Every time I’ve been asked to list my favourite rap albums of all time, the top position is always a tussle between two clear favourites: Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded and Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown. Each time, I would justify a reason why one slightly edged out the other, but by the time I would revisit the issue I would have changed my mind. While I was aware the Ced-Gee from Ultra had contributed to the making of KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock’s masterful debut, I was reading Brian Coleman’s Rakim Told Me the other night and was suddenly all spelled out: “Criminal Minded and Critical Beatdown are really the same thing, in a way,” Ced-Gee explained. No wonder I couldn’t pick them apart!
For those of you who don’t deal in South Bronx ’80s rap trivia, let me explain the situation. Ced-Gee was literally the only person in the South Bronx who owned an EMU SP-12 sampler, which was basically the bridge between drum machines and samplers such as the AKAI MPC range. This meant that he was able to flip the records that BDP brought to his apartment and give them that Delta Force One magic. Having originally introduced KRS to Scott in a musical capacity when Kris Parker only knew Scott Sterling in his capacity as an employee of the local homeless shelter, Ced recognised his potential and began constructing the album with the duo while working on the debut album of his own Ultramagnetic crew – hence his reasoning that they are the “same thing.”
Even though The Bronx has long since been overshadowed by the output of Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island, there will will always be an unmistakable quality that sets it apart as the alpha and omega of this here rap shit. The albums were created on shoestring budgets for small independent labels, and even though Beatdown was released a year and a half after BDP dropped, they both share the same gritty yet sophisticated aesthetic that still sounds as fresh and new as it did a quarter of a century ago. KRS was ushering a new style of rhyming and an even more shocking stance as a “teacher” rather than a “king”, in stark rebellion to the reign of Run-DMC and LL Cool J, while Kool Keith and Ced also rejected the Kings of Rock. “They use the simple back and forth / The same, old rhythm,” lamented Keith on 1986’s ‘Ego Trippin’. “That a baby can pick up and join, right with them!”
Even more directly, BDP was rallying against Marley Marl, MC Shan and their Queensbridge crew with ‘South Bronx’ and ‘The Bridge Is Over’ as Kool Keith dismantled the competition so cleverly that even to this day fans are attempting to decode the true meaning of many of his stanzas. Both albums are a rejection of the rap status quo of the time. Ultra looked past the decaying ruins of their neighbourhood and introduced levels of science, chemistry and science-fiction to their music – all held together by some of the most undeniable beats of the time for those who crammed to understand. BDP declared war on both the old and new schools of rap, and took the concept of the brag rap far beyond the imagination of the average MC, while still finding new ways to pop junk about bagging broads and maintaining the required level of gun talk expected of any self-respecting b-boy in 1987.
Listening back now, these two albums represent the exact resilient nature and resourcefulness that made The Bronx such a fertile soil for the seeds of hip-hop to sprout from. Ultramagnetic created the perfect rap album by blending the unorthodox brilliance of Kool Keith with the staunch conviction of Ced-Gee, over stellar grooves courtesy of crate fiends Moe Love and TR Love (and the engineer all-star Paul C) for fifteen tracks that don’t let up. KRS-One and Scott La Rock told us a more grounded tale, but with the wisdom and authority of people twice their age and the audacity of reckless youth. Perhaps most importantly of all, the music still sounds as crucial now as the first time I heard it, which is undoubtedly the true test of a classic.