Ultramagnetic Emcees – Critical Beatdown

Cedric “Ced-Gee” Miller and “Kool” Keith Thornton met while attending the same high school in the Bronx back in the early eighties. Both Bronx native emcees had aspirations of becoming solo artists,  but in an effort to save a buck, the two started recording together. They would eventually add Ced’s cousin Maurice “Moe Luv” Smith as the deejay, and Trevor “T.R. Love” Randolph as hypeman/bodyguard/cupbearer, and called themselves the Ultramagnetic MC’s. A few years later they would sign to Salt N Pepa’s label home Next Plateau, and in 1988 released their debut album Critical Beatdown.

The majority of Critical Beatdown was recorded at the Ultra Lab, better known as Ced’s momma house. This is where Ced would loop up samples from he and Keith’s record collection and create the backdrops for he and Keith’s scatterbrain-slash-battle rhymes.

The album received much critical acclaim (including The Source, which rewarded it with a 5 mic rating years after its release) for its groundbreaking productions and Keith’s unique rhyme schemes and unusual lyrical content. But as the question always is, did The Source get it right? Let’s give her a spin and find out.

Watch Me Now – Right from the jump Kool Keith displays his abstract rhyming style and wit and effectively steals the show over this funky Ced-Gee track. Nice start.

Ease Back – You’ll recognize the break beat used during the sample from Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Cause” (which makes this the third consecutive write-up that is somehow connected to that same song).  Ced-Gee and Kool Keith share verses over a great Ced-Gee beat.  But the obvious star of this show is Kool Keith, who rips his verse to shreds. This is hot!

Ego Trippin’ – This is arguably the Ultramagnetic MC’s most popular song.  The drum beat reminds me of the Gangstarr/Nice N Smooth duet “Dywck”. Kool Keith is in usual form, coming off like a mad scientist turned rapper (which is a compliment), while Ced also sounds pretty solid over his simple but infectious beat.

Moe Luv’s Theme – This is an ode to Ultramagnetic’s in-house deejay, Moe Luv. Over Ced’s disco-ish beat, Kool Keith takes two verses to wax poetic about his deejay. It is what it is, not terrible but far from great.

Kool Keith’s Housing Things – Over a beat that samples the same elements used on Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw”, Mr. Thornton goes solo and completely obliterates this one! I wonder if the comment about “fish not being his favorite dish” was a shot and Big Daddy Kane or Rakim (Keith has stated in interviews that some of his lines were written to rival BDK and Rakim’s lines). I don’t have any prove, I’m just speculating. This was probably the strongest song on Critical Beatdown, to this point.

Traveling At The Speed Of Thought (Remix) – Kool Keith puts on his psychopathic persona, as he and Ced share the mic over this rock tinged track. While it’s not the best song of the night it’s still a solid effort.

Feelin’ It – By 1988 standards, Ced’s beats were way ahead of their time (he is grossly underrated as a producer). He and Keith take turns catching wreck on this one. You can tell both guys are having fun, especially Keith, since some of his rhymes are pretty comical. Another solid effort from team Ultra.

One Minute Less – Ced gets a one verse solo joint, and gets less than 1 minute to spit on “One Minute Less”. Ced’s rhymes were solid but the beat was pretty messy… but thankfully this song is less than 2 minutes, so it bearable.

Ain’t It Good To You – I forgot about this track, Ced’s beat is completely bananas!  But the real star of the show is Kool Keith, whose last verse is arguably his best verse ever.  I’m utterly amazed why Kool Keith isn’t give the respect of a Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, or Rakim.  But I’ve never heard any of his later output, either. This is a certified banger!

Funky (Remix) – Ced might have stood toe-to-toe with Keith on this one, although Keith gets two verses to Ced’s one.  The track sounds kind of skeleton, but the duo’s lyrics sound great over the heavy drum beat, so it still works.

Give The Drummer Some – The late Paul C (Eric B and Large Professor’s mentor)provides the funky backdrop  (I love the drum solo sample added in on the hook for more effect) for Ced and Keith to talk shit over. Another hot one.

Break North – This track sounds similar to Public Enemy’s “Night Of The Living Bassheads”. Keith’s last verse manages to sound scientifically hilarious, as the mad scientist steals yet another show.

Critical Beatdown – Kool Keith is obsessed with the human brain. He makes at least 1000 references to either eating, cooking, exposing, removing, or drowning some inferior emcee’s brain on the album, including this title song. Unfortunately the beat is empty and falls a bit flat, which is always disappointing for a title song.

When I Burn – Keith gets another shot to go dolo and he doesn’t disappoint. But that squeaky siren loop becomes annoying after a few cycles through. Good thing this was short.

Ced-Gee (Delta Force One) – Ced Gee saves the best beat of the album for himself. He sounds decent over this smoothed out track, but I’m left wondering how Keith would sound over this buttery beat.

My copy of Critical Beatdown is a remastered copy that contains the following bonus tracks:

Funky (original 12″ version) – I prefer the beat on this version over the remix that’s included on the proper album, mainly because it incorporates more of the Joe Cocker “Woman To Woman” sample than on the remix. Ced and Keith use different verses than the ones on the remix.  While Keith’s verses sounds solid I prefer his verses used on the remix, and Ced sounds terrible, turning in a very amateurish performance. If you take the beat from this version and put the verses from the remix, you’d have the perfect version of “Funky”. But they didn’t, so we don’t, so it is what it is, my man.

Bait (original 12″ version) – The beat samples from, arguably one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop, Bob James “Nautilus”, which I believe was created to be a promo  for the legendary DJ Red Alert radio show (which would explain Ced and Keith’s shout outs to him, and his trademark, “yeeeeaaah”, all over the track).  Keith sound solid as usual but Ced sounds sloppy and rough around the edges.  This must have been some of their early material (which is probably also true for the original version of Funky).

A Chorus Line (featuring Tim Dog) original 12″ version – Before Tim Dog fired the first shot that would start hip-hop’s civil war, he was the Ultra crew cupbearer.  They were so pleased with his services that they let him set things off on this posse cut (he would later reuse a portion of this verse for his Compton dis record “Step To Me”).  T.R. Love finally shows up, only to turn in a very forgettable verse (which is probably why this song was excluded from the proper album, and the reason he doesn’t show up on any other song on the album).  Of course Ced-Gee and Kool Keith show up and turn in solid verses, but the beat is very meh.  It was probably a good idea to leave this one off the proper album.

Traveling At The Speed of Thought (Hip-Hop Club Mix) – Keith and Ced use the same verses as the remix, in addition to a new second verse from both emcess as well (Keith’s verse is sick, well worthy of a listen).  I’ve never been crazy about house music, but I actually like this house beat more than the beat used on the remix.  That said, the first remix fits in better with the rest of the proper album. I’m interested to hear the original version of this song.  If anybody has a link to it, hit me up in the comments.

Ego Trippin’ (Bonus Beats) – Short instrumental excerpt of the original version.

Mentally Mad (original 12″ version) – This is an early demo, which is apparent based on the quality of the mix.  Keith and Ced start the song of yelling a la Run-DMC, but once they settle down they kill this dope instrumental.  If they cleaned up the mix, this would have been a nice addition to the proper album.

Critical Beatdown may be the most underrated album of all time, which shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider Kool Keith’s rarely mentioned in discussions of elite emcees, and Ced-Gee’s name is even less heard when discussing elite hip-hop producers.  The production is consistently dope (with a few average beats here and there ) and Kool Keith’s oddball-slash-abstract rhymes are all spaciously entertaining (they’ll keep you with your finger on the rewind button: psychosis has never sound so good).   I’ve never heard the rest of their catalog, but I’m definitely going to start tracking it down.

Did The Source Get It Right? Yes! Keith’s rhyme schemes are sick on every song, and while some beats are not as great as others, there isn’t one point where you’re compelled to hit the skip button.  The Source and I finally agree on an album.


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4 Responses to Ultramagnetic Emcees – Critical Beatdown

  1. tony a.wilson says:

    Critical beatdown is by far ultra’s best album. They had less creative control on “funk your head up”, although kool Keith is in beast mode. Mercury hired ghost producers to alter the tracks which is probably why they did one album and left for wild pitch. ” The Four Horseman” was better but I wouldn’t call it a classic. Both are worth a listen.

  2. Kristian Keddie says:

    This album is so funky…

  3. Kristian Keddie says:

    Watch Me Now has possibly the best opening to a hip hop song ever

  4. Man E. Fresh says:

    I knew and loved Watch Me Now, Ego Trippin, Ease Back, and then there’s the Funky debate. I think Keith sounds solid on both versions, but you’re right. Ced sounds better on the remix. The original beat is way better though, so I would switch it too. Regardless, classic, underrated album that today’s rappers could sample sometime. Hopefully. You know how the music industry is.

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