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…
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.
Let’s talk about the move to Capitol Records. With Sleeping Bag you had a lot of freedom to do what you wanted, when what happened?
The problems started happening in the late 80s. I became good friends with Will Socolov, who was a partner in Sleeping Bag, and he agreed with me that the label needed a bigger budget to promote both myself and the other acts on the label.
Now at this point I was pretty much making all the records for Sleeping Bag and the label was doing quite well. I wasn’t seeing any of that. If I needed 200 bucks or something, they would give it to me, plus I was a bit of a gearhead, so occasionally they would buy me a new piece of equipment to keep me happy. But financially, I wasn’t seeing any royalties or anything like that. I was living above their old offices at the time.
So I said to Will, ‘listen, we’ve got to do something about this’. So he approached some labels, and one day he came in and said he had really good news, that he was going to do a deal with Warners, and they were going to distribute Sleeping Bag.
This is where it started to fall apart.
I think he mentioned that Warners were going to offer a $2 million advance, or something like that, which was quite a lot of money in those days. So I asked Will ‘how much do I get out of it?’ He said he was going to have to talk to his partners, and asked me ‘how much do you want?’
I thought about $300,000 was a fair amount, I was making all the records, but he said to me ‘I don’t think we can do that, they’re not going to go for it’.
So then I got a lawyer involved, and he discovered that when I signed my contract with Sleeping Bag, it had only been for one record – Fresh Is The Word. I didn’t know that, I was a kid when I signed it. My lawyer told me that I could leave at any time, so I did, and as soon as I did so, all the record companies approached me – every single one of them.
What Warners really wanted, through the Sleeping Bag deal, was to get to me. I think the way it was presented to them was that ‘if you want Kurtis Mantronik, you’re going to have to take Sleeping Bag, because he’s locked in’. So everything changed when I left Sleeping Bag.
You ended up releasing three albums with Capitol, but things started to sour there as well after a while. When did things start to do south?
Around the time of Got To Have Your Love [which featured on 1989’s This Should Move Ya]. It needed help, it was going up the urban charts on its own, but it needed some extra promotion, and the non-pop department at Capitol didn’t want anything to do with it.
Across the pond, it was booming, EMI Records had it, and it hit the top ten, then it reached the top five.
Got To Have Your Love was massive on this side of the pond. In a way it was almost a ‘gateway drug’ for people to get into the earlier Mantronix stuff.
Before Got To Have Your Love, I also did Joyce Sims’ Come In To My Life, which was also a big hit in the UK.
But I remember when I put Got To Have Your Love on This Should Move Ya, people were pissed off with me, because they were expecting the rest of the album to be soulful, when it was all hip hop stuff.
I thought the world had moved on, and people were a bit more open minded, but it wasn’t the case. At the same time, the hip hop guys were pissed off with me that I did a dance record.
By this stage, you were getting a bit burnt out, right? You had been making music non stop since you were in your teens, you were doing A&R work on the side. It started to take its toll?
The world started changing. Music started to change, and I was still doing the same stuff that I had relied heavily on in the past, and using the same sort of techniques and I think people were getting a little bit tired of that.
Then I got married, and that made things worse to be honest, as I wasn’t hanging out with the guys any more until two in the morning, putting beats down.
Plus, being burnt out kind of killed my enthusiasm for music. There were lots of lawsuits flying around as well, I was suing people, people were suing me.
When I went to Capitol, Sleeping Bag went after me, and there was a lot of legal back and forth. I didn’t get into music to get into this business bullshit. I’m a simple guy, I’m not used to this kind of stuff. I just felt that they were trying to take away what was rightfully mine and prevent me from going further.
When Come Into My Life came out, just before I moved to Capitol, Sleeping Bag said they were going to pay me, and then they stopped the cheque. Then my mother passed away; there were lots of things going on at the same time.
That was when you decided to take some time off.
When I was with Capitol, I had had a staff of people, I was buying all sorts of equipment and going back and forth to the UK. I had my own studio for recording, but I had to go to a different studio to mix the tracks. I was taking on too much work, and sometimes I would just sit there staring into oblivion. I couldn’t keep up.
So I disappeared for about seven or eight years. I started eating a lot of food, putting on a lot of weight; I wasn’t interested in the music business at all.
It wasn’t until years later that I put together a small studio again, and I was invited along to a party in New York, because there were people that ‘really wanted to meet me’. I was sort of shy, I didn’t know how I felt about it.
Going back to Mantronix, I was always supposed to be the guy in the background that was making the beats. It was supposed to be a normal ‘band’ with the lead singer, in this case MC Tee, taking all the attention. But he never really had anything interesting to say. So when we started doing the PR for the early Mantronix stuff, the interviewers were asking me all these questions about programming, and what machines I was using, and I couldn’t believe they found that interesting.
That’s how I was pushed to the forefront, the record company kept telling me ‘this is your band, and you have to step out front and start speaking more’.
So I go to this party – I’m not making records at the time, and and I’m very much overweight and somewhat despondent – and I’m introduced to this guy called Andy Shih from a small company called Oxygen Music Works. He had a partner in the UK, Rob Sutcliffe. So Andy asks me, ‘do you think you can start making beats again?’ I wasn’t sure, I think I said I could ‘play around with a few things’. I had zero confidence at this point.
I read somewhere that Future Sound of London were responsible, in a way, for your return to music. How did that happen?
The day after the party, Andy calls me up and says ‘my partner in the UK has got you a remix’. Now, I hadn’t done a remix for ten years, but the money was quite good, about £5,000.
The remix was for a group called Future Sound of London, for the track We Have Explosive. I had never heard of them. And then Andy said to me, ‘did you know everyone in the UK is sampling your stuff and using it in jungle and drum and bass?’ I had no idea.
I really needed the money at the time, so I agreed to do it. I was very hesitant, through, because I didn’t think I could do the job. But I started putting it together, and I think I had it finished in a day. I actually held on to if for a couple of days after that, because I really wasn’t sure if it was any good or not. When I finally handed it over to Rob – who, incidentally, went on to become my manager, he was like ‘wow, this is the s**t!’.
That’s where things started again, the remix offers just came coming. I even had Robbie Williams on the phone asking me to do a King of the Beats –style remix of one of his tracks.
Then Rob suggested I move to the UK. At this point, for me, New York was finished. I had no records coming out, I wasn’t with Capitol anymore and the hip-hop scene had moved on. So I moved to the UK, and stayed with Rob for around six to nine months.
When I got there, Liberty X had just done a rework of Got To Have Your Love, and all of a sudden income was coming in, left, right and centre. I started doing more remixes, some dance stuff, I was going to Ibiza, I had a residency in Moscow – everything started happening again.
77 Strings was a massive tune in Ibiza in 2002 – people didn’t make the connection that it was by yourself?
I had a brand new audience. Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, played 77 Strings at Brighton Beach, and people just went mental. It was the younger generation – they had no idea that I used to make all that hip hop stuff back in the day. They thought I was some new kid.
After that, I got a call from Kylie Minogue’s manager, to see if I could do some tracks for her new album – I think I did two tracks. But it was mostly remixes. They were great, I could do them really quickly and then go out and party in London for days.
As a matter of fact, for the new label, I’ve just reworked 77 Strings – it’s now called How Did You Know, and it’s the first release off King Of The Beats. The next is likely to be a rework of Just-Ice’s Cold Getting Dumb.
Actually when people ask me what my favourite beat is, it has to be Cold Getting Dumb. It just had everything. I want to bring that sort of sound to today’s generation, because a lot of things these days is based around the same hi-hat and snare sounds that I did 30 years ago with Bass Machine.
There’s sort of a hunger for that ‘back to basics’ simple approach to production at the moment. Stripped back, analog sounds. What other stuff have you planned for the label?
I’m going to rework some of the Mantronix stuff – MC Tee will no longer be on them, and I’m just trying to work out how that will work and the logistics of it. Dealing with rappers is not easy!
There are often rumours flying around about a Mantronix reunion, and a tour. Is that ever likely to happen?
MC Tee had his own unique style. I never really listened to the words, I just considered it part of my musical composition. So when I went back to listen to the tracks, I was thinking to myself ‘what the hell is he actually saying?’ It doesn’t actually make any sense.
For hardcore Mantronix fans, if I went on tour and didn’t have MC Tee and his nonsensical lyrics, I don’t think it would quite work.
[Thanks again to Kurtis for talking to us. Check out the recently-released How Did You Know on Kurtis’ new label, King of the Beats, part of Last Man Music.]