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HIP HOP CONNECTION MAGAZINE INTERVIEW, JULY 2002

WHEN RECORDED HIP HOP WAS IN ITS INFANCY ONE MAN WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR REALLY PUSHING THE SONIC ENVELOPE. IT'S BEEN FAR FROM PLAIN SAILING SINCE, BUT THE MANTRONIX LEGACY WILL RUN FOREVER.....


If you were drawing up a list of the greatest long lost names in hip hop Kurtis Mantronik would be near the top. Signed to New York's sleeping bag label on the basis of his first demo with MC Tee, he exploded onto the scene in early 1985 with Fresh Is The Word. A string of successfull singles like Ladies, Hardcore Hip Hop & Bassline followed, the first two Mantronix albums consolidating his position as one of the hottest production talents on the block. As the hits kept coming Kurtis was also regularly producing tracks for other emcess like Just Ice, T La Rock and Tricky Tee, and in his secondary role as sleeping bag's A&R director signed EPMD.
But as his relationship with sleeping bag soured, a disgruntled Mantronix set off for pastures new. A lucrative contract with Capitol spawned three further albums but with increasing diminishing returns. Feeling burnt out Kurtis promptly quit the business, finally re-emerging over half a decade later plying his trade as a producer/remixer and pseudonymous artist on the funky house scene.
Now based in the UK, Mantronix'x latest release finds him revisiting both his hip hop past and the roots os the distictive Mantronix sound. That's My Beats! paints a vivid sonic profile of the Big Apple in the early-mid 80's, and in a rare interview Kurtis explains the reason why he's firmly back behind the console.

HHC
How did That's My Beats come about?

KM
Here's the deal. I was asked to put together 12 tracks that influenced me before i started making music. I agreed, but it wasn't until I got to this country that people were saying 'This is a really interesting compilation - this is the music that influenced a lot of people who were producing at the time in Europe'. It's an important album because without these records I don't know what my sound would have been.

HHC
Do the albums distinct strands of disco, hip hop and electro reflect the basic ingrediants of the classic Mantronix sound?

KM
I arrived in New York in the summer of 1980 and the radio stations were all playing dance music. The whole scene was bubbly and exciting. I'd go to Central Park and all the skakers would have their radios tuned to the disco stations... So you'd have all these boom boxes tuned to the same station and when the big records came on it was like being inside a club. I was bombarded with the disco stuff and from day one Machine's There But For The Grace Of God Go I really stood out. It sounded so New York - you just had to be there to feel the power of the whole thing.

HHC
When did hip hop enter into the equation?

KM
I got bitten by the rap bug. Rap records weren't played that much on the radio, the big thing back then were the park jams where they'd set the turntables up in the street and plug them into a lamppost. My cousin in Brooklyn really introduced me to the whole hip hop culture. I was amazed by what these guys could do with the vinyl. There's very few rap records, if any, that take you back in time when you listen to them, but there's one or two from that period where i can say 'okay i was here, i was there...'.

HHC
So what particularly stands out?

KM
Crash crews High Powered Rap is definately one of them. It was one of the first rap records I heard. I can remember hearing it at the Roxy with Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and all the breakdancers. At that time bambaataa was playing everything from The Clash to the Funky 4 to the Crash Crew, then he'd play Parliament and Funkadelic and there were nearly 4,000 people dancing to this! It was just wild.

HHC
What about your electro selections?

KM
In the middle of listening to all this disco and hip hop along come Ruichi Sakamoto with Riot In Lagos. It was totally off the wall. The disco stations were playing stuff like that and Yello's Bostich - they'd never do that today, that's why it was such a beautiful time. It was a very eclectic scene. A few years later Art Of Noise came along with Beatbox and it was incredible. It was electronic and yet it had real hip hop flavour to it. That's when I started experimenting with machines and creating my own sound.

HHC
You struck gold with your first demo. What really happend?

KM
I wanted to be a DJ but I didn't know anyone on the scene so I got a job in Manhattan's Downtown Records as their instore DJ. One day this guy, who was a regular, came in and said ' You know what? I made this beat back home but i'm looking for a rapper'. That's how i met MC Tee. We struggled to put $800 together and did our first demo. It didn't sound all that good, so i took it back to the store and decided to run it through a stero equaliser. Then it sounded fantastic.

HHC
How did sleeping bag here it?

KM
Will Socolov, the owner, came in one day and my boss said 'The kid's got a nice demo, do you want to hear it?' I gave it to Will and he came back the next day and said 'I really like this. Let me go and speak to my partners, I want to put this record out'. I was really excited because this is the first demo that I'd ever done. He wanted to do a deal, so he put mein the studio to cut a record. He said 'You know what you're doing, okay?' and i just said 'Yeah'. We ended up coming out with Fresh Is The Word and that's how i got started.

HHC
Were you surprised at its success?

KM
It was a massive record in New York. Radio picked up on it and completely exploded. It was so big that just about every radio station was playing it at least six or seven times a day and that's huge. We were playing at all the clubs too - quite often on the same day. It was like 'Do the Roxy and 10 o'clock. do the Red Zone at 12 and so on'. Everywhere you went in the city you'd hear it on radios and cars as they drove by.

HHC
In hip hop circles you reputation rests on the first two Mantronix albums. Do you rate them as your best work?

KM
The first Mantronix album was very much a case of 'Let me go to work and try some things'. It was more of an EP really. I had no ideas how to go about making a full album, so I put together the megamix. Nobody had done anything like that before, but originally I just put in on there to fill up some space. Music madness was much more of an album. From the outset I wanted it to be more electronic and experimental because nobody was doing anything like that in hip hop. It ended up as quintessential Mantronix. If I listen to that album today, i'm still happy with it.

HHC
If you had to pick a definate Mantronix track from that era what would it be?

KM
I'd definately say Who Is It and maybe Hardcore Hip Hop. Who Is It came about because we'd just done a rap over a beat. It sounded boring so right at the end of the session I decided to add on a gated synth. We were already mixing the track - it was an hour away from the end of a session costing $125 an hour - when i said 'This really isn't working, get me a keyboard'. And we gated it in like 45 minutes. With Hardcore Hip Hop I wanted to do something much harder and it's the first time I heard the term electro being used. It mixed hip hop with electronics, it was fast and it worked.

HHC
What went wrong when you signed to Capitol?

KM
Signing with Capitol was a massive mistake. From their perspective I was one of the hot producers out there. They wanted to get in on the rap game and ended up just throwing money at me. But they didn't understand it - they got involved with something based on hype.

HHC
Were you disapointed with In Full Effect?

KM
It wasn't a strong album. It was difficult to record because I was all over the place. Tee was also part of the deal, but I couldn't control him as far as getting him into the studio or anything. I was really unsure what I was doing. I was in a corporate world, I has all this money and lawyers and accountants and all these other people coming out of the woodwork and I didn't know who to trust. There was a track called Simple Simon that everybody thought was going to cross over and it didn't.

HHC
What would you have done with the benefit of hindsite?

KM
I think the hits would have kept on coming. It's a two way thing. They were going to be paying a lot of money if they wanted my services. The records were happening but Mantronix was a lot of work. I was pissed off because i'd be doing three of four days at a time working on a rap record then going straight onto a dance record, so the party had to come to an end somewhere. Maybe if I ask Will if the money they were offering me back then was fair he'd say 'Yeah we made a mistake'.

HHC
After the problems with Capitol you seemed to disappear - what happend?

KM
I dropped out of the scene from 1991 to about 98. I stopped making music because I was burnt out. I had to deal with some legal issues and it all took it's toll on me. I started doing all this stuff when I was 17 - I was working for the label day-in-day-out and I had no time for myself. Sometimes i'd stay in the studio for two or three days and sleep on the studio floor because i didn't want to loose the settings on the console... By the time we'd come out of that place we were green! I began to resent it and eventually started backing off from a lot of stuff. The new jack started coming in and house started to take over.

HHC
How did that change the landscape?

KM
That's when the real separation started. Everything changed. Suddenly there were rap clubs and there were house clubs and the radio stations weren't playing the eclectic stuff anymore - it was either hip hop or R&B. I was used to setting the trend not following it. I had to unlearn my way of working and that's really difficult. People said my stuff sounded dated and then, after about six months I just gave up. I did a lot of eating and basically considered myself out of the business.

HHC
What made you return?

KM
One night an engineer I'd worked with had a little get together. He introduced me to this guy who said 'Why don't you come back?' Everybody's sampling your stuff. I had no idea and this guy was telling me 'You've got a huge following' There i was 280 pounds with my big belly, stuffing food into my face, thinking 'I can't do this anymore'. This guy wanted to manage me and get me to do a remix of Future Sound Of London. So I did that, it made some noise and I started getting back into it. I did some things on drum & bass and electro scence, then I caught the disco bug and that's where I am at the moment.

HHC
How has hip hop developed since the classic Mantronix era?

KM
I thought the rapping styles and production would be more sophisticated, instead it's almost gone back to grass roots. The era I grew up in was all about tight rapping like LL Cool J - it was all about being on the beat timing-wise. Later on I heard people rapping and it sounded like they were reading their lyrics out of a book and I just couldn't understand that. It got a little better with guys like Timbaland, but i'm just from a different era.

HHC
Why did you decide to base yourself in the UK?

KM
New York has gone from being the party capital to the crappest place. Giuliani basically shut it down. They've closed down all of the clubs - now there's just these little bars playing music. Part of its original appeal was the edge, the uncertainty and weird people walking the streets. It had real character, now it's just horrible and I don't wanna be there. I'm over here for a while and i'm starting to feel the fire again. I want to get back into the game again. And one day, when I feel it, i'll come back with a wicked hip hop track.

THE ALBUM 'THAT'S MY BEAT' IS OUT NOW ON SOUL JAZZ

Thanks to Rich for typing!!