The author F Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “there are no second acts in American lives”, but Jamaica-born, New York-raised hip hop maestro Kurtis Mantronik would be likely to disagree.
During the 1980s, Kurtis, born Kurtis el Khaleel, was responsible for some of the sickest beats in popular music as part of electro-funk duo Mantronix, a group that hit its stride with 1985’s Fresh Is The Word and never looked back. Bassline, King Of The Beats, Hardcore Hip-Hop, Needle To The Groove… the hits just kept on coming for Kurtis and his vocal partner MC Tee.
By the late 1980s, however, while Kurtis had signed to a major label (Capitol Records) and had enjoyed arguably his biggest hit, the genre-smashing Got to Have Your Love, the cracks were starting to appear – legal troubles with his former label, changing musical tastes and many years of overwork led him to take an seven-year hiatus.
The story didn’t end there, however, as a successful remix for Future Sound of London catapulted Kurtis back into the musical hemisphere, leading to a myriad of mixes for artists as diverse as Kylie Minogue, Steve Reich and The Chemical Brothers. Not to mention penning the ‘sound of the summer’, back in 2002, with Kurtis Mantronik Presents Chamonix’ 77 Strings, which was played to death in Ibiza that year.
Now living in South Africa, Kurtis has just launched a new label named after one of his biggest hits, King of the Beats, in association with Last Man Music. How Did You Know (click here to buy/listen), a reworking of 77 Strings, was released earlier this month, with more material to follow in the coming weeks.
As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals caught up with Kurtis, to discuss the highs and lows of a fascinating career in music. Over to you, Kurtis… [Part two can be found here]
Hi Kurtis, thanks for talking to us. Let’s start with the present. What are you up to these days?
I signed a production deal with Last Man Records; basically they’re giving me my very own label. It’s called King of the Beats, and they have basically given me the freedom to do what I like.
When I signed to Capitol Records, I had to deliver a certain type of record so it would actually make money. It’s really strange, because in America – I don’t know if it’s still the same – I was signed to the Pop department. At the time, you had the Pop department and you had the Black department. I was too left field for the Pop department, but the Black department didn’t want anything to do with me, even though I was making urban music. I think it was too futuristic sounding for the urban crowd.
I was trying to do something a bit different and some of it worked, some of it didn’t. But it was a constant battle in the US to get my music out there.
That’s the reason I signed for Capitol, a major label, because I thought ‘bigger budget, better promotion’. But it didn’t work out that way – they didn’t understand what I was trying to do at the time. I had to move away from the traditional Mantronix stuff. I did Got to Have Your Love, which was completely different to anything I had done with Mantronix before.
But even then, they STILL didn’t get it. It was going up the charts, but they just didn’t accept me as a pop artist. I was beyond definition.
So now, with King Of The Beats, you have a lot more freedom?
Yes, and times have also changed. You can do pretty much anything you want these days. Before, you had to make a record a certain way because you had to get into a certain market and also get it played on the radio. These days, the radio stations are playing full-on club tracks in the morning – that would never have happened back then.
It was always a battle for us to get a Mantronix record played on the radio, beyond your local urban stations. It was a different time.
With the ORIGINALS series, we like to ‘peel back the layers of the onion’ so to speak, and go right back to your earliest music memories. You grew up in Jamaica. Did that influence your musical upbringing?
I left there when I was ten. I wasn’t paying any attention to music at the time, it was just there, and we listened to it. I don’t think I was a big reggae fan, because I would have kept up with it through my productions. We heard it on the radio and that was that.
Then, at the age of ten, I moved to Canada with my family, and that’s where where I got into rock. I was a young kid, not yet in my teenage years, and I wanted to be the ‘cool guy’ playing the guitar. My family wouldn’t buy me a guitar, so then I wanted to play drums, and they wouldn’t allow that either, because I would be making too much noise. So they got me a baritone tuba.
In school, they had an orchestra, and you had to learn to play an instrument. I was this skinny little kid, and this thing was heavy – I couldn’t carry it. It was embarrassing playing a tuba, I was into rock and roll.
Plus, disco was starting to filter through, and it caught my attention. As we were moving to New York, I started to think of myself as the ‘disco king’.
What was New York like for you, it was a bit of a change of scene?
I moved there when I was 14. It was a culture shock – I was accustomed to riding my bicycle to school, with nothing to worry about, and the all of a sudden it was ‘bright lights, big city’.
We lived around two blocks from Central Park and one block away from the Dakota Building, so I remember one day, mum went to work and I went into the park. I didn’t really know anybody, and New York can be a lonely place if you’ve just moved there. You try to make friends, but there are so many different cultures.
Anyway, I went into Central Park, and there were people rollerskating around, with boomboxes on their shoulders, and I thought ‘I want to be cool like that!’
That was my first introduction to urban life in New York, really. At this point, rap wasn’t really that big, but it was growing, and I would see guys beatboxing – it was really cool.
My cousin lived in Brooklyn, and asked me ‘have you ever heard of rap?’ I had, but I didn’t know that much about it. My cousin and his friends were trading tapes, of Grandmaster Caz and all these guys, and it really grabbed my attention. So they said ‘come with us, and we’ll take you to a block party’.
It was absolutely packed; the DJ had hooked his sound system into the lamppost and people were going wild. Some guys were scratching, some guys were rapping. And then the police came. It was the beginning of rap, and you couldn’t have told at the time how big it would become over the following years.
I went back home, and got some money together and bought a drum machine. It was a Boss Dr. Beat – it sounded like a little Casio. That was about 1982 or 1983.
I read somewhere that you heard Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Riot in Lagos and that was a formative moment for you?
Back then, the DJs didn’t care if whether music was made by a black group or a white group, if it had a cool part, they were going to spin it. One of the guys was cutting up Riot in Lagos, and I thought it was the coolest thing.
So, it got to the stage that the Dr Beat was becoming boring, and sampling was starting to emerge, so I got a little Akai sampler, which used miniature floppy disks. I think you got two seconds worth of sampling on it.
How were you funding this at the time – these machines weren’t cheap?
I was working as a delivery boy at a dry cleaning store, and would get about $20 per week or thereabouts, and also some tips, so I was able to save money.
After the Akai sampler, I got a 606 and then a 303 – I was messing around, recording little mixes to cassette tape.
When you were in Canada, you had wanted to form a band, but now you were creating your own ‘band’, through all the musical equipment you were acquiring?
Yes. To be honest, I never learnt how to play music. I would with sample something and then pitch it up and down to create some form of a melody, and then put that over a beat. That’s really how Mantronix started.
A key piece of equipment for me was the 909. Early Mantronix tracks Bassline and Hardcore Hip Hop were made on a 909. Nobody was using it for hip hop back then, I don’t think it was even being used for dance. I discovered there was a way you could program midi notes using the keys – you could trigger a passage and synchronise it with the 303.
That’s how Bassline was made. It was before acid house, before all the stuff that came later.
Around then, I got a job working in a shop called Downtown Records. I was the DJ in the shop, so I had to play any new imports that were coming in. Lots of DJs shopped there at the time.
When I was working there, a guy called Will Socolov came in; he was running a small record label called Sleeping Bag Records. The owner of the shop introduced us, and said that maybe we could do some business together.
I had this demo – of Fresh is the Word – which I gave to him. He was doing some rock stuff with the label, and they were also working with Arthur Russell, who was doing lots of interesting disco. But absolutely no rap.
So Will listened to my demo, and he said he really liked it, but he was going to have to talk to his partners. They were old rock heads, and probably wouldn’t go for it, ‘but if I have to spend my own money to put it out, I will’.
So with that in mind, we went into the studio, and there was an 808 there. I had never played on one before, so I spent a week or two reprogramming the beats, and that turned into my first record.
That’s what started the ball rolling. After that, I did Tricky Tee – Johnny The Fox, and that was 909 all the way.
When did your partner in Mantronix, MC Tee, come into the picture?
He was there from the very beginning, he was a delivery boy in the shop. He was more of a poet than a rapper, and I didn’t know any other rappers.
I wasn’t part of that crew; I was just a skinny little kid from Canada that was out of place in New York City. So I asked him could he come up with a rap, and that’s what ended up on Fresh is the Word.
You must have been influenced by a lot of the sounds you were hearing at the time?
There was a lot of stuff going on – there was punk, new wave, lots of interesting stuff coming out of the UK, and of course the beginnings of rap and hip hop.
I think in time I tried to bring all these different genres into the Mantronix sound, and that’s what sort of gave me my identity. I guess that’s where the sound evolved from.
Do you still have your original 909 from that period?
No, I gave that to DJ Cash Money to use, and he never gave it back.
We’ve spoken to a lot of artists before about the transition from making beats in your bedroom to going into the studio for the first time. What was that experience like for you?
At that time there were lots of kids making tracks in their bedrooms. I would put my headphones on and dance around my bedroom, and thought I was really cool, but I only had one audience, and that was me.
I guess I was lucky because I met a guy – Will – who wanted to put my music out there. If it wasn’t for him, nothing would have happened.
Where did the Mantronix name come from?
I was trying to come up with a name, and I was calling myself Grand Kurtis, but that didn’t really work. When I was working at Downtown Records, there was a record that came in from a group called Boytronic, so I said to myself, ‘right, let’s flip this round a bit’.
That’s where the name Mantronix came from, with an ‘X’, because it was plural; it was always supposed to be a band. I became Kurtis Mantronik, singular, with a ‘K’.
Fresh Is The Word turned out to be really big and captured the ‘musical Zeitgeist’ at the time. Was that down to good timing, or good production, or a combination of both?
I think it was a combination of both. When I got a hold of an 808, and I first put the headphones on, I heard it in its raw format, and I really liked it. When I did Fresh Is The Word, I wanted to keep it as raw as possible, and as simple as possible.
It you listen to Planet Rock, for example, it’s quite processed, so I really wanted to strip it back and use the sounds that were coming out of the machine.
I think when Arthur Baker was working with Afrika Bambaataa on Planet Rock, he wanted to bring as much out of the 808 as possible, to make it sound meatier and more fulsome?
I think he was trying to make it fuller, because the 808 on its own does sound quite stark. But I like it that way. When I was making Fresh Is The Word, I thought it was going to end up sounding like Planet Rock, but it sounded a lot more raw.
Arthur came from a rock background, so he wanted to get something that sounded much punchier. I think John Robie was his engineer at the time, and he used to pull the bottom end off the kick on the 808. I did the opposite, I accentuated it.
I was one of those guys that would never read a manual – with every new piece of equipment I would just plug it in and figure it out along the way.
Don’t forget, I’m not a trained musician, I don’t know musical notation, so I was fumbling my way through to try to put something together that sounded cohesive – all these different pieces of equipment and samplers and drum machines working together.
Your first two albums, Mantronix: The Album and Music Madness, came out right after each other, in 1985 and 1986. Was it always the intention to hit the ground running?
It was. While I was doing the Mantronix stuff, in between that I was doing Joyce Sims’ first dance track, Youre My All In All, which featured an 808, an Emulator and I think a Yamaha DX7 to make it sound fuller.
Aside from the Mantronix sound, I was trying to come up with my own style of dance music, and then to put more pressure on myself, I started working with Just-Ice, on some down and dirty hardcore hip hop stuff.
That took its toll over the years, my brain was fried, and I couldn’t go out any more. I felt that I had done all that I could with the technology available at the time.
[Thanks Kurtis for talking to us. In part two, we chat to him about the Capitol years, why he took a break from music production, and the steps that led to his return].