An Interview With Kurtis Mantronik, Hip-Hop's Most Fearless Experimenter

By the mid-80s, rap music production had fully completed its evolution from being a music based on session musicians replaying grooves from popular disco records to original compositions made by a single producer/DJ. During this time, the drum machine was king and heavyweights like Larry Smith, Rick Rubin, Marley Marl ruled with their explosive, speaker-rattling beats.

In an era when rap music was evolving at breakneck speed, Kingston-born, producer/DJ, Kurtis Mantronik (born Graham Curtis el Khaleel) was the genre’s most fearless experimenter. His production for the group Mantronix as well as Just-Ice and T-La Rock brought a futuristic edge to hip-hop while his revelatory work with the singer Joyce Sims dovetailed with the burgeoning Latin Freestyle movement.

After a long hiatus from the music business, Mantronik reemerged in late 90s with a slew of remixes and an ambitious full-length, I Sing The Body Electro. Today, Mantronik lives and works in South Africa bringing his penchant for experimentation to the realm of electronic dance music. We sat and spoke with him about the techniques and beats that made him a legend.

Mantronix “Bassline”, produced by Kurtis Mantronik.

In the past, you've spoken about growing up in Canada. You came to New York at the age of 10, and that’s where you discovered hip hop music. Can you talk about that time period and tell me what it was about hip hop that caught your ear and your imagination?

I was born in Jamaica and my mother left Jamaica to find a better path in life, and then she sent for me, but she had moved from Jamaica to Canada. Toronto of all places. She decided that she wanted to go to New York and then send me back to my grandparents in Kingston. As a little boy in Kingston, I'm not doing any schoolwork. I'm climbing coconut trees and mango trees and just running around like a little kid. So she asked her sister to send for me, to look after me. And that's when I moved to the other part of Canada, a place called Alberta. Canada.

I was this little skinny kid, fresh from Jamaica carrying this tuba in the streets in Canada from music class, and all I wanted to do was play the drums. I wasn't very good at tuba and the conductor or the instructor in the class used to throw his ruler at me 'cause I was just hitting the wrong notes. Anyway, I got into rock and when I was living in Canada at the time, I heard what started coming through on the radio stations was this thing called disco. And then when my mom got all her paperwork together, she sent for me and that's how I ended up in New York.

I get there and it's just absolutely overwhelming. I'm at 73rd and Columbus, just down the road from Gray’s Papaya. My mother lives in a studio apartment and she’s got a 14 year old kid that's just moved to New York and wants to see and do everything. She's busy working and I'm on my own during the day. We lived quite close to Central Park, so she says, “why don't you just take the key, go out, get out of the apartment, have a walk.” So, I go to Central Park and I don't know anybody. And I saw the guys skateboarding and the roller skating area in Central Park, they were doing all sorts of 'em. They had the radio with the boombox on their shoulder and pumping music out of it, mostly disco stuff. So, my cousin's family, they live in Brooklyn, Bedford Stuyvesant. So, I used to take the train down to Dekalb Avenue and walk from there. So, I’d go there and I hear my cousins playing these beats on cassettes. I'm like, “what is this?” And I'm hearing “Yes, Yes, Y’all! Zulu Gestapo!” (a reference to The Furious Five’s famous live recording that was later released as “Flash it To the Beat” on the Bozo Meko label)

I'm hearing this stuff and remember I'm coming from rock and I'm just getting into disco. So I'm like, “what is this?” It didn't make any sense to me. And then my cousin said, “They're having a street jam. Come check this out” when the DJs would go and illegally plug their sound system into the lamppost. I get there and I just see the guy scratching on the two turntables, and I'm trying to figure it out in my head, “how does that work?” Because I only had one turntable to play one record. That's all I knew. They were doing this stuff, and then the guy would get on the mic, and I felt the energy coming from the crowd. I knew right away, “I want to be part of this.” This was brand new music. The world hasn't heard this, you know? And I said, I wanted to be part of this. And then they were exchanging tapes that were recorded, somewhere in the Bronx. Grandmaster Flash or Grandwizard Theodore playing and someone would record it. People would make copies and we would be hearing different tapes every day. And I really got into this thing.

So, I took apart my Jamaican uncle's TV stereo, all in one system [laughs].That was his pride and joy. You know, the TV in the middle and the stereo, built into the thing. I took that apart and tried to make my own. I got in trouble for that and from there I found some turntable and some old record player on the street, and I tried to hook them both up. So, I'm completely into hip hop now. And I remember I used to go to Louis D. Brandeis High School and in the lunchroom, I remember the guys used to do the beatbox with their mouth and make beats with their hands. And then somebody would MC. And it was just something else. It was just something I never experienced before. I managed to get some money. Not a lot. I think it was like $160 or something and I got a Boss DR. Rhythm.

What year was this?

My first record came out 1985. So, this had to be about late, about 83’ This is when I started playing with these machines and it had pre-programmed beats, so you couldn't make your own beat. So, the minute you get this thing and you start playing it, and it's like, oh, this is cool. But it's like Casio beats. Like something your parents would have at home, Casio organ with pre-programmed beats. I thought that was the coolest thing. I'm listening to these beats and I'm imagining in my mind someone's rapping over it, and I'm just fantasizing it. I'm making beats and then I got tired of that because I didn't understand the concept of programming, but I knew I wanted to change the beats.

So what I did, I started switching between the patterns before the patterns were finished. So then that changed it. I started flipping it like really fast or slow. And with that I made new beats out of the pre-programmed patterns, and I thought I was the coolest. And then I got a Roland TR-606 and the TB-303. I’d link them together and started programming beats and just making what they called “Acid” years later I thought I was just fooling about making nonsense.

How did you link them together? Was it MIDI?

It was DIN sync. No, there was no MIDI back in those days. They locked together with a DIN sync. You plug the two together and it would lock together. When I did my demo for (Mantronix) Fresh Is The Word. I don't remember what machine I used but when I got in the studio, the studio had a Roland TR-808. I'd never seen an 808 before I'd heard about it 'cause it was used on Planet Rock. But it was sorta…I don't wanna say, it was overproduced. It wasn't raw. It was very heavily processed. So, when I got in the studio, I had to program the beat for Fresh Is The Word. and I sort of taught myself how to program that 'cause all the Roland programming is kind of similar.


And what studio was this?

This was INS studios downtown Manhattan. I did the beat in like 20 minutes or so. And then I remember when we went in and recorded it to tape, that took about an hour and a half just recording all the individual parts. And then I got the MC to come in, and I remember when I was mixing it I said, “no, no, no, no. I don't want it polished. I want it raw. I want the 808 to be heavy.” I want that snare to snap, the hi-hats and I want everything to sort of have their own space and be glorified without being washed out. And that was the start of Mantronix and that was the sound of the East Coast. That thing was big.

I wanted to ask you about Fresh is the Word. Correct me if I'm wrong but was that beat Inspired by (Run DMC’s) Sucker MCs? I asked that because the drums on the intro sound similar to me.

I don't know what I was thinking at the time. Honestly, I don't think so. I had it programmed on another machine and basically I just copied what I did on that previous little dinky machine on the 808. No, I would’ve used an Oberheim DMX, which they used.

I read somewhere that you initially asked Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys to rap on Fresh, Is The Word. Is that true?

That is very true. All of us, myself, the Beastie Boys, Russell Simmons, Vin Diesel. We all used to hang out at Danceteria. And I was just starting off Mantronix and Adam Yauch and I just kind of became friendly. I didn't know his full involvement with the Beastie Boys and I don't think they were signed at the time, or they were about to be signed. But Adam was always cool with me. And I said,”listen, I've got this track. I need an MC for it”. He called me at my mom's house and he said, no, I can't do it. 'cause, you know, I'm with these guys and blah, blah, blah. But yeah, I don't know if anybody else knew about it, but it was something that Adam and I had spoken about.

Wow. Could you tell me a little bit about making that first Mantronix album? Just, just walk me through that process a bit.

Now that Fresh Is The Word is kicking off, it's like making some noise and it's actually doing quite well. The record company says, okay, then we need a follow-up single, which was Needle To The Groove. I said, okay, let me get more experimental and do something a bit beyond and use a vocoder and so forth. But in between that, what had happened was I started producing dance music for them. So, things got a little bit crazy because I did Fresh Is The Word. And I think I did Johnny The Fox for Tricky Tee, and then I did the Joyce Sims (You Are My) All In All. That was a big track. And I just used basically the same idea that I did with my programming the 808. I just transferred that and sped it up a bit. But the Mantronix album took some time to come together because I was working on Joyce Sims, and then they threw Just Ice into the picture.

And then I was doing promotional work in Europe to promote Mantronix there. But basically, those tracks that you hear on that album, it was just basically me just messing around. I would come up with something and then I'd get MC Tee to come in, and a lot of it was done on 8-track.

Oh, wow. Like a 8-track tape?

Yeah. 8-track tape. A lot of that first album was done on 8-track. It was at Al Cohen studios, which was in the Chelsea building. I would make beats and then I'd see which ones worked, and then I'd get MC Tee and we'd go in and record it. Nothing too complicated about it. But you also gotta remember that a lot of this stuff, the sounds, the samples, everything was new to me. So even if I just sampled a blip and made a beat from it, it was exciting because it was new and it was not something that I've heard over and over and over. So a lot of that stuff was just spur of the moment kind of creativity.

Mantronix with M.C Tee “Fresh Is The Word” (12” Version), which features the Oberheim DMX.

What were you using to sample around this time? Because I listen to a song like, Hardcore Hip-Hop, where it's like “Maaaan-tronix!” with the stabs that go “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh”. What were you using to do stuff like that?

God, let me think. I think that was the Sequential Circuits Studio 440. I did “King Of The Beats” on the Studio 440. I know that. It might've been the EMU SP-12, because I was pitching the samples down.

Was that the same thing you used for like the vocal samples that are pitched up and down on “Get Stupid Fresh”?

Hold on. Lemme correct myself. It was an AKAI Sampler. It had little memory cards that you put in. It was a rackmount sampler. And actually, that (*sampled orchestral) hit was from a radio advertisement, I think that was on KISS or WBLS for British Airways flights to London. (*Kurtis later clarified that the sampler used on "Hardcore Hip-Hop" was an AKAI S-612 with an AKAI MD-280 Sampler Disk drive)

Oh, wow.

That hit was part of the music and I isolated that, and that's where it came from.

Wow. So, you recorded it from the radio to tape and sampled it?

Yeah. Oh, I had wires plugged up and I was doing all sorts of stuff. The record company just gave me carte blanche, so they were just buying me stuff. They weren't paying me money. They just bought me stuff. I made records and they made all the money. And they were the ones who bought me my first SP-12, which was I think the first one in New York City. I blew that one up. I didn't blow it up. It was a fault with the Commodore 64 hard drive that you had to plug into that. I remember I got it from Sam Ash, and they were like, what the hell? I think this thing was like three or $4,000 at the time. I don't remember. It had a problem with the Commodore 64 drive. That's how you would save your sounds. So you'd have to plug in this Commodore 64 big floppy thing. And there was an incompatibility between the two, and it would fry the machine. So you can imagine they just get this machine and it's like, fried. And we're like, well, I didn't do it. But anyways, they took it back. And I think I might have fried a second one, [laughs], and that's what I used on Cold Getting Dumb and most of the stuff. So Yeah. I think I had the first one in Manhattan.

On a few of your albums, you would do these mega mixes. Where it's like “Needle to the-ha! Needle to the-ha! like these real complex edits.Were you working with Chep Nunez to do those? Were you y'all editing tape together?

Yeah, I wouldn't touch the tape. I was too busy doing other stuff. So what I would do, I would assemble beats, like “check this out.” So, I would combine some beats, right? Let's use King of The Beats as an example. So I had made sections because back in those days, you had to. The process was just long and tedious to record everything. So I would make sections of beats. Then once that's done, I’d give that to Chep Nunez. And Chep would then record that to quarter-inch tape, half-inch tape. Right. And then he would actually go and he would cut the tape and splice those beats together. It's a tedious process. It's a long process. And yes, those cuts, those are Chep finding a snare, and Needle to the-Ha!, finding a part and then pasting that together, like a double hit on the snare.

Do you remember what tape machine he was using?

It was an Atari two-track machine. And then I would do certain blends and stuff. And then I’d say, “okay, splice this together and do the edits”.

Were those megamixes inspired by radio mixes? Like where did the idea come from to do that?

Well, the Latin Rascals used to do it. Shep Pettibone used to do a lot of club mixing on the radio. He mixed a lot of soul stuff also. He didn't do much of that sort of choppy editing. The reason why we did it was because we didn't have enough songs. It was like. Let's go put them all together and make a mashup of all the different things and call it a track. I just didn't have the time to do extra for Mantronix 'cause I was working on a Just Ice album. I was working on a Joyce Sims album. It was hectic. I had no friends at the time. I had no life actually. I had no girlfriend, I couldn't have a relationship because my mind was just on the music constantly.

You mentioned working with Joyce Sims. Those records, “Come Into My Life, “All In All” are kind of like foundational parts of my childhood. I heard it everywhere. Could you talk a little bit about, going from producing something like “Fresh Is The Word” to producing Joyce Sims?

I guess I was just young and naive, so I just was just amped to do it and go from hip-hop to doing that. I didn't think too hard about anything. I was sitting in the office with one of the owners of Sleeping Bag Records, and he said, “Kurtis, I've got some music. Do you wanna have a listen to some stuff?” So, he pulls out this track. It was on a cassette and it was called (You Are My)All In All, but it was a demo written by a guy named Robbie Watson. And then Joyce wrote the lyrics. So, the head of the company said to me, “We've spent a lot of money trying to get this right, but we just can't get it. Would you like to take a shot at it?”

So, I go into the studio, I didn't want the individual tracks, I said I'll come up with my own tracks. I got rid of his beat, put the 808, put the bass line in and the horns I kind of copied. Trevor Horn had done something for Propaganda, because Trevor Horn was the one. I know somebody said the other day that they invented sampling. Trevor Horn was doing that on the Fairlight long before us hip-hop people were doing it. So it was a patch in the emulator. And I just played it and it just repeated it with the sax. So I basically stripped everything that was on the previous track, on the demo, and just left her vocals and mixed it and that was it.

Joyce Sims “(You Are My) All And All”, produced by Kurtis Mantronik.

Wow. With the basslines in a lot of these tunes were you playing a keyboard bass, or were you using the sequencer on the 303?

So, I used the 303 on (the song) Bassline but I found the thing so difficult to program. It's all sequenced. I think with All In All, we had the Linn rackmount sequencer, I remember that.

With Mantronix as a group, y'all would play live shows and you would have the drum machine on stage. What was the full live setup for Mantronix?

Yeah, it was drum machines. So, basically I'd go back in the studio and cut a non-vocal version of the songs, right? Then an MC Tee would rap live over that. Then as an added feature, I would then start playing my drum machine. So we'd play some of the hits, and then we would stop. I had the beats programmed previously. I would start playing them and adding samples, and then doing my little scratch or very amateur stuff. But that's what I was doing back in the day. But you gotta remember when that drum machine comes on, that's like fresh straight into the system, so it blew everybody away. Nobody was doing that stuff so it was a cool sound.

With a song like Cold Getting Dumb, I'm curious about that drum fill. That's a sample, right?

Yeah, it's a sample (Funkadelic’s You’ll Like It Too). So, I had the main beat programmed, and then I would trigger the drum roll sample when we were recording it. And I think what had happened was by accident, I just slowed down the beat. I slowed down the roll, but I timed it, I started it, I triggered it quicker, so when I slowed down the tempo so it would sort of line up or give a sort of like an offbeat drop when the beat came in.

And you were doing all this on the SP-12?


I once heard Breakbeat Lou Flores say that when he and Lenny Roberts were making Ultimate Breaks and Beats they would give you test pressings. Is that true?

I just remember buying those things. I wasn't big into DJing or anything back in those days. He might have given me stuff. Octopus Breaks. I just remember buying those.

Jumping ahead a little bit, I was listening to the two Mantronix records from the early nineties, This Should Move Ya’ and The Incredible Sound Machine

Things changed sonically.

Absolutely, I can hear the influence of R&B and club music. A lot of keys and stuff like that. Can you talk about producing those two records and how the sound changed in particular?

Well, when we got the deal with Capitol Records, they invested a lot of money. And they also wanted something that would cross over into the R&B side of things. What you have to also understand is back in those days, record companies had these two departments, there was a pop department and the Black department. Were you aware of that?

Yes, absolutely.

It was completely, completely different. So, I got signed by a guy named Tim Carr in the pop department. I think he signed the Beastie Boys too. He said to me, “oh the, the Black department won't promote your stuff because it was signed through the pop department”. So he said, “can you make some R&B stuff?” And so I was like “Oh, well that's what I do, but I do it in my own fashion”, you know? My own way.

So I did a song called Got to Have Your Love. It absolutely took off in the UK and Europe, but in America, it didn't do anything because it wasn't…I don't know, soulful enough. I wasn't connected with the right people. Music is music. It doesn't matter if it's rock, if it's soul, jazz, anything, if it's good, I like it. But I didn't realize they discriminated against musical genres at record companies at the time. It was a huge shocker. And I also had to fulfill my contract. You know, they were pushing me to do soulful stuff, R&B and that was my interpretation of that. I wanted to fulfill my contract and actually just get the hell out of there so I could go back to what I normally do. But it didn't work out that way. The deal fell apart at the end. I got frustrated. I couldn't do what I wanted to do, and I'd come to the end of my creativity, and that was it. And I disappeared for a while.

Did that kind of sour you on the business?

Of course, I make music for everybody. I don't like the way the record companies were set up. I should adhere to that? Hell no. Well, it's completely changed now, but that's the way it was.

What made you resurface? But also with a focus on dance music? What brought you back and what brought you back in that particular lane?

Well, my Mantronix sound was completely done. I'd gotten married, I became a husband that fell apart. I didn't know what direction I was going and I had no MC at the time. So, a gentleman from the UK said, “listen, we've got some artists over here that would like you to do a remix. They've been looking for you.”I didn't even know where to start. And I said, “okay, I'll give it a try.” So gradually, I just started doing house music, dance music. So I started converting my dance music ideas and skills to house music. And then little bit by little bit, I was doing a lot of stuff in the UK and then a band called Liberty X remade my song Got To Have Your Love and that thing blew up. So the Mantronik name became popular again. So I was being called to do all sorts of work in the UK and Europe. I had a DJ residency in Moscow. So I had a brand new audience. A lot of the American side, the hip-hop people, they don't know that I did all of this stuff. They think I only did hip hop, and then kind of disappeared.

What kind of pieces of gear are you using now?

Okay, let me go way back. I had all of this equipment in a room, all antiquated stuff now, but at the time, it was cool. And I remember years later saying,”man, I want to condense everything down into a little package. I wouldn't have a room full of things.” I got a was a Mac IIfx, and I was beta testing for a company called Opcode and they made Studio Vision. The computer sequencer where you could record two tracks of vocals and, and sync it with MIDI and so I was doing that and I said, “I just wanna get rid of the studio and I want everything compact.” 40 years later. I've got a MacBook Pro and all the plugins that I was accustomed to using in the old days, all in there. And that's how I do it now and this is my studio in a box.

What are you using for a DAW these days?

Logic. I've always used Logic. I started using Vision and then it turned into Studio Vision and then I've been using Logic for years and years now but it's all in the box. I had all this outboard gear, and now one manufacturer will come out with an emulation of a Juno-106. I know what a Juno-106 is supposed to sound like. So I will then go through all the different emulations and find the one that's closest that I know. The stuff today is pretty good.

The last question I wanted to ask you, so many producers, cite you as an influence. When you look back on all of this and think about your contributions and your legacy, how does that make you feel? What do you think about that?

I don't really think too hard on it. I'm in a happy place in my life. Yeah, I do like the accolades. I try to tell my son, he's like, “yeah dad” [laughs], he's not interested. I never did this to be famous. When we started Mantronix, it was supposed to be MC Tee, who was the frontman, not me. I'm just a producer in the background. I was thrown to the forefront and I think at the time, because people wanted to know about technology and machines, and we were moving away from the acoustic world into the electronic and sampling and stuff. It's cool to be recognized but I don't really rest on that stuff. I’m just slowly getting back into the game, just doing my new thing, my own thing.

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