The Ultramagnetic MC’s, who arrived in the flood of crews from New York in the late-’80s that also included EPMD, Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy, made their early reputation on a number of classic 12-inch sides (“Ego Trippin’,” “Mentally Mad,” “Chorus Line”) which blended unvarnished beats with offbeat lyrical deliveries. Like the more heralded Rakim, Kool Keith (Thornton) has a flow that is innovative and spacey, abstract lyrics that became especially influential to the next generation of rhymers (maybe too influential: even before the Ultramagnetic MC’s got to Wild Pitch, an unrelated duo called the UMC’s released an album on the label).
The quartet’s Critical Beatdown is an amazing debut. Producer Ced Gee (Cedric Miller) pushes sampling technology to its early limits, providing sonics that are less bassy and more breakbeat heavy than most of their contemporaries. Kool Keith’s shifty rhyme patterns (or “patterrins,” as he calls them) drop in and around the third-line backbeats on “Ease Back” and “Give the Drummer Some.” Complex polyrhythms fill “Kool Keith Housing Things” and “Ego Trippin’.” Anyone listening too closely to “Feelin’ It,” in which Keith poetically turns his competitors into crawling roaches, shoeless ducks and exiled rabbits, is bound to get caught up in his whirlwind weirdness.
Funk Your Head Up sharpens (and recycles) the mid-tempo groove and rhyme attack. “Hahaha! MCs are funny to me/And on Easter they’re like bunnies to me,” laughs Keith on “Message From the Boss.” Highlights include “MC Champion,” “Bust the Facts,” “Make It Happen” and “Poppa Large.” The sex fetishes (“Porno Star”) are less interesting. If hip-hop were only about clever lyrics and concrete breakbeats, the UMC’s might have been on top of the world. But next to the street socio-politics of Ice Cube, the gangsta dramatics of Dr. Dre and the shock gimmickry of Geto Boys, Ultramagnetics were beginning to sound nostalgic.
The group’s third album moves to a more studio-oriented sound and an ever-wider topical range. “We Are the Horsemen” finds Keith commanding his crew and followers to “Enter your spaceship!” While “One Two One Two” rocks a more traditional battle flow and “Raise It Up” and “Time to Catch a Body” are nods to the reality-rap school, “Saga of Dandy, the Devil and Day” pays tribute to baseball’s Negro League.
The Basement Tapes is a compilation of the group’s early sides, outtakes and demos; the uneven set of Ced Gee productions is badly packaged and mostly poorly recorded.