Next Plateau, 1988
Like many of the Hip Hop albums of the late 80’s, Critical Beatdown brought a lot of innovation to the game. In fact, the beauty of this era was definitely in the diversity of the achievements of the different groups that ventured into rap. Even though the era was not yet as competitive as the 90’s, the competition was coming fast with new groups emerging regularly. And this emerging competition definitely pushed the groups to distinguish themselves from their competitors, or at least not to propose a simple copy/paste, but on the contrary to bring its own approach and its own style.
Unfortunately, Critical Beatdown is not the most quoted album of this period. It is understandable since other achievements of the period were more outstanding. Each album of this period brought an innovation in its own way. Rakim invented the methodical flow, EPMD created groovy rhythms with a new sampling technique, Boogie Down Productions developed a more conscious rap on reggae influenced rhythms, Gang Starr launched the hostilities of Jazz-rap, A Tribe Called Quest proposed a more philosophical rap, the Geto Boys abandoned themselves in a more horrorcore Hip Hop, and so on. But Critical Beatdown did pave the way for a completely abstract and surreal rap style that would influence some artists of the Golden Age and beyond.
Let’s go back to the birth of this very special group. Ultramagnetic MCs originating from the Bronx was formed in the middle of the 80’s under the impulse of Kool Keith and Ced Gee, the two leaders, with TR Love and Moe Love at their side. As leaders, Kool Keith is the main rapper, accompanied by Ced Gee, who is also the group’s producer. Moe Love is more of a DJ, while TR Love is more of an executive producer, even if a few of his verses come in here and there. Let us say that their respective roles are more in the background. Since 1985, the group released a few singles, rather acclaimed by the critics, in particular Ego Trippin which appears on the album, what will earn them the confidence of Next Plateau for an album, which will finally arrive in 1988.
Even if their attire makes them look more like a disco Boys Band, they are indeed a rap group. The Ultramagnetic MCs are full of audacity and arrogance, very avant-garde and innovative, this arrogance is reflected in their name. Like Kool Keith’s madness, the quartet is bizarre and supernatural. With his nasal voice, Kool Keith refuses to obey the conventions of rap. Where Rakim used a methodical flow, Keith would throw a bar in the middle of the next without regard to rhyme structure. His off-beat flow inspired many modern rappers, and his surreal, abstract, boastful lyrics with absurdist comedy made the rapper famous. Kool Keith, like Rakim, invented his own style of rap with unconventional rhyme schemes, a jerky, manic rhythm, and a pseudo-scientific futuristic attitude.
Kool Keith, Kool Keith Housing ThingsWell 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
What is incredible is the complementarity between Kool Keith and Ced Gee. When Keith goes off into unsuspected delirium, Gee will gently bring him back to reality with his more down to earth approach. The duality of the two leaders gives a perfect magic between the real and the abstract. There is the ideal mix between madness and reason. However, Keith doesn’t spare himself to play with our intellect as much in the lyrics as in the flow, his euphoria is sometimes difficult to follow when he finishes his rhyme in the middle of the next verse, while on his side Ced Gee will counterbalance with his simplicity.
While Ced Gee’s emceeing has a more simplistic and conventional approach, his production technique is not. He uses unprecedented sampling techniques, chopping, modifying and rearranging the samples used. Ced Gee has surgically dissected the samples and reassembled them in his own way. It offers a perfect playground to let the madness of Kool Keith express itself freely, he can melt perfectly in the magnetism of the beats made by his producer. On Ease Back, Ced Gee combines a reverse sample of the whistling saxophone from The Grunt by The JBs with a keyboard sample. Funky samples a loop of Joe Cooker’s Woman to Woman with scratches and abstract noises for a rhythm that is as funky as it is hardcore. The meticulous compositions tinged with funk and heavy beats make this album a major innovation in Hip Hop.
After this album, the group broke up for the first time, suffering from a lack of promotion from their record company who preferred to focus on a more pop-rap trio, Salt-N-Pepa. The lack of success created tensions in the group and led them to split up. They would reunite a few years later for two less abstract and slightly more jazz albums, Funk Your Head Up and The Four Housemen, on Mercury before splitting up again. Kool Keith will continue on his side a solo career to become even more bizarre than ever with a first album Dr. Octagonecologyst under the pseudo Dr. Octagon in 1996. The others will fall more or less into obscurity. They will try again to reunite in 2007 but the magic had definitely evaporated.
Critical Beatdown is a cornerstone of the end of the New School and the beginning of the Golden Era. One can be skeptical about this album, but with its chirugging sampling techniques, surreal rhymes and Keith’s insane emceeing, it was indeed a great innovation and technological accomplishment. An album that is definitely a classic and an inspiration for all the following generations.