Any discussion of the 80s golden era typically revolves around the usual suspects—PE, N.W.A., Eric B & Rakim, KRS-ONE, and Big Daddy Kane--but regardless of name recognition, leaving the Ultramagnetic MCs off that list would be a serious omission. Formed in 1984 by “Kool Keith” Thornton and “Ced Gee” Miller while students at Dewitt-Clinton High in the Bronx, Ultra was a rapper’s rap group, highly influential among their contemporaries with a futuristic approach to the artform that placed them ahead of their time. Unfortunately, due to such factors as poor timing, bad business decisions, and industry politics, they never reached the same level of recognition and success as some of their more famous peers.
Ced, who grew up in the Claremont projects, originally started deejaying before picking up the mic. To replace him on the wheels of steel, he drafted his cousin, Maurice Smith (aka Moe Love). With trademark baseball cap cocked to the side, Kool Keith, the de facto front man, came up with all the concepts and song titles as well as the group’s unique name. Meanwhile, Trevor Randolph (aka TR Love), who worked at Manhattan’s legendary record store, Rock N’ Soul, supplied the eclectic vinyl used to construct their sample-heavy jams. Having witnessed the birth of hip-hop in their backyard, these guys were naturals in the burgeoning rap game.
Following high school, Ced got a job at an engineering firm where he was pulling down a regular paycheck. That’s how he became the first kid in the Bronx able to afford the new E-mu SP-12 drum machine, released in 1986, which retailed for $5000. Using this machine’s 1.5 seconds of sampling time, Ced perfected the technique of chopping samples, helping his friend Scott La Rock produce Boogie Down Productions’ debut LP, Criminal Minded (B-Boy, 1987). He also produced Ultramagnetic’s first singles, including “To Give You Love” (Diamond International, 1986), and “Ego Trippin’” (Next Plateau, 1986), the first rap record to utilize the breakbeat from Melvin Bliss’s “Synthetic Substitution,” (Sunburst Records, 1973) which has since been sampled in over 800 songs according to Whosampled.com.
A street hit, that record led to a slew of additional singles by the group, including “Travelling at the Speed of Thought” (1987), in which Kool Keith raps, “Respect me, when I whip your brain/ skip your brain and dip your brain/in a lotion, while I tap on your skull/I’m like a bird when I’m pecking your skull.” Spitting dusted, sci-fi rhymes with an off-beat cadence, Keith soon established a reputation as one of the most abstract and unusual MCs on the mic. These early singles were collected on their groundbreaking debut, Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau, 1988)
Ultra briefly broke up in 1990 but reassembled in 1992 for the release of Funk Your Hed Up (Mercury, 1990), which spawned “Poppa Large,” whose hit remix was produced by Da Beatminerz. They also returned in 1993 with The Four Horsemen (Wild Pitch, ERG) known for such memorable singles as “Two Brothers with Checks (San Francisco, Harvey),” and “One Two, One Two.” Following that release the group’s output started waning, but Kool Keith went on to reinvent himself through a gang of aliases—including Dr. Octagon and Black Elvis—and enjoys a very successful solo career to this day.
Sometimes the measure of a group has less to do with chart hits than the huge influence they had on others around them. In that case Ultra, who lead by example, more than earned their position in the pantheon of Golden Era Greats.