Monday, July 23, 2012

Ultramagnetics' Greatest Hits - Ruined!

By 1997, Next Plateau had issued and reissued Critical Beatdown many times. And they did so with good reason - it's a terrific and important hip-hop album that's really held up over the decades.  But, still, how many times can you keep repackaging and reselling the same product to the same audience? Sometimes you've gotta do something different. And Tuff City was making a lot of noise with their multiple compilations of unreleased Ultramagnetic MCs material around that time. Dr. Octagon was beginning  to cross over to mainstream, non-hip-hop audiences... the time was right to cash in. But, unfortunately for the label, Ultra only ever released one album on their label.  So Next Plateau came up with The B-Sides Companion.

From the title, this doesn't seem like a bad idea at all. Ultra may've only recorded the one full-length for Next Plateau, but they released a slew of classic singles for them, almost all of which include remixes and exclusive B-sides as good or better than anything on the album. Compiling them all onto one album that all the new, younger Ultra fans who couldn't get their hands on all the original 12" singles could get and appreciate sounds like a safe and solid idea.  How could you mess that up?

Well, I guess the label decided the new fans weren't a big enough market, so they had to reach the die hard fans, too. But if the die-hard fans have all those B-sides already, what could Next Plateau do?  They made new, 1997 remixes of every single one of them. Unfortunately, remixing a classic ten years later is generally like painting a new expression on the Mona Lisa. Even if you're talented, you're fucking around with something that's pretty much perfect and spoiling it.

So, now we have what is probably the worst Ultramagnetics album short of Best Kept Secret. Ced Gee and William "Spaceman" Patterson (a studio musician who's played guitar on gajillions of hip-hop tracks over the years) take all of Ultramagnetics' rare 12" B-sides (well, mostly just the ones that came out on Next Plateau, of course) and make new, modern versions. "Break North" (not a B-side, by the way, but I guess we'll let that go) becomes "Break North '97 (Rmx)," etc.

Now, to be fair, they don't completely make all these great songs terrible.  Let's take "Break North." It's still basically the same rhymes over the same beat with the same samples. They just add some extra instrumentation noodling around on top of it.  And they replay some samples, so they're essentially the same, but just a bit off (the horns on "Watch Me Now ('97 Rmx)" are downright funny if you've heard the original). It doesn't fit, and it makes it worse than the original one; but for the most part you're still able to listen to and enjoy "Break North." Imagine you're listening to a fantastic album, and then your kid sister comes into the room and starts talking to her Barbies on the floor behind you.  You can still listen to the album, appreciate it, and enjoy it. It would just be nicer if she shut the Hell up. That's pretty much the experience you paid for if you bought this album.

But wait, there's more.  Next Plateau must've figured kids wouldn't be too thrilled with just a collection of old songs, remixed or not. So there's a new song: "Ultra Reunion" (spoiler: only Keith and Ced showed up) and a brief clip of Keith rapping live at Tramp's. It's nothing special... pretty bland, in fact.

But there are two songs on this album that are actually quite exciting. "Kool Keith Android Model #406" ("yo, man, I want you to bust this beat out like a rappin' android, you know what I'm saying?") and "I'm On" sound like genuinely vintage, never-before released song from the late 80's. They're dope, and they don't even have the cheesy, replayed production sound of the remixes here - I don't think Ced and the Spaceman fucked with 'em. They're really great Ultra tracks!

For the most part, this project is a waste. It feels like, as Ultra fans in the 90s, we were almost tricked into buying this. An actual compilation of the original B-sides would've been redundant for the hardcore fans, but a lot more desirable than the collection of inferior remixes we have here. The time Ced and Patterson spent remixing all this stuff would've been better spent reading magazines; and the "Reunion" is just a half-assed cash grab.  But in the end, two un-highlighted songs tucked away on the B-side manage to turn this lifeless dud into a must-have gem. It's too bad they didn't make a 12" single for just those two tracks, but hey, whatever. We susceptible fans may've gotten snookered by Next Plateau, but we got something great out of it in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Don't think it's right to say a true b-side compilation would be redundant. Can't listen to a stack of vinyl in the car. Compiling them on a new convenient format would be valuable and not particularly redundant-no more so than traffic cd reissues which often do the same thing.