I was feeling good about the state of music the other day, until I realized that the majority of my purchases as of late have been new versions of old albums I already had... then I just felt like a chump. While Hollywood continues to unnecessarily remake old classic films, the music industry has zeroed-in on a slightly-less annoying trend: revamping your favorite old albums with a few extra tracks and a fancy booklet to make you buy it again. I don't know which label exec is responsible for picking which albums get this "deluxe" treatment, but whoever it is, they're doing a good job and I hate them for it.
If any album ever deserved this royal treatment, it is Ultramagnetic's "Critical Beatdown", which is easily one of the most influential and overlooked hip-hop albums of all time. Ever wonder about Kool Keith's egotistical claims of inventing every form of microphone mathematics known to mankind? Well, with Critical Beatdown, he just about did. Equally as influential on the production side, however, is Ced Gee, whose SP-1200 chops are a vital part of hip-hop's foundation. Add in the legendary talents of the uncredited production puppet master Paul C, the more-than-adequate Moe Luv and the enigmatic Jarobi-esque TR Love, and Ultramagnetic's classic debut is born. If you don't know, consider this your late pass.
It is important to keep in mind while listening to Critical Beatdown that while this album was released in late '88, much of the album consists of reworkings of singles released years earlier. For example, the album's landmark cut, the RUN-DMC diss-fest "Ego Trippin" (that's pt. 1, de la soul fans) was released back in 1986. I bring this up to demonstrate how young hip-hop was at this time. Unlike today, hip-hop albums were a rare commodity when many of these songs were written. And while some of this material may sound a bit dated or cliche, it is due to the impact this album made when it came out... basically, everyone copied it. Sample staples like Melvin Bliss's "Synthetic Substituion" and Bob James' "Nautilus" are just beginning to be explored here, along with hints of Joe Cocker's "Woman to Woman" (2pac's "California Love") and J.B.'s "The Grunt" ("Terminator X on the Edge of Panic"). "Cliches" have to start somewhere, and this is the root of many of them.
There are two things that will immediately stand out when you first listen to this album. The first being the superhuman production prowess of Ced Gee. If you listen to hip hop music, you undoubtedly have heard Gee before as he is really the uncredited production genius behind Boogie Down Production's classic debut, Criminal Minded. After making all those classics then to be dissed in the liner notes, Gee took this as his cue to "come correct" with his Ultramag debut. Around this time when beats were predominatly loop-based, his SP-1200 chopping technique revolutionized sampling techniques forever. If not for Gee's production work, we wouldn't have DJ Premier or Shadow and we'd probably still be looping Good Times.
The other thing that stands out, of course, is Mr. Keith Thornton aka Kool Keith aka Poppa Large aka.... Young and hungry (with a much higher-sounding voice), this is Kool Keith at his finest. As the album shows, his lyrics have always been bugged out, but on this release, he is more focused and intense. Sharing mic time with the other Horsemen, Keith makes each verse count with rapid-fire, on-point lyrics that still stun and amaze as he steals every song. "Ease Back", "Ego Trippin", and "Travelling at the Speed of Thought" destroyed all MCs in their path and influenced all others soon to come (Black Thought, Organized Konfusion, Doom, ad infinitum). Just look at the cover, Keith raising a fist in the air, wearing a four-finger ring and a Budweiser hat, that's worth buying it right there.
The deluxe version includes several previously-released singles and alternate mixes (TIM DOG!) that never made the full album, along with the requisite fancy booklet with photos and stuff. Not to get all Bunsen-and-Beaker on your ass, but the remastered sound of this album is amazing. I tend to hate it when people say this, because many times, I can barely hear any difference at all. However, I believe the 1988 Next Plateau release of Critical Beatdown to have been mixed by my 8-year-old nephew Curtis on his hand-me-down Fisher Price cassette deck. And like his little boo-boo, I'm glad to see its all better now.
This is an amazing album grossly overlooked by the record-buying public. Hopefully with this new fancypants release, people will discover just how amazing this record is.
» Buy it...