By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The new-school Ultramagnetic knew that hip-hop culture had gone askew in its transition from an underground phenomenon to a pop-cultural trend; it offered ä a corrective. If in its second wave the new school brought a multiplicity of new sounds — the density of Public Enemy, the jazz of Gang Starr, De La Soul’s alt-hippie shtick, in California the gangsta stroll of Ice-T and N.W.A — the first burst brought lyrics: Slick Rick, Eric B. & Rakim and, back in the Bronx, Boogie Down Productions and Ultramagnetic.
“Me and Ced went to Clinton together,” Keith remembers, speaking of Ultramagnetic’s Cedric Miller, a.k.a. Ced Gee. “That was high school. His brother Pat had a lot of equipment. And they were producing a lot of different things together up there, but basically it was Boogie Down Productions and us. KRS-One [BDP’s MC] used to come up there. Scott La Rock [BDP’s DJ] used to come up there a lot before he got killed.” The two groups and their fans were scattered among the projects: Patterson, Melrose, Jackson, Butler, Webster, Washington. This was ghetto modernism: In the Bronx, hip-hop artists had a sense of what had come before, a sensitivity to the borough’s decreasing centrality to its native art, and a desire to take the music to another level.
“‘Ego Trippin’ was hot, and it was a big hit,” Keith says, speaking of the group’s signature single. “Every day you’d hear nothing but cars pass by — ‘MC Ultra!’ That was all you used to hear, every day, every morning.” The song’s main MC is announced by name. “Kool Keith,” the record intones as Keith chimes in:
They use the simple back and forth, the same old rhythm
That a baby can pick up, and join right with them
But their rhymes are pathetic, they think they’re copacetic
Using nursery terms, at least not poetic
On a educated base, intelligent wise
As the record just turn, you learn, PLUS burn
By the flame of the lyrics which cooks the human brain
Providing overheating knowledge, by means causing pain . . .
Best appreciated on Ultramagnetic’s first LP, 1988’s Critical Beatdown, Keith’s raps are pinched, relentless and just a little bit crazy, packed with witty disses and wild non sequiturs. A master of focused intensity, he juggles a litany of metaphors and obsessions through each song, bringing an idea back into the mix just as it begins to fade from the listener’s mind — a favored topic throughout his career has been cannibalistic violence revolving around other rappers’ brains.
* * *
For Ultramagnetic, making money was not as easy as making records. The new school came at a time before labels like Def Jam or Priority had firmed up their relationships with major entertainment conglomerates. Hip-hop was still dominated by fly-by-night labels with names like Tuff City, Winley, Wild Pitch and Select, enterprises that often operated under the supervision of shysters, that chased trends rather than the passions of ghetto entrepreneurs.
Hot street acts such as Ultramagnetic were like currency for a small label, moving thousands of units with little promotion. Sign two or three good street groups and you could build a business, accumulating enough cash to push pop-rap acts via advertising, radio consultants or videos for MTV. Jumping among four labels in their eight-year career, Ultramagnetic was left behind as rap began making serious cash. Though they worked with celebrated hip-hop entrepreneurs such as Russell Simmons and Andre Harrell, their career got them noticed by hip-hop historians, not hip-hop accountants. The group disbanded in 1993.
Keith’s solo career has been equally fraught. He moved from the Bronx to Los Angeles in 1994 after signing a solo deal with Capitol, but was cut loose a year later when the label laid off its entire black-music department. He signed with the Sony-affiliated Ruffhouse in 1998. Coming off the success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — the first hip-hop album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year — Ruffhouse seemed an ideal home; instead, the label proceeded to implode over conflicts amid its upper management. In 1999, after being delayed for more than a year, Keith’s one album from that relationship, Black Elvis/Lost in Space, was released and marketed with a whimper by the curiously named Red Ink, Sony’s indie distribution arm. He proceeded to publish on his Web site the names and e-mail addresses of all his contacts at Sony, asking fans to deluge them with inquiries about his album’s desultory treatment. Keith was dropped shortly thereafter.
Between deals, though, Keith has remained prolific. He released his solo debut on his own Funky Ass label in 1997, the obsessively pornographic Sex Styles. In 1999, he put out First Come, First Served under the alias Dr. Dooom. Packaged in a ghetto-chic sleeve, Dooom lashed out against rap’s continuing dependence on misogynistic, ultraviolent hip-hop by fronting even more violent: Dooom was a serial killer who hunted down weaker rappers, i.e., all of them, including Keith’s most famous alias to date, Dr. Octagon.
The story of Octagon offers proof both of Keith’s uniqueness and of his inability to take advantage of hip-hop’s pop-culture dominance. While Keith and Kutmasta Kurt continued recording tracks for what would become Sex Styles, a friend of Kurt’s from the Bay Area began lobbying Keith to contribute to a quickie, one-off release. It all started in 1995, soon after Matlin had sent that friend, Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, a tape of two tracks featuring a new Keith persona announced in the title of one of the tracks: “Dr. Octagon.”
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