New York, NY – Ultramagnetic MCs’ seminal 1988 debut Critical Beatdown paved the way for underground rap’s aesthetics of sample-based boom-bap production, unorthodox rhyme cadences with futuristic lyricism and absurdist humor.
In the 90s, the Bronx legends influence also stretched across Hip Hop when Kool Keith went solo with his groundbreaking “alternative rap” project Dr. Octagon and pornographic aspirations on Sex Style in 1997.
Meanwhile, British electronic band The Prodigy propelled rave culture and electronic music into mainstream outlets such as MTV and alternative rock radio stations across the Atlantic that same year.
The two acts were friends and occasional collaborators and their audience embraced Keith’s eccentric music. When The Prodigy’s longtime frontman tragically passed away on March 4, many fans had Kool Keith’s memorable sampled lyric in the group’s multi-platinum single “Smack My Bitch Up” from their breakthrough third album The Fat Of The Land.
We talked with Kool Keith and his 30-plus-year rhyme partner/co-producer Ced Gee about The Prodigy’s impact on Ultramagnetic MCs’ career into 90s, Keith’s label drama with Sony over his album Black Elvis/Lost In Space 20 years ago, and his lucrative pompadour wigs.
Kool Keith & Ced Gee Explain Their Big Payday Collaborating With The Prodigy
How did you connect with Keith Flint and The Prodigy when they sampled Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Give The Drummer Some” for their hit single “Smack My Bitch Up” in 1997?
Kool Keith: They had called me up. Liam (Howlett of The Prodigy) was a great friend anyway.
Ced Gee: Let me tell how he got his number. What happened was they were working with the president of Next Plateau [Records] Eddie O’ Loughlin at the time, he cleared the sample, so Eddie said, “Why don’t you just do it fresh with Keith?” Because I was working at Next Plateau at the time as the head of A&R and we gave them Keith’s number and that’s how the reach out became. That’s how they started working together.
Did you have any personal connections with Keith Flint and the Prodigy beyond recording in the studio?
Kool Keith: Yeah, I did shows with them when the record came out. I did one or two shows with them. One of them in New York and another I think in Melbourne, Australia. I was backstage with them and he was a cool person. They had a lot of champagne, a lot of girls and cool electronic music. That was a nice tour out there with them and for the first time it was good that I had real fun with those guys. I think Ced and I were in Europe one time and also with [Kut Masta] Kurt and we went over to their label to talk some other stuff and deals. But they were always on the road. I went over there to try and cash a check but couldn’t cash it and it had Maverick (Records) on it.
That’s Madonna’s label Maverick. Why couldn’t you cash it?
Ced Ged: He is not a European citizen so they’re not going to cash that check because they can’t tax him. That’s why they’re looking to deport 21 Savage. His green card ran out because he’s been over here caking up and they can’t tax him, so he’s gotta go. Every country wants to tax you and that’s why they ask you getting off the plane…
Kool Keith: I heard he got out of that. Does it show that he’s cleared now?
Ced Gee: No. That means he did a deal. Just like you do a deal with the IRS, that mean’s he’s gonna pay taxes. That’s all they wanted. There never really was nothing other than having him pay when they found out his green card had run out for so long and they were like, “Look, you owe this. You either pay or you leave.”
Kool Keith: Yeah, so anyway, we were looking for the group [The Prodigy] and they weren’t there. I never could catch them at home. Keith Flint and those guys always had like the weird haircuts and stuff like that.
Keith, the British industrial music scene seemed to uphold your music like on Dr. Octagon along with The Prodigy in 1997.
Kool Keith: They had another album (Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned) with the big lips on it where they sampled our stuff, too.
Ced Gee: Yeah, on the Warner ASCAP sample statements but can’t remember off hand. [Editor’s note: The songs featuring Kool Keith were “Wake Up Call” and “You’ll Be Under My Wheels”]. It didn’t generate like “Smack My Bitch Up,” but still.
Kool Keith: “Smack My Bitch Up” was a sensational hit off The Fat Of The Land which sold over three million copies. We had certified platinum plaques for that.
How big was your check from the “Smack My Bitch Up” sample?
Ced Gee: I was under a levy from the IRS at that time. The “Smack My Bitch Up” sample paid off the levy which was about $100,000. After it was over and all corrected, I still had $18,000. That’s how sweet that was (Laughs). I got that, so imagine what [the Ultramagnetic MCs] made.
Kool Keith: I never had to run around to chase that money and I was provided for well. And I hope that band didn’t break up, but Keith was such an important person as the lead singer in the band. That’s like Michael Jackson in Jackson 5, Kurt Cobain, so it’s kind of hard. Usually a person goes missing like the drummer or the horn player but when you got someone like that is Ron Isley in the Isley Brothers gone, the lead person. He was the nucleus of that band.
Kool Keith Talks 20th Anniversaries of Dr. Dooom, “Black Elvis/Lost In Space” & His Wigs
This year marks the 20th anniversary year of your albums Dr. Dooom First Come/First Served and Black Elvis/Lost In Space, Keith. Can you talk about the creative process of those albums and your attempt to get off your major label deal with Sony following the latter release?
Kool Keith: What happened was Sony took Black Elvis and was trying to hold it on the shelf. So, Dr. Dooom was the mad version of Black Elvis, basically to be like grumbling. Being that they were holding the album, I did another album and that was Dr. Dooom because I was getting mad in the waiting process and the mad person like “Fuck that, I’m gonna this out because Sony’s not putting out Black Elvis.” All the songs were mad, but it was another guy with the same wig. [Ced Gee laughs]
And I wasn’t restricted by a record company. I put it out through Nu Groove [Records] in the Bay Area. I said, “To hell with it, fuck it” and at that time I felt like I created another person because of the major label situation.
You worked with Kut Masta Kurt, Motion Man, and Jacky Jasper who were all Bay Area artists on Dr. Dooom’s First Come/First Served.
Kool Keith: Yeah. When [Ultramagnetic MCs] first went to the Bay Area for the Jimmy Jam show, it was me, Ced, Moe and Trev, we had a show in Oakland and were doing some stuff in San Francisco, that was just our life in general. And that’s when Dr. Dooom came about.
Ced Gee: That’s how you hooked up with Kurt. We did a radio interview out there.
Kool Keith: Yeah, Kurt was a fan.
Ced Gee: He had a college radio station show for him. And for Jimmy Jam, there was like an underground TV station that aired all around Oakland and it was kind of cool because people were calling in live.
Let’s talk about that memorable Elvis pompadour wig. I heard an interview on Ed Lover’s radio show when you said fans were mad at you if they didn’t see you wear it in public back then.
Kool Keith: Oh yeah! I mean that wig was making me $7,000 a night, so I couldn’t not love the wig. But it was just hard because they didn’t know the protocol of the wig, taping it on with real glue every night, like real cement glue on my sideburns. I had to use some kind of stuff to get it off like benzene, stuff you use to remove paint every night and the wig was filled with water inside from sweating and I had to pour it out [Ced Gee laughs].
It was crazy. I had like three or four of them on the tour bus that I’d rotate. When Black Elvis came out, the tour went on and shows were wall-to-wall packed and I couldn’t believe that people were coming out to see this wig.
I recall you sent out an e-mail newsletter to your fans urging them to write complaint letters or call up Sony’s office because it didn’t properly promote Black Elvis. [Ced Gee laughs]
Kool Keith: Oh, the e-mail blast. A lot of it was that Sony held the album for a long time and it was the up-top people and I had a couple friends like Rich Nice working there. I think two different departments were fighting over the album, the urban department and the alternative department. So that was the tug of war over the album. Rich Nice was saying that they didn’t know what department would work the album, and I’m like, “What?” He said, “Yeah, they’re all trying to make a decision.” It was kind of diverse so they didn’t know. They’re the ones who wanted to do the album cover like that with the futuristic thing, but I had originally planned it to be the urban Black Elvis. They took it to more of the outer space and the artwork but it turned out good and classic for what it is. It was just a confused marketing plan. It was actually distributed through Ruffhouse.
You had Sadat X as a featured guest on Black Elvis. For anyone who knows Hip Hop, that album should’ve been an urban-marketed album based on that alone.
Kool Keith: Yeah, I called him up because I needed one more feature. We had Roger Troutman down there. Roger was crazy with the Vocoder and he said, “Get me another engineer,” so I had Joe The Butcher to mix the album, and he was like our uncle, right, Ced?
Ced Gee: Yup!
Kool Keith & Ced Gee On Ultramagnetic MCs’ Early Connections To KRS-One & Public Enemy
What are the next projects that you have slated for 2019?
Kool Keith: I just did an album with Psycho Les (of The Beatnuts) that’s coming out. I got Paul Wall, Jeru The Damaja, Erick Sermon and B-Real from Cypress Hill on it. There’s some dope production and Psycho Les did the beats. It’s not like I did on Feature Magnetic but it sounds good because The Beatnuts do all type of beats for different people, but the album were more different than the people usually choose. That should be right around the corner next month. Ced’s got an album and did stuff he wouldn’t normally do. I did a couple of songs with him.
Ced Gee: We try to do a little bit of everything like he said. Stuff that’s traditional but more futuristic. We did a lot of people that surprises people
Kool Keith: Stuff that won’t put us in a box and sells range.
Ced Gee: We go from old to new. We cover all the eras and then we go deep and further than that.
Kool Keith: The album we call Ced Gee’s “Delta” but the point is that we did stuff that we had to get away from different kinds of people and do on our own. You have to go away from the music industry who a lot of times says you have to stay at what you do. We had to eliminate a lot of infections and go into the studio ourselves.
Ced Gee: We went back to the roots. That’s how we started with just me and Keith and then brought everybody along. Take it back to where tear things down and start back up.
Kool Keith: We went through what a lot of groups go through which was a lot of dictatorship and we had to stop that early. Me and Ced were the music engine of the group first because all the hits on [the Critical Beatdown album) like “Ego Trippin'” I got. “Funky” and “Give The Drummer Some,” [late engineer/producer] Paul C hooked up, but all the other records on the album were great, too, but Ced and me had the main singles. Everybody else did their parts and Moe Love had “Moe Love Is On The Cut” and that was a hit DJ record.
The main foundation from when we started was always me and Ced.
Ced, your primal influence on sampling James Brown and drum programming in your production in the mid-80s when Ultramagnetic MCs took off isn’t talked about enough. This goes for your influence on Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy’s beats. You and Keith were also in P.E.’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” video.
Ced Gee: Oh yeah, there was a real fire at that video shoot.
Really? How’d that happen?
Kool Keith: (Laughs) Ced, how did the fire start?
Ced Gee: It was during the riot scene of the video. They lit a match to catch fire and that shit just caught onto everything else. We were running around pretending like we were fighting, it was fun. Then they were like “Yo! We gotta get out, there’s a real fire!” They shut the video down for a while and the fire department had to come in. Me, Keith and [Flavor] Flav started snapping while they were cleaning up. It was in an old abandoned prison in Staten Island.
Boogie Down Productions even mentioned you in their liner notes of Criminal Minded. Legend has it that KRS-One was formerly named MC Larry G in an early edition of Ultramag. Is that true?
Ced Gee: Nah, the thing was that Kris could’ve been a member of Ultramagnetic, just like Keith could’ve been an early member of BDP because we were all working together. That’s what that was. Everybody was over at the crib to do things, and it was more Keith than Kris for Ultramagnetic. Out of the whole batch of MCs, Keith and Kris were the best. So it merged down to Scott [La Rock] taking Kris from the people he was dealing and then Keith from the people he was dealing with to make the things grow to the level where they would be appreciated for their talents.
That’s what happened.
Kool Keith: Right.