Is hip hop an unending stream of monotonous, empty rhythms, or the brightest star in the use of modern musical technology? Tim Goodyer cross-questions MC Tee and DJ Mantronik.
As pop reaches its lowest levels of creativity since the 1950s, one spark of originality shines from the street music of New York-hip hop. Mantronix, almost unknown in their home country, are one of its leading exponents.
OUTSIDE THE SHIFTING and growing body of its hardcore fans, hip hop has a mixed reputation: hard music devoid of real melody or structure, produced by a couple of guys using little more than a microphone, a drum machine and a record player instead of "proper" musical instruments. Can you take music like this seriously? Can you even call it music? The fans — and hip hop fans really are fanatical - certainly do.
The music is as bare and hard as punk in 1977, but has its origins in New York's Bronx, rather than on the streets of Britain. But where punk was a reaction to the self-indulgence of techno-rock and the boredom of the dole queue, hip hop was an alternative to gang warfare on the streets of New York. The bloodshed was replaced with rapping and scratching competitions held in abandoned warehouses, power often being diverted from nearby street-lighting to run the only tools the artists needed — a couple of turntables and a PA.
The lineup of a hip hop band quickly settled down to a typical two-piece: an MC (the rapper) and a DJ (responsible for the action behind the turntables). The first generation of rappers included Afrika Bambaataa (of 'Planet Rock' notoriety) and Grandmaster Flash, whose 'The Message' scored a healthy No 8 hit here in 1982. Those records took their cue from European electro-poppers like Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, with simple, instantly memorable synth melodies and solid, driving drum-machine beats.
Now we are faced with second-generation hip hop: artists who are continually discovering and redefining the music's limits. Artists like Doug E Fresh, the Real Roxanne and Hitman Howie Tee, the Beastie Boys and Mantronix.
Mantronix - MC Tee and DJ Mantronik — recently graced our shores for a short series of gigs to promote their second album Music Madness. Seated quietly in a record company office, the violence of the Bronx could not seem further away. And indeed Mantronik sits quietly, exuding the kind of self-confidence expressed in MC Tee's lyrics. But the word is, Mantronik isn't entirely happy with Music Madness.
"I'm not crazy about it because it was so rushed", he confirms. "To tell you the truth, I didn't know exactly what to do on this album so I experimented with a lot of things, trying to take rap in a different direction. Some of the stuff works and some of the stuff doesn't, but if I can take what I like on this album and what I like on the first album and combine them on the third album, that should be it. I'm just feeling out my areas at the moment."
Mantronik's doubts are a complete contradiction to the enthusiasm of the crowd at the duo's recent London gig. From the moment they took the boards, the air was filled with the sound of approving whistles and the floor with dancing feet.
MC Tee raps his heart out to the audience, while Mantronik remains aloof behind his turntables and a Sequential Studio 440, hardly an instrument you'd expect to see in a music that prides itself on being down-to-earth. Yet though it may all have started out with a mic, a choice selection of records and a cheap beat box, hip hop has done a lot of technological growing-up lately. Nowadays, a hip hop record is more likely to have been cut in a big, multitrack studio, each element of its sonic collage coming from, as likely as not, a sampling keyboard rather than a record-deck. Live, Mantronix' music is divided between good old-fashioned backing tapes and live use of the 440, the latter being used to play back samples of percussion sounds, but extracts from whole rhythm tracks sampled off records.
"Most of our show is on tape but some of it I do live; real programming going on live and samples looping for days", Mantronik muses. "It all depends on how much memory I have in the machine and how I feel that night. If I have five seconds' sampling time I can only do so much. The machine I've got now holds 16 seconds, so I have four different drum tracks in there. It's just a matter of taking your time to organise it.
"Whenever I've been to concerts where people have tried to sound exactly like their records it hasn't sounded that good - the actual record seems to have more bite", asserts Mantronik. "When you record, everything is like fine-tuned and you just can't reproduce that live. With a tape you're using studio technique and a recording that people are most familiar with.
"A lot of the guys who make hip hop records can't cut it live anyway. They don't program their own sounds - they get an engineer or a beat programmer to make a beat for them. You speak to a lot of rappers and they know they got a def beat, but they don't know how it was made or what made it. I program and produce my own stuff, so I know I can go out there and do the stuff live."
LESS THAN TWO years ago, Mantronik was just plain Curtis Kahleel, mixing records in Manhattan's Downtown Records Store on Sixth Avenue.
"One day I decided to go out and buy a drum machine and make a beat. Then I bought a little Casio keyboard and started playing around learning how to program it and, eventually, how to play by ear. When I teamed up with my partner and we made 'Fresh is the Word', I found myself spending more time in more studios watching the engineers pressing all the buttons. Then I started pressing the buttons myself.
"I picked hip hop because it was the simplest thing to understand. I was playing keyboards and programming and it was the easiest way to learn. I could program a beat and have a rap on it and then do some scratching over the top and I'd got a hip hop record. Now I'm ready to do anything because I've learned so much. I work on these machines constantly, I don't ever stop, so I know them inside out. We have the technology and we understand what we're doing with it, and now we're just going crazy."
But as one of hip hop's best-known and most consistent innovators, Mantronik is notoriously secretive about the equipment he uses. Perhaps it's due to the peaceful charm of England, but today it seems his guard is down.
"I don't like to say too much about what I'm using because I like to stay ahead of the competition. Rap groups have a tendency to copy each other, so you may hear like ten different records with the same drum sample.
"Before the 440 appeared on the scene there was an Akai S612 sampler. That was OK until the S900 appeared and made the S612 look a little silly. Then there was an E-mu SP12 sampling drum machine... Not too many people know about the 440 yet, but they'll be amazed at what it does.
"I like to get the new technology first, and get a new kina of sound that people can recognise as the Mantronix sound."
"To make samples, I need a source. If I want a cello sample, I need to get hold of a cello and spend time over getting the sample right, looping it, filtering it and all that. But if you start worrying about these things too much you forget you've got records to make, records to produce, records to mix and then a social life also. People that do spend all their time on sounds usually don't come out with records all that often. Trevor Horn's are every hundred years, aren't they?
"Having the 440 makes life a lot easier. Let's say I sampled something and the loop wasn't working out; I could just can it right there, carry on programming a beat, and then come back to the sample later. You can't do that with the Akai - you need another sequencer and a MIDI controller to play your samples back. With the 440 I can do everything in one. It's 12-bit, the highest bandwidth is 41kHz, and the only thing is there's so much RAM in there that when you power down you lose the memory. They couldn't put a big enough battery in there to hold it all, so you have to store it on a disk. But it's hip.
"I like to be ahead of the competition. I like to get the new technology first and create a new kind of sound that people can identify as a Mantronik sound. It's like Phil Collins has a certain type of drum sound. Like I say, in rap music everyone copies everyone else. One week you can have a Mantronix record like 'Hard Core Hip Hop', and the next week someone samples it. These guys just keep on stealing things, but they're stealing the old shit that I've done in the past and while they're doing that I'm doing something new.
"I did something called 'Bass Machine' with T La Rock where I took the 808 snare and pitch-changed it. People thought 'wow!' because nobody'd ever done that with an 808 before."
Ah, yes. There may be a rapid turnover of hi-tech gear in the world of hip hop, but it's still easy to hear that a lot of the music's syncopated rhythms still bear the character of the old Roland TR808. So what becomes of the old equipment? The answer is as simple as it is obvious.
"I sample it. With the 808 that also means I can take the quantization off - you can't do that on the 808 itself. When I make a beat I make the kick drum really off. I take like 4/4 time and really change it up and make it more funky that way. After I've sampled something I get something new and forget about it. I have the sounds so I can use them again."
IN THE DELICATE world of pop, a single sampled sound can be seen as the justification for four minutes of music. Hip hop, by contrast, sees sampling more as a means to an end: complete rhythms are sampled, looped and modified to create new ones. Genuine, bubbling dance records, not TV-advertised gimmicks, are made entirely from samples of other (any other) kinds of music. But now that the samplers have replaced tape machines and record decks, stealing beats has become an art form in its own right. And that's where the Bronx fighting spirit comes across again, as some bands cover their tracks (literally) better than others.
"I think you have to draw the line when it starts sounding too much like what you've taken it from", comments Mantronik. "I take little things, obscure things that people don't notice. Subliminally they pick them up, but they don't recognise them.
"If you listen to Run DMC's 'Peter Piper' you'll hear a percussion line running through the background. That's an actual track. They took Bob James' 'Take Me to the Mardi Gras' and synced up the record underneath the beat. They didn't even sample it, they just took the whole record. On LL Cool J's 'Rock the Bells' the timbales are a rhythm track off Trouble Funk's Saturday Night Live. That was synced up too because the studio didn't have a sampler at the time. I'm giving away secrets here, but there's no creativity involved in doing that, it's just called ripping off people."
The sampling isn't confined to rhythms, either.
"On 'Hard Core Hip Hop' we took a brass sample from a Pan Am commercial. That was fine because nobody knew where it came from. And that's the same thing the Art of Noise does - they take samples from these old records that hardly anyone's ever heard before, change it up and put a beat behind it, and that's OK. But if you take a recording and let it keep going, that's like bootlegging someone else's record."
'Hard Core Hip Hop', from Mantronix' first LP, also owes a little to Force MD's 'Forgive Me Girl' in the form of a sampled vocal. Presumably, Mantronik feels he can get away with that one, too. But another of the tracks on Music Madness has a strangely familiar harmonica line. It's taken from a song by Area Code 615 called 'Stone Fox Chase', otherwise known to us in the UK as the theme from Whistle Test. Hardly a good cover-up...
"I knew you were going to come to that", says Mantronik with a grin. "I did it because I saw Run DMC doing it, Cool J doing it, Doug E Fresh doing it... You guys know it as the Whistle Test theme but I'd never heard of it. It's an old club record in New York. Yeah, I stole that and I'm wrong, but if these other guys can do it and get away with it, I can do it. The reason I did it was we had a track with no rap to put on it, so I used that. I did it once, that's all."
Then, like a naughty schoolboy who's been caught in the act: "I won't do it again".
Again, in the delicate world of pop, a remix is a balancing act between the demands of the nightclub circuit and the demands of record company executives. But in hip hop, a DJ will take as much pride in a new mix as a new song, expecting it to sell as a new product, rather than as an alternative to the original.
"On 'Hard Core Hip Hop' we took a brass sample from a Pan Am commercial, which was fine because nobody knew where it came from."
"It's like putting something out and testing it", says Mantronik. "If it looks like it's going to work, you can go back and do the remix knowing what needs to be changed. You can even re-record it and I put extra things in and make it better if you want — although you can also make it worse. When the remix comes out, if it's already had some groundwork done by the first mix, then it's going to be that much more of a hit. The same people will buy the second mix as long as it is that much better.
"In the future I think records are going to have like a test model or a preview of what's to come. It's a good way of marketing: instead of spending a lot of money in the first place you can find out if something's got potential, then you do your remix and dump a lot of money into it."
Which leads us to the question of what makes a mix.
"When I mix records, I don't do it in the conventional way. Most mixes I hear are level, but I like to emphasise the beat more - like making the kick and snare more powerful. I like the beat to almost overpower the track, but everything else in the mix has to be heard too because I put it there for a reason. If I don't mix it right, then a part that I put in isn't going to have any effect. I've heard a lot of records where some things that are real good are hidden in the mix. I noticed on Janet Jackson's 'Control' there's a thing that sounds like finger snaps. It's mixed real low on the seven-inch but they've brought it out in the remix. That's cool, but if I'd mixed that track I'd have made the drums real powerful and had those snaps come right out at you.
"I don't use much reverb because it takes all the bite out of the drums, and that's the most crucial place. I like leaving the drums dry and bare so that when you hear it over a sound system or on your speaker at home, it sounds like someone playing an 808 live. That has a lot of impact in the clubs where it really cuts through - aggressive mixing.
"The important thing to me is if I'm going to sample something or make a beat, it's got to be right to begin with. Anything I put on after that will add a little extra to it, but my sound has to be there first. If I go into the studio with a sample, that's the sound I want to keep, I don't want to fuck with it any more. A lot of people end up changing a sound in the studio just because the reverb sounds good. They get fooled. They go in with a sound that they believe is going to make a hit, but they get in there and forget that."
SO WHERE NEXT for hip hop, sole glimmer of hope in another year of cover versions, Levi's ad soundtracks, and soap opera spin-off discs? Its champions claim it can be whatever its fans want it to be, but so far, it's still a beat, a scratch, and a rap — not necessarily in that order. And though those ingredients do make a hot dancefloor mixture, it's difficult to see where things are going to go next. Which direction will Mantronix take?
"Hip hop is basically empty. It's just a beat. But we're doing more things with it now. For instance, there's a song on the new album called 'Scream', that reminds me a little bit of the Stray Cats. It's going to be the next single and, if we do a good mix and if it's pushed right, it's going to click into the Top 40. As far as Mantronix is concerned we're more musically orientated than, shall we say, other rap groups. When you hear a Mantronix record you hear less of the rapper and more of the music - that's basically our sound."
Mantronik is sceptical, however, about the achievements of acts like Run DMC, who have fused the worlds of rap and rock to make huge-selling, crossover records like 'Walk This Way'.
"It's opened the door in the sense that for Run DMC, and any other hip hop band that wants to put a rock guitar on their record, they can have a hit. If you take someone like Fresh Prince or some other hardcore rap record and it went as big as 'Walk This Way', then that would really open the doors for rappers because that's real rap music. Rap music is scratching, beats and real rhyming, not rock guitars. The way I see it now is that any rap group using a rock guitar in a song has a chance of making it pop. The Beastie Boys are doing the same thing with 'Fight for the Right to Party' - it's a rock record, not a rap record."
MC Tee: "No matter what people say, to me hip hop is still a form of music. They said it would die about seven years ago but the music lives on, it's a part of life. Dance steps die but dance itself will always live on. People can give music different names but it can't die. Rock back in the 50s didn't sound like the rock of today, but rock is still alive - it sounds a lot like hip hop in some ways.
"If you want to categorise everything then that's your problem. A lot more kids will get involved in hip hop now. It's starting to cross over into the white audience, people are seeing money in it — that's how it's going to get stronger. The thing is it's cheap music to make, so the record companies are saving a bundle of dollars, and we can get rich guys. Of course the style of hip hop is going to change because everything must change. Of course the name will die — we used to call it B-boy music, funk music, but now those names are played out, people want to have something new to sell and the kids want something new to be hip to."
And will Mantronix keep their place in the running? Mantronik believes so.
"We're not a one-trick pony band with only one hit record. We haven't had a monster hit yet but, in time, we can do it. Take Talking Heads - they're weird, they have a weird sound, but it took like four or five albums for that to really cook in.
"We do hip hop music but, it's different so it's hard for kids to understand at the moment. But in time they will - we'll make them understand, we'll find some medium where Mantronix can really fit hip hop into the pop market.
"Over the past two years we've been growing and growing, and by next year or the year after we will be tremendous. We won't die overnight."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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