Back in the mid-‘80s, when rap, electro, disco and all types of wave were competing for the attention of dancers and DJs, Kurtis Mantronik helped them find a common groove. Born in Jamaica to Jamaican and Syrian parents, his family settled in NYC just in time for Kurtis to be fully immersed in the heydays of disco and early electronic music. Teaming up with MC Tee to form Mantronix, the electro rap outfit mapped out the blueprint for a whole genre of heavily synthesized electronic funk. Here, Kurtis tells the story of how it all came to be – and what is still to come from the pioneer.
FROM TAPING THE RADIO TO DJING DOWNTOWN
I moved to New York with my mother in 1980. We lived on the Upper West Side. I remember driving around and feeling minuscule: a visitor, a roach just looking around. It was a challenge, but I wanted to be part of it. I had a puppy crush on a young girl when I was the corny, geeky kid on the corner. The guys that she was into at the time were DJs: street DJs, plugging their turntables into a lamppost. That was the cool thing. I didn’t know how to DJ, but I wanted to learn. Basically, my first foray into producing music happened because I was trying to impress a girl.
I put my mother through hell by going out and buying little stupid drum machines, wasting money that we didn’t really have to spend. I taught myself how to program beats and bought myself two decks at home, and I would DJ for my mother and say, “Mom, did you like it?” She’d say, “Yeah, yeah, play that record again,” so that got me amped up. It came to the point when the parent says, “Son you’ve got to get out there and get a real job, because you can’t count on what you’re doing to make a living.” I said, “Yeah, mom, but it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.” While she was out at work, I would be making beats all day.
I used to listen to the radio a lot. There was 92 KQ FM, which is the big dance station back then, and then the more soulful stuff was WBLS and Frankie Crocker. Then there was WXLO, which then turned into Kiss FM. The station I found the most interesting was Kiss: in the early days, when they used to play the DJ mixes at noon and on Friday nights. There was a guy named Shep Pettibone, whose mixes I listened to religiously. I didn’t know how he was doing a lot of the stuff, but he was rocking it. I later found out (after being in the industry) that what he was doing was actually quite difficult: cutting tape, splicing it together. His mixes were absolutely awesome.
I practiced DJing, did my music, and eventually got a job working for Downtown Records. In the beginning, I was the record-stacking boy. Two or three weeks into that job, though, they put me behind the turntables playing new songs to the customers, who were mostly DJs (and a few wannabe DJs).
A customer came in who goes by the name of Teray. I said, “Listen, I want to make a record. Can you rap?” He said, “Not really, I’m a poet.” I thought, “Okay, close enough.”
I heard the likes of Red Alert, Chuck Chillout – you name it, they were there, and a lot of the club DJs, too. The interesting part about what I did was that I was able to understand hip hop in its early form, understand also club music, and separate the two. It was unheard of in those days: you either liked hip hop, or you liked dance. It wasn’t mixed in together.
These DJs would come in on a Friday saying, “Hey, Red,” or, “Hey whoever – listen, check this out!” Then, they started coming to me. After about nine months of being there, a customer came in whom he goes by the name of Teray. I said, “Listen, I want to make a record” – because I thought he was a nice guy. I didn’t really know much about him. “Can you rap?” He says, “Not really, I’m a poet.” I thought, “Okay, close enough,” and said, “I’ve got some beats here. Do you mind rapping on it?” He's like, “Okay, let me...” so I gave him the cassette.
THE MAKING OF “FRESH IS THE WORD”
In three or four days he came back to me, and he was like, “I'm ready.” “All right, let me take my salary,” – which wasn’t much: at the end of the week I think I was making $80 or $100 – “We’ll go into a little eight track studio and record this thing.” I think we recorded it with a TR-606 drum machine.
I didn't know how to engineer it or anything, so we had to have a friend of mine, Eric Triguiero, who was a budding sound engineer. He recorded the first demo for us – just the drum machine and Teray rapping – and when it didn’t sound quite right, I took the cassette back into the shop.
Back in those days they had these really cheap soundsystems: little home stereo systems that you put the cassette in, and lights start flashing on and off; a little disco system, but you can make tape copies on it. I put the cassette in, EQ’ed it a bit, and then copied it to another cassette. It was like “sweetening” our mastering. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew it needed something.
I said to one of the guys at Downtown Records, “I just recorded a demo. Do you know any record companies?” He said, “A few guys come in. They drop their vinyl off for sale here at the end of the week. I can pass it on.” A week or so later a guy by the name of Will Socolov shows up. I can’t remember the name of the guy in shop that helped me out, but he passed it onto Will and said, “Will, have a listen to these guys, their demo sounds pretty cool.” He came back three days later and he goes, “You know what, Kurtis? I really like this.” Then I get all excited because this guy, Will, is the owner of Sleeping Bag Records.
His main partner was Arthur Russell but he also had others working with him, like Juggy Gales and Ron Resnick. He said, “We've never done anything like this before, but let me try to convince them.” (You have to remember: this is early rap days, so unless it was a bedroom label, no one was putting out a rap record.) He goes, “I don’t care what they say. I’ll find the money to do this and I'll pay you guys.” I think it was $800 for the mastering. I agreed, but that was the most money I’d ever seen. He said, “You know what? I’m going to spend my own money, I’m going to put you guys in the studio and record this.”
We went down to Ian North Studios around Lafayette Street, where he had a 24-track studio. I’d never been in a real studio before. I go in and there's a TR-808 drum machine, which at that time was relatively new. I knew I had to re-program this beat, record it on a multi-track professional tape and then have my rapper on it, so I went in pretending like I knew exactly what I was doing – I didn’t know, of course, but it came naturally to me.
I programmed the beat and I said, “Okay Will, I’m ready to go in and record this now.” We don't know each other. We’re just very business – cut and dry. I get in there and I’m telling the engineer what to record: picking up things as I’m going on, and very quickly, too. I was surprised that I was able to understand it, really. After about two or three hours, we recorded the beat with the TR-808 and it sounded absolutely awesome. Two days later Teray came in and did the rap, and it sounded fantastic.
Will’s going, “Kurtis, this is going to be big record.” I’m like, “Okay Will, ‘It’s going to be big’,” because I didn’t know what else to say. We spent hours and hours mixing it so that it had a distinct sound – not knowing that it would define who I was, and am, as a producer. You don’t know any of this while you're doing it – you just want to do your best.
All of a sudden, I’ve turned from my God-given name of Graham Curtis into this robotic name, Kurtis Mantronik of Mantronix with M.C. Tee. The song was called “Fresh Is The Word.” Will took it to a master in testing, Frankford Wayne, and got some test pressings made.
A RADICAL NEW SOUND
Nobody had heard anything like this before. It was very sparse. There was no singing. I don’t want to say that it was “rap” or “hip hop” in its rawest form, but something was different: just a beat and a rap, with simplistic programming. We started taking it around and the DJs really liked it. Before you know it Roman Ricardo, the big DJ at the Roxy, said, “Kurtis, I want to book you for a show.” I’m thinking, “The Roxy?” (I would always hang around there asking Roman to let me DJ, and he’d always tell me to get out.) He goes, “This is going to be a big record.” He booked a show and Kiss FM, BLS and what felt like everyone else around at the time, started advertising it.
The first show wasn’t packed because the record wasn't on the radio. It wasn’t even for sale at this point. But the momentum started building, the shows were coming in, and then it started getting plays on the radio by specialist DJs like Red Alert. Will really fought hard to get it on the daytime rotation and when it finally got it in there, it exploded. It was a huge record for the tri-state area at a time when the East Coast was controlling hip hop, so that’s what mattered. You could sell 100,000 then in a way that you’d be happy to sell 2,000 of a 12-inch today. That’s style.
I remember my mom hearing all the radio commercials advertising Mantronix. She got all excited. (“Mom, what about that job you suggested I get?” “Shut up, boy.”) I remember our second show at The Roxy was when it got really interesting – you couldn’t even get in to our show, it was that packed. The Roxy held, I don’t know, 3-4,000 people, as well as the outside. I remember Will being in front of me, pushing, so that I could get in to play.
I was really nervous: It’s big, and people are expecting something fantastic. We get up there and I am in the middle of a sea. The crowd was a sea of black and you just heard this – anticipation. Mike gets up and booms, “We are Mantronix,” and the place goes ballistic. I’d never done anything in front of such a large audience – I’m more in a studio, I don't perform or anything – so I’m sitting there shaking.
We had decided to do “Fresh Is The Word” live and he does a countdown to introduce it. I thought I had the TR-808 drum machine set up and programmed correctly but – “Fresh Is The Word” was about 98BPM and I had this thing switched to 200BPM, not focusing on what I was doing. He goes, “Come Mantronix, rock this place!” – I hit the button and it’s complete mayhem. The beat was spitting at 300 miles per hour.
Everyone went, “What the hell’s going on?” We quickly stopped: “Shit.” I put it back, he did the count off again and then when it hit, “Boom ch ch ch” the place was just... It was in the palm of my hand. That was the start of Mantronix.
“All and All” was an absolute monster of a hit. That solidified me: all of a sudden, from rap to dance. I think it took time for the other producers to understand: you either have a dance producer or a hip hop artist; you don’t have one guy doing both.
The appeal of the Roland in particular for me was the synthetic sound. I grew up listening to rock & roll, New Wave and punk. That was all pretty much acoustic until you got into the later 80s, when you had electronic stuff coming: ABC, Visage, Simple Minds, stuff like that.
I thought I’d heard the TR-808 used on these records before, but in a very timid way. Having the kick drum bounce like that was appealing. I didn’t want to water it down. It had its limitations, though: I wanted to make it massive and booming, but at the time you couldn’t cut something like that on vinyl; the needle wouldn’t hold into the groove, so you were limited in how much bass you could have.
I think some engineers, like the guys over at Def Jam, found ways around that. With some of their early LL Cool J stuff you could feel the pressure from it. I don’t know how they did it. I wasn’t skilled enough to pull that off. I just liked the raw “synthetic-ness” of the 808 and expanded up on it.
I started getting bored with the simple syncopated beat and its 16th note hi-hats, or quarter notes, so I started doing triplets. I was a bit scared at the time: “Oh god, people are really doing some weird crap here,” with the hi-hats doing triplets and stuff like that. I’d never heard anybody do that stuff. I just thought, “I want to do it,” because I was tired of the programming that I was doing before. I wanted to spice it up. I was probably the only guy in New York City with an E-mu SP-12. I went through two of them. I started experimenting more and while I was in transition, doing different records, I started with T La Rock on something called “Bass Machine.”
That introduced triplet hi-hats, triplet snares, pitching down – all of that stuff. It complemented what I was doing. I didn’t know that 20-something years down the line they would call it “trap” music. I remember people asking me, “What do you think of people copying some of the stuff you used to do?” and I didn’t understand what they meant. It wasn’t until about a year ago I listened to “Bass Machine” and understood that it sounds like trap. It’s an early form, but the concept was basically there.
DRUM MACHINE POP
Joyce Sims’ “All and All” was another big record for me. After “Fresh Is The Word” I think I did “Johnny the Fox,” and “Tricky Tee,” just experimenting with the TR-909 drum machine. There was a demo that Will had in his office lying around, and they couldn’t come to a final agreement of what to do with it. I’m sitting in his office listening to some of it like, “What is this?” “It’s a song called ‘All and All.’” It sounded like a demo when I heard it, but I heard the quirkiness. “Will, I’d like to give this a shot.”
He believed in me. In life, that’s what you do need: that one individual to just say, “You know what? I believe in you. Go for it. I’ll help you if you fall, but I think you can pull this off.” I think we were seven, eight hours into it, and the bill is running high. I think at the time it was $150 an hour studio time. It’s starting to add up and we haven’t even mixed it. “I think I’ve got something. Come down and listen to it.” It was pretty much what you hear of it today. He’s like, “This is great, let’s mix it,” and I think... you’d have to ask him, but I think it probably cost to make that record $5-$10,000.
This is a big step, now, because this is going to cost money. Whatever money we were starting to earn from “Fresh Is The Word” we were going to have to put into getting this done right. Will always believed in me. He never restricted me. Down the road – years down, with other record companies – the restrictions were put on. He said, “Just do it, we’ll get through it.” I said, “All right, let me get the master tape and put some new beats in it.” I put a new bassline in, did that famous hook and kept the vocals. I think he was nervous, but he was excited, too.
It was my first dance record and it was an absolute monster of a hit. It was almost like the musical version of “Fresh Is The Word,” but sped up with the 808s. That solidified me: all of a sudden, from rap to dance. I think it took time for the other producers to understand how it worked: you either have a dance producer and a hip hop artist; you don't have one guy doing both and doing this. I put a lot of time and effort, and down the road it actually took its toll on me.
After leaving Sleeping Bag I went to Capitol Records, and they had booked out a venue called The World to showcase Mantronix for the upcoming album. I knew there were a lot of hip hop heads there so I always had this thing like, “I got to do some beats, I got to mess them up.” “King of the Beats” was the introduction. The siren came on and then some people were like, “Ah,” but mostly they were just sitting there. I don’t know if they were in awe, or if they were just like, “What the hell is this?” That moment was when I started to slowly leave the music business. A lot of the DJ tours were using “King of the Beats” as the scratch record, and it was monstrous in the UK, but I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time. I wasn’t really paying attention.
To speed up the transition, Capitol said to me, “We need you to do something a little bit more pop so we can sell some records.” I thought, “What am I going to do? I’ve got to justify all this money they just spent on me.” I did a track called “Got To Have Your Love,” and that was pretty much the turning point. I intended to do that for American radio but it didn’t really work for that. Where it did take off, though, was the UK and Europe. To this day, I see still massive payments from that song.
FROM THE USA TO THE UK
I think doing all those records, remixes and jumping between different genres, I went through a bit of a burnout and I couldn’t do it anymore. Then I had some nagging wife saying that I couldn't go out and hang out with my friends until 2 AM to listen to fresh beats, which is understandable, but I just decided at some point this is all just a bit too much. I was still stuck in 1985 in my brain. I never really pushed myself to be part of the industry. I was always, in my mind, meant to be the guy in the background doing the music.
So I stayed in the background – went out with my friends, drank, partied, went out, drank and partied. I didn’t know what to do musically until a few years down the line. I was divorced, and someone invited me to a party. A gentleman called Andy Shih, from Oxygen Music Works, came up to me and said, “I would like you to do a remix.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah, you.” I said, “Well, I haven’t done it in years, I’m not sure.” I’m not one to push myself onto someone. I was so far removed from the music industry that I didn’t even want to take a chance.
He said to me, “My partner in the UK, Rob, he's got a remix for you to do. I don’t know if you know this, but your sound is quite big in a certain genre of music.” “What’s that?” I said. “Breakbeat.” “What’s breakbeat?” I asked. “A lot of these bands in the UK that are doing this thing called breakbeat, and they’re sounding a lot like the stuff that you were doing years ago.” I thought that once you did a record, it had its lifespan and then it disappeared – not so.
All of a sudden, rap and hip hop were strictly for the minority crowd. Anything else was for the whites. I remember meeting Blondie and Fab Freddy in the club. There was no racial problem. In this place, the creative juices were flowing.
I got a call from Andy the next day. “The group's called Future Sounds of London, it’s called We Have Explosive.” I’d never heard of them. I think the fee was £8,000. That’s a lot of money, I thought. “Well I’ll give it a shot, but I can’t promise you anything.” I hadn’t done this in years. The few times that I tried, it was rejected because it sounded too old school. I sent it back over to them and they went mad. They said, “This is incredible.” That’s how it all started again.
I ended up moving to the UK, remixing everybody – even Victoria Beckham, ha. Robbie Williams called me up, wanting me to do a “King of the Beats”-style remix for one of his songs. On top of that I had an English group remake my song, “Got To Have Your Love,” so I was firing on all cylinders. The remixes were through the roof and my old records were coming back into fashion – in the UK at least. I loved the place. I stayed for 11 years.
THE ENDURING LEGACY OF HIP HOP AND POP
Thinking back now, and despite leaving the US and living elsewhere, I would still say that Danceteria and The Roxy are the places that have had the biggest influence me on and my music to this day. Being at The Roxy seeing all of these guys – Bambaataa, Afrika Islam, Grand Mixer DXT, Flash – every Friday night was raw: the very start of hip hop, with the Crash Crew, Funky Four Plus One. It was a really odd time because there’s hip hop, the breakdancing and the graffiti, and then you had the English contingent that came over and mixed it all up. Black, white, whatever you are, that was music.
Somewhere along the line, things started going different directions. All of a sudden, rap and hip hop were strictly for the minority crowd. Anything else was for the whites. It’s just like, “Huh? What happened?” I remember meeting Blondie and Fab Freddy in the club. There was no racial problem. In this place, the creative juices were flowing. Then I moved on, going back and forth between The Roxy and then Danceteria, and that’s where I met the Beastie Boys.
We were different crews. They had Russell Simmons and Run, and there were the Beastie Boys and Vin Diesel. I didn't know that he had become so famous years later. I saw him years ago in New York and he's like, “Kurtis, what's going on?” He’s a lovely guy. I was actually speaking to Adam Yauch about maybe doing Mantronix beats for him at the time (this was before The Beastie Boys had released anything, too). I wanted Adam to do the rap on “Fresh Is The Word” and I remember Adam calling me a few times, but in the end he changed his mind for whatever reason.
HOLDING ONTO THE PAST – AND MOVING ON
When it comes to me being sampled... I’m the guy that sampled everybody else, but I like to think I did it in a creative way (some of the stuff was blatantly obvious, though). I could go after everybody on the planet, but after a while it’s demoralizing. It took years to try and get my publishing back and clear my ownership rights. It was all taken from me because I didn't know any better at the time. The biggest one, the one that really got away from me, was when Snap sampled “King of the Beats” for the rhythm track of “I’ve Got the Power.” I couldn't do anything about it because I sampled it in turn.
I think what keeps me going is that little person inside me saying, “Yeah, you can do it, you can make another one, and you can really go for the gold on this one, the platinum, the whatever, really go for it.” I remember one time that I was on the subway, on my way to the studio, and I thought to myself, “You know what?” When I make records, I try to invoke, evoke feeling, a nice, comfortable feeling for people. That’s what I like, happiness, a nice space. One day I would love to make a record, just one record, that just crosses all borders, just the banger – The One – and call it a day.”
There’s a possibility of a new Mantronix album, but there’s only so much this brain can spit out and I don’t want to throw out garbage. There's a little inner monster that's saying, “Come on, you can do it,” and I’m thinking, “I’m tired, I don’t want to do it,” but I've got a manager in the UK, "I know you can do it!" Like I said in the beginning, Will was the driving force that let me just do it. He pushed me and now I’m hearing “Come on man, just do it” again. I think I’ve got something now. We’ll see what happens.
As told to Chairman Mao; header image: PYMCA
Header image © PYMCA / Contributor