July 13, 2008

Ultramagnetic MC's - Critical Beatdown (1988)

Critical Beatdown, from the Ultramagnetic MC's, is considered to be one of the greatest contributions to the genre we know and love. Newer hip hop fans may wonder how an album that only sold modestly can be considered one of the best ever, especially since nobody ever plays this shit in the South. The answer is best summed up in the following paragraphs.

The Ultramagnetic MC's are a New York-based rap collective made up of TR Love, Moe Love, Ced Gee, and perhaps the biggest name in subversive hip hop, Kool Keith. The crew formed in 1984 and released numerous 12-inch singles that found themselves in many a deejay's milk crates: their debut album, Critical Beatdown, was released by Next Plateau in 1988. The crew succeeded off of the strength of Kool Keith's unorthodox rhymes and Ced Gee's production techniques, which were pretty fucking revolutionary: his instrumentals were usually heavily layered with samples that were chopped up (not beyond recognition, but still) and re-ordered so as to produce a brand new variation on the existing source material, a tactic that turned heads in the late 1980's and would grow to be the standard, until the beginning of the sample wars, which made producing songs in this manner much too fucking expensive for the average low-budget record label to afford.

Thanks to the borderline-ridiculous imagery provided by Kool Keith's rhymes, combined with the normal-by-comparison skills of Ced Gee (the other primary rapper in the crew), the Ultramagnetic MC's became known for their eccentric rhyme patterns and their penchant for not really paying much attention to where the beat was at any point in time. They used this skill set to their advantage, dissing multiple rappers (primarily for the sport of it, not out of any perceived beef) in ways that it took literally years for fans to decipher.

Kool Keith is best known today for his many rap personas, his (fictional) stay in Bellevue, and his horrible hooks and beats on his multiple solo projects (unless said beats are provided by a professional, such as The Automator, Kutmaster Kurt, or Ced Gee), but Critical Beatdown showcases a possible budding genius at work, one getting the feel of his surroundings while pushing the limits of what hip hop heads will actually want to hear before tuning out completely. Its beats are also a breath of refreshing air, especially after being assaulted by overproduced club "bangers" by what passes for the radio these days.

But the real reason Critical Beatdown plays such an important role in hip hop history?

For me, it would have to be Kool Keith's hat on the album cover.

It's telling that Kool Keith is the first rapper you hear on Critical Beatdown. His voice stands out immediately, and you find yourself looking forward to whatever the hell he has to say (probably less so now, but he still has his moments), but Ced Gee actually has the best verse: he wins the belt after admitting that he sometimes rhymes off-beat (and awkwardly) on purpose. Is that a mild Run-DMC diss?

Some good old fake-ass Public Enemy-type shit (thanks to the use of the same sample P.E. freaked for their "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic"), although it does actually work, so I can't really criticize it that much. Although the comparison between the two crews would make Kool Keith the Flavor Flav, based on the voice alone, and it's not like you can even put those two guys in the same universe.

I wasn't really feeling Ced Gee on this beat, but that's probably because Kool Keith contributed a remake on that Sway & King Tech This Or That album, and Motion Man kept up with Keith impressively. Still, not bad.

Sorry, instrumental fiends: this is actually a Kool Keith solo song. However, since nobody actually writes songs about their deejay anymore, it's much appreciated.

You may recall that house music was actually bigger than hip hop at one point in time, so a lot of rappers tried to expand their sound (and their audience) by branching out a bit. This solo Keith cut won't change your perception of house music, but you'll probably still like it. I do, anyway.

This track is so incredibly fucking short, it'll leave you wanting for more.

I wasn't.

I didn't care much for this track. Sorry, not all of these critiques are going to be book-length.


Pretty damn good, but I was left hoping that the group would use more of that Joe Cocker "Woman To Woman" sample that also made up the bulk of Dr. Dre's beat for 2Pac's "California Love" (the original version, not its inferior remix).

The late Paul C. (an engineer and producer who was tragically murdered the year after Critical Beatdown was released) provides the beat for Kool Keith to start spitting some wildly random shit. This song is best known as the track that The Prodigy (not the guy from Mobb Deep) cribbed from on their classic "Smack My Bitch Up" (yeah, that's right, I called it a classic), but the source material is pretty fucking good as well.

Loving this beat. Ced Gee sounds more comfortable than Kool Keith on here, but if you want to get technical, Keith tends to sound awkward on every single song that he has ever done: however, that would be part of the charm.

I don't even remember any of Keith's lyrics, since Ced Gee dominates this motherfucker, with boasts that run the gamut from "Your girl wanna swallow me" to "You should've been a Muppet". Hi-larious!

This beat is just awesome. The song flies by a bit too quickly for my tastes, though: I could have used an extra seventeen minutes of this shit.

This beat also rocks. Ultimately, though, the song is only alright, although Ced Gee gives it his best shot.

FINAL THOUGHTS: AN album called Critical Beatdown is already essentially impervious to any sort of criticism, but I'll give it a shot anyway. This album works a lot better if you perceive it as a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, since every single song has an infectiously high energy level that doesn't let up, even though the subject matter on each song is exactly the same. Also, the rhymes of Kool Keith and Ced Gee sound damn near flammable over every single one of these beats: the combination of these factors makes an already-short album seem like it ends in roughly ten fucking minutes. And even though Ced Gee gets a couple of tracks to himself, Kool Keith makes a convincing argument for being the star attraction.

BUY OR BURN? Keith Thornton may not have been in his full-on hip hop weirdo mode yet, but you can hear the train a-coming on Critical Beatdown. As such, Kool Keith's fans should snatch this shit up with the quickness, a recommendation I would also make for fans of old-school hip hop and beats with multiple layers of samples (the likes of which you will never hear again, thanks to sample clearance laws). Everybody else should be warned that the Ultramagnetic MC's are an acquired taste, although this is clearly more accessible that, say, Dr. Octagonecologyst. (Note: A deluxe edition of Critical Beatdown, which includes multiple bonus tracks and a longer version of "Ego Trippin'" replacing the album version reviewed above, is probably more readily available than the original album, and will make a very nice addition to your CD collection.)

BEST TRACKS: "Give The Drummer Some"; "Moe Luv's Theme"; "Kool Keith Housing Things"; "Critical Beatdown"; "When I Burn"



  1. AnonymousJuly 13, 2008

    You taking it back to '88! Salute to the Old School Pioneers! What up with a KRS/BDP review tho?

  2. Oh hell yeah! Critical Beatdown is one of the best. Kool Keith is the man. I have some dope Rythym X over at my spot. Stay Elevated.

  3. True golden era hip hop right here.

  4. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessJuly 15, 2008

    My favorite Kool Keith performance ever is this album cover. Bold and berserk, the ingredients that define him are personified in that picture.

  5. Simply great! No hip-hop collection is complete without this album.


    This track is so incredibly fucking short, it'll leave you wanting for more"
    ^No doubt. The 12" version actually features two more verses (1 more each from Ced & Keith).

  7. Iiihaaa, love this album, love them <3

  8. This album is timeless if you like creative Hip-Hop. Ultra-magnetics production style really influenced a lot of artists.

  9. Not feeling track 7???? One of the best tracks eva??

    "Rip a story, and threw his auditory
    Canal Street, is my territory
    For gold glory, reachin my hand out
    to smack rappers, and makin em stand outside
    waitin for me,
    to tell them, my secret style
    And show them, how really it's done
    my son"

  10. Max you have to be a straight up American WHITE BOY that just can't comprehend black music nor it's various sub cultures especially hip hop!!

    "Kool Keith Housing things" has nothing to do with the genre of house music for starters!! The term housing in hip hop is a term that many MC's/rappers used to define there greatness on the microphone back in the golden era like
    EPMD's "I'm housing".

    I won't even go into the rest of your individual song reviews it's senseless. Critical Beatdown is like the litmust test of rap music either you are hip or it's no need to discuss rap music with you.!!

    So kool keith I quote "Your head is triangle"!!

  11. A lot of people miss that in "Kool Keith Housing Things", Kool Keith took a swipe at Rakim with:

    "Like fish, it ain't my favorite dish" (1:20 - 1:22)

    because Rakim says on "Paid In Full":

    "like fish, which is my favourite dish".

  12. you toys don't know anything about hip house... go suck off someone else

  13. That was a totally shit review for a new jack to UltraMagnetic's Mighty "Critical BeatDown"!!

    For Starters, Ced & Keith rhymed syncopated intentionally and at times not actually making words connect in a traditional poetic manner. That's what made you love Ultra! So on "Ego Trippin" They are innovating on word play with Scientific terminology as well as unorthodox syncopated cadences!! Ced-Gee flipped Melvin Bliss
    "Synthetic Substituion" for the first time in hip hop!! He not only sampled the drum pattern and chopped them, he and Keyboard Money Mike replayed the piano chords!! Nobody in rap was doing this!!