Like aliens crash landing in the projects, Ultramagnetic MCs reinvented hip hop. It could be argued hip-hop would not be where it is today without the efforts of Kool Keith, TR Love, Ced Gee and Moe Love. While, for many, their 1988 debut Critical Beatdown remains the pinnacle of their career, these Bronx warriors want to keep pushing the boundaries with their latest work. During our chat with (one half of) the pioneering group, Kool Keith disappeared, presumably being summoned back to his home planet of Arous by Lord Zaat. Luckily, production wizard TR Love stuck around to share his insight on the inspiration behind the Ultra sound, evolving with the times and performing live in Australia for the first time.
You’ve got your first Australian tour coming up, what have you guys been up to lately?
Keith is in the lab right now and I’m in a spaceship – I’m chillin’.
How does working on the solo material compare with when you’re working in the studio with everyone?
The personalities are different and everyone adds their own input and different ideas.
So you basically come together with different ideas and form them to make one cohesive sound?
We might have a formulation or an idea. Keith may come with a certain lane and we stay on that route and we ride that wave all the way through the song. Sometimes it may be a collaboration between two people.
Has that dynamic changed much over the years you’ve been together?
It always changes because there might be something you hear that you might gravitate towards but the difference is that your challenging your own energy. You just want to try to create the best sound you can. Musically everything’s electronic right now and nothing’s really organic anymore. The arrangements aren’t real soulful anymore – they’re just thrown together like mish-mash, so it all depends. Right now for the club that’s great but that’s not real music to me. It all depends what your ears are tuned to.
With the changes in technology, has your production process been affected at all. Do you like to use the same process as in the past?
Well everything’s changing now with the electronic sounds. Everything’s updated and everything’s all futuristic. So you have to move with the times, you have to be able to adapt. I could still give you that old sound from ’88 now with these machines but you have to know the tricks of the trade to know what to do to bring it out of these machines.
Has Ultramagnetic been doing many shows lately or will this tour in Australia be your first one in a while?
We’ve been performing all together for the past three years, doing shows all over the place off and on. But this is our first time as a collective being in Australia.
What’s the dynamic like on stage? How does it compare to the chemistry in the studio?
We switch things up when we’re on stage. The studio is more like an untold vibe where we just get in where we fit in. If somebody takes the lead and creates something, we vibe off that and then do things collectively. But with the shows we kind of control the format and put it in a sequence where everybody gets their chance to shine and everyone can do what they need to do to collectively perform the songs. Then we have our showmanship where I introduce myself and Ced [Gee] and then we introduce Keith. Once Keith comes out then the whole show starts to change and turns into something else.
So then you just go with the vibe and see where it goes?
It all depends on how much I can move the crowd. As long as they vibe with me we’ll continue going.
When you debuted you guys came out of left field. Did you realise you were doing something special or that would stand the test of time?
When we came out we were the only ones doing this style with the way we were sampling and the boom-bap styling, as they labelled it. We cultivated the sound and then progressed with it and kept moving on when we felt it was right. We took our vibe and channelled it into the world and everybody adapted and took to it. It was a beautiful thing. Right now, the landscape has changed so much to come back and do what we used to do. It would be cool but it wouldn’t be the same. You can’t relive that past, you’ve have to be in the future. In order to do that I have to make newer futuristic stuff that you haven’t heard before.
You guys have reinvented yourselves over the years, especially Keith. Obviously if you want to stay active you have to keep it moving…
For the artists that you admire, you love the first material they released when they first presented themselves – you always wanted to relive what that sound was. As they progressed they grew with their music, their sound changed. So at the end of the day, either you adapt to what they’re trying to do and if you don’t vibe with it you leave it alone. It all depends what your make-up is and how loyal you are as a supporter of that particular artist or group.
There weren’t any other hip hop artists that sounded like you at the time, where did the inspiration come from, was it people you were around, movies?
The inspiration was always around us, from just being out and about in these streets, park jams, the house parties, the discos. Everything was around us – you couldn’t escape it. It was just about whether you were able to fit in. It was like a little closed society back then. Hip-hop wasn’t really mainstream – it was really underground. As diverse as it is now it wasn’t like that back then. You know Afrika Bambaataa, Cold Crush Brothers, Treacherous Three, these were our influences. We had the opportunity to see these things first-hand and they inspired us to a level where it was something you wanted to try to do. You would be able to show who you were on that stage.
Keith is regularly working on new material, are you or Ced [Gee] working on any material collectively or individually?
I have some situations, some projects going on myself, between my Ultramagnetic Foundation imprint that I run with Moe [Love] and then I’m doing some other side-projects that I’m trying to put together with other artists. Ultra as a whole, we’re working on new material right now. We have a couple of singles already in the can and we’re trying to get some other things together right now. We’re gonna drop an EP first and a couple of singles and then go right into the album.
Is your approach now to not necessarily try converting people but more about speaking to the people your music appeals to?
We wouldn’t conform for a different demographic that doesn’t even know who we are.
Ultramagnetic MCs will be playing the Oxford Art Factory in Darlinghurst on February 8 and the Espy Front Bar in Melbourne on February 9. Tickets via www.moshtix.com.au (Sydney) and www.espy.com.au or Oztix outlets (Melbourne).