Interview: ORIGINALS… Kurtis Mantronik, part two

Following on from part one of our interview with Kurtis Mantronik, we talk to the Mantronix maestro about his move to Capitol Records, falling in and out of love with the music industry, becoming one of dance’s most sought-after remixers, and reworking his old material for a new audience. And a lot more besides.

Check out the recently-released How Did You Know (click here to buy/listen) on Kurtis’ new label, King of the Beats, part of Last Man Music.

Over to you, Kurtis.

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.]

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