ultramagnetic MCs obliterated these distinctions: over brilliantly arranged loops of classic breaks, Keith and Ced rapped about spaceships and “duck preserves,” brain cells and gyroscopes. And judging by some of the more curious lines – Was the “Peter Piper” reference aimed at Run-DMC? Why would Keith scoff at fish (Rakim’s favorite dish)?!? Who was the triangle-headed Kangol wearer? – it seemed like they were dissing just about everyone, though in the most obscure language possible. Released in that magical year when nearly everyone – Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and N.W.A., among others – upped the ante, Critical Beatdown still sounded remarkably different. You still here traces of today, in similarly space-minded artists like M.F. Doom, Antipop Consortium and Harlem’s sorely missed Cannibal Ox.
While their subsequent albums would confirm their legacy, the late ’80s were the Ultramagnetic MCs’strongest period. And as with any situation involving four very different people eventually walking in four very different directions, there was a lot of material left over, a tease for what might have been. The strongest collection of that material is The Basement Tapes 1984-1990, and it really makes you wonder what exactly was going on in that basement. (As Kool Keith famously told journalist Brian Coleman: “Other groups were just plain weed. We were more like angel dust.”) Their first song as a group, “Space Groove,” was a trippy, Fearless Four-style manifesto of sorts that cribbed heavily from Star Trek, “Make It Shake” is probably the oddest attempt ever to implore one to “shake,” as Keith and Ced keep their fingers on the echo and hiss buttons while trading verses about palm readers and damaging other rappers’cell structures. “You Got to Feel It” sounds like an addendum to their classic “Feelin’It,” while “We’re Ultra (Part 3)” is an essential piece of cosmic braggadoccio.
Another strong release is Mo Love’s Basement Tapes, a collection of later material like “Rhythm X” – wherein Keith shows up to cash checks and “eat up the Wheat Chex” – and the sinister “People Can Talk.” It also features two of my personal favorites: “Message in the Music” and an alternate version of Ced-Gee’s starring turn “Delta Force.” The latter is like a blueprint for the kind of overly self-aware rap we’re used to today, as Ced opens with a confession: “Okay – I know some of y’all say, ‘What’s up?/ I thought Ced-Gee was just a back-up…’” New York What is Funky is a patchier collection, though it features the men-on-the-verge anthem “I’m Fuckin’Flippin,” as well as the bizarre courtship rituals of “Biscuits and Eggs.” Other than a stripped-down demo version of the later Ultramagnetic hit “Poppa Large,” the last collection, Smack My Bitch Up is largely forgettable. That is, unless you ever wanted to hear Keith and Ced trade ten minutes worth of verses about every player, coach and trainer who comprised the 1989 NBA All-Star team. (One last entry into the Ultramagnetic trivia guide is Phanjam, an excellent and mind-bogglingly overlooked 1987 split EP by Philadelphia’s Tuff Crew and the Krown Rulers that featured production by Keith and Ced.)
After the Ultramagnetics broke up in the mid ’90s, Keith embarked on a bizarrely successful solo career. He is certainly an acquired taste. He and the incredibly mean Tim Dog – a cult hero for his Compton-hating Penicillin on Wax album – teamed up with Bay Area producer Kutmasta Kurt to form Ultra, releasing the surprisingly good Big Time in 1996. Keith also took part in the Analog Brothers, a quintet featuring him (as Keith Korg), Silver Synth, Rex Roland, Mark Moog and Ice Oscillator. The result, Pimp to Eat, is a keyboard-tracked parade of space-dusted pimp oddities made even odder by the fact that Ice Oscillator is actually original gangster Ice-T. On top of all that, Keith has released an astounding number of solo albums, often through aliases like Dr. Octagon and Dr. Dooom – the latter’s First Come, First Served features a spoof of the gaudy Pen & Pixel-designed No Limit album covers ubiquitous in 1999.