I was always a bit jealous of Kurtis Mantronik’s name. Together with MC Tee, Mantronix were one of the most popular and influential hip hop acts during the mid-’80s, particularly in the UK where they had a big fanbase.
Kurtis el Khaleel (a Syrian Jamaican) moved to New York in 1980, aged 15. Although surrounded by the growing hip hop sound, it was tracks like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Riot In Lagos’ and Art Of Noise’s ‘Beatbox’ that inspired him to make music of his own. The first demo him and MC Tee ever made, ‘Fresh Is The Word’, ended up getting them a record deal and became a massive hit in New York.
Their debut album on Warlock’s sub-label Sleeping Bag included hits like ‘Bassline’ (above) and ‘Needle To The Groove’. Although there was an old school vibe about them, the tracks just used drum machines, synths and scratching – this gave the album a forward-looking sound, influencing not only electro and hip hop but also laying the foundations for both hip house and new jack swing.
Around this time, Mantronik was employed by Sleeping Bag to do a&r and he signed EPMD to the label. He was also producing for hip hop artists Just-Ice and KRS-One, and his album for T La Rock, ‘Lyrical King’, is essential with awesome tracks like ‘Back To Burn’, ‘This Beat Kicks’ and ‘Breaking Bells’ (below).
His freestyle and club soul tracks for Joyce Sims were great too, with ‘Lifetime Love’ and ‘(You Are My) All & All’ (below) being particular favourites.
Like a lot of hip hop acts around this time, as soon as they made it big they were accused of “selling out”, but in truth their sound was never really aimed at the hardcore underground hip hop scene. With their second album, ‘Music Madness’, their futuristic electrofunk approach saw them move further away from the old school. Mantronik then signed to Capitol but things started to go wrong under such a corporate label and after finally breaking into the mainstream with 1990’s ‘Got To Have Your Love’, Mantronik quit, feeling burnt out.
Ironically, even though he was known for his “man machine” production, one of his biggest tracks on the hip hop scene was the sample-based classic, ‘King Of The Beats’ (below). I remember everyone trying so hard to track down bootlegs of this track. Whether it was a hip hop or house night, no club set was complete without it… it really didn’t get any bigger than this.
Apparently he lives in London now having become disillusioned with New York’s club scene after Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “clean-up”. I saw him DJ in London a few years ago at Kings Cross when he was supporting ESG – the sound of New York still sounded fresh.
Here’s Mantronix on the BBC programme, Rock Around The Clock (the clip starts with a shambolic Andy Kershaw interviewing Streetsounds’ Morgan Khan), and after that is a clip of them performing live on another UK music show, The Tube:
‘Who Is It?’, 1986
Posted by Manny Z