Happy 25th Anniversary to Ultramagnetic MCs’ sophomore studio album Funk Your Head Up, originally released March 17, 1992.
Ultramagnetic MCs’ Funk Your Head Up gets a bad rap, but it doesn’t deserve it. Now, 25 years after its release, it’s the least well-regarded of the trendsetting group’s four albums, considered a victim of major label tinkering with a group that it didn’t understand. In truth, much of the music on the album remains true to Ultramagnetcs’ pioneering spirit of innovation.
Funk Your Head Up was the group’s follow-up to Criminal Beatdown, the underappreciated gem of 1988, the heart of hip-hop’s “golden age.” Much of what is today considered “underground” and left-leaning hip-hop draws inspiration from that album. Their series of singles leading up to Critical Beatdown’s release showcased many unique lyrical styles and exceptional vocabulary displays. The group, comprised of rapper “Kool Keith” Thornton, rapper/producer Cedric “Ced Gee” Miller, producer/rapper Trevor “TR Love” Randolph, and DJ/producer Maurice “DJ Moe Luv” Smith, influenced countless groups. Ultra’s off-kilter, space-age rhyme techniques influenced artists as disparate as De La Soul to Y’all So Stupid to the Hieroglyphics collective.
However, the critical acclaim didn’t lead to record sales, causing Ultra to lay low as hip-hop grew in popularity and mainstream acceptance. The group resurfaced in the summer of 1991, as their affiliate, Timothy “Tim Dog” Blair, re-launched his career with “Fuck Compton” and the Penicillin on Wax album. The group signed to Mercury Records, who looked for ways to make them into the stars that everyone believed they should be. The result, Funk Your Head Up, was an effort that didn’t achieve the sales success that the label and the group were looking for, and had die-hard fans grousing that they had compromised their style in order to achieve broader recognition. But truthfully, reports of the group’s artistic demise with this album are vastly overstated.
What’s indisputable is that sonically, Funk Your Head Up is a much different animal than Critical Beatdown. With Critical Beatdown, the group relied mostly on straight-ahead loops often lifted from Ultimate Beats and Breaks records. For their second album, the crew adopted a much denser sound, akin to the Bomb Squad’s production style. All four members of the group worked behind the boards and achieved a cohesive feel. They chop and freak samples from many different sources to compose each record, meshing J.B.’s-era funk and disco to create something often dark and aggressive.
Lyrically, the group does attempt to vary things up a bit subject-matter wise. In a 1992 interview with The Source, Keith said of the shift, “I’m a grown man. I’ve got new lyrics. I’ve matured. All that space Elroy shit was back then. I was on mescaline tabs when I was writing that ill shit. We’ve been through stress, problems, changing labels, having no problems, almost starving—how the fuck can I come back writing about Buck Rogers?”
It should be noted that for all the talk of abandoning the “Buck Rogers” style of rap, a good half of the album concerns straight up battle/braggadocio rhymes. Though they try to dip their toes into other realms of subject matter, Ultra still excelled when they rhymed like they had a chip on their shoulders, portraying the overlooked underdogs who were long on confidence and short on modesty. Yes, the occasional attempts at palatable pop-appeal are often regrettable, but there is a lot to like about this album.
Funk Your Head Up leads off with “MC Champion,” an exhibition of Keith and Ced’s lyrical skills. Over a sinister guitar sample from Brick’s “Can’t Wait” and Kool & the Gang’s “Funky Man,” Keith leads the song off with a ferocious verse that drops references to obscure characters from Masters of the Universe and the WWF’s Bushwhackers, while using creative rhyme schemes: “I roll and kick a rhyme, you grab your mic back / Sidewind and rattle like a snake I strike back / I chew your brain and the monkey behind you / Your company management, the dummy who signed you / To pick up the slack but the hype ain’t selling many / Records and tapes cause your rap ain’t telling any / Metaphor phases, think that amazes / Me, the next man? No biter but innovator / With lyrical instinct, you look like a duplicator.” Ced’s verse is a bit more straightforward, but also noteworthy, as he raps, “I'm rapping to manifest, people so blind I guess / Type of hype I select, when I rap come correct / My mic is on, and it's loaded, and it's lethal / Here's a dose, a taste of my potential.”
Tracks like the fast-paced “Go 4 Yours” and “Make It Happen” spotlight the group’s denser, complicated style that appears on Funk Your Head Up. “Make it Happen,” the album’s first single, pulls elements from tracks by such artists as Fatback Band, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, and Funkadelic, and blends them into a Public Enemy-esque wall of sound. “You Ain’t Real,” a screed against emcees playing fake gangsters on record, features three fast-paced verses over a hyper guitar sample and scratches of saxophone. TR Love leads off with a lengthy verse, rapping “I'd rather rip, and still the flip trip / On the mic grip and hit, and then trip / Into another, I never ever miss / Yo… You still ain’t shit.” Meanwhile, Ced closes the song, rapping, “Trying to perpetrate, saying you're hard right / You hit money grip you're fake like a bad night-mare / With Freddie, you know you're not ready / You sound immature, like an amateur petty.”
Even with Ced’s refinement as a rapper and the increased presence of TR Love, Kool Keith remains the star of Funk Your Head Up. And as such, he gets a few solo tracks to demonstrate his many talents in emceeing. He uses “Pluckin’ Cards” to do one of the things that Ultra did best: throw subliminal and not-so-subliminal shots at their fellow emcees. Over a funky guitar loop and horn line, Keith uses a laid back, conversational flow to go after a good chunk of the emcees and groups rapping circa ’92, telling them, “Comical bums your wack jams ain’t working / You ain’t got the style to rock no man / You get a pound from me, but with no hand.” Few are safe: Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, X-Clan, Monie Love, MC Lyte, Nikki D, and Salt-N-Pepa all catch shots, plus likely a few others that went over most listeners’ heads.
In 2017, much lighter (and weaker) disses are cause for four-alarm hip-hop fires and scores of “Apple Music Exclusive” response tracks. And many are over perceived social media slights. But back in 1992, Ultra saw throwing disses at their contemporaries as part of the spirit of competition. “[It’s] like a basketball game,” Ced explained during the aforementioned interview with The Source. “You shake after the game but you still want to score 30 on your opponent.”
With “Bust the Facts,” Keith composes a fitting tribute to old school hip-hop, particularly the block parties, park jams, and club nights in the early ’80s Bronx scene. He recreates the scene in minute detail, using a slower flow to describe the atmosphere of these events, down to the sounds booming from the speakers to the breaks the DJs spun to keep the party live. He also name checks many of the prominent and obscure emcees, DJs, sound systems, breaking crews, and graf writers that got their crowns on a nightly basis, as well as the street gangs that were a prominent fixture on the streets of New York.
Keith’s final solo cut on the album is “Poppa Large,” a track designed to showcase his innovative style of flow. Keith’s style, rhyme patterns, and use of anaphora carry the song, as the beat, produced by Keith and Ced, is fairly dull and generic. There’s not a lot of substance to the lyrics, but Keith’s rapid-fire, occasionally off-beat flows are exceptional: “Hype and dope, hype the frame / The mic is smoking / Yo I ain’t joking / Rhyme to kill, rhyme to murder, rhyme to stomp / Rhyme to ill, rhyme to rock / Rhyme to smack, rhyme to shock, rhyme to roll / Rhyme to destroy any decoy boy on the microphone.” Fortunately, the track was remixed by Aaron Lyes and Ike Lee of The Beatminerz (not to be confused with Da Beatminerz, the legendary production team that worked with Boot Camp Clik and others throughout the mid ’90s and ’00s) and released as the album’s second single. The remix transformed the song with its frenetic and gothic feel, giving it new life. The remix stands as one of the best tracks in Ultra’s catalogue.
The album’s one complete misstep is “I Like Your Style,” a cheesy, synth-drenched, half-assed pop song, produced by Charlie Beats. One can only assume that Ultra recorded it in order to give Mercury/Polygram a “single” on an album full of tracks that are not designed for radio play. However, the song was neither released as a single nor appeared as a B-side, so it sits limp on the album, sounding like an inferior version of LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl.” It’s easily the worst song the group ever recorded. “Stop Jockin’ Me” is the other “girl-oriented” track on the album, but it actually sounds like an Ultramagnetic MC’s song. It’s far from the album’s best moment, but it has character nonetheless.
Things get fairly raunchy with “Porno Star,” the group’s 7-minute ode to their sexual escapades. It’s essentially the sequel to Tim Dog’s “Secret Fantasies,” with Dog even contributing a verse. It’s over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek in the way that many Ultra songs are, except instead of talking about their superior metaphors, they rap about new ways of getting freaky. Yes, the song is overlong and not one of their most creative lyrical exhibitions, but in all likelihood it wasn’t made to be taken seriously. And, as a bonus, you learn the D.O.G. in Tim’s name stands for “Doing it On the Ground.”
The album closes with “Chorus Line Pt. 2,” the sequel to the group’s popular B-side from 1989. Here each member of the group, including Tim Dog, kicks a verse over a different beat, each varying in tempo and feel. All four come correct, but Tim Dog indeed has the best verse, ending things off with “You want to riff, but I got the gift that come swift / And ain’t got time for that bullshit / Pulsate, devastate, and innovate / Suckers that think they’re great I just mutilate.”
The group’s affiliation with Mercury/Polygram ended after Funk Your Head Up didn’t move many units. The group quickly signed with Wild Pitch, a label that, while having a bad rap for paying artists what they deserved, at least allowed them to record the type of music they wanted without compromises. And so in 1993, the group returned to its “Buck Rogers” roots with Four Horsemen, possibly the most left-of-center of their four albums.
Funk Your Head Up may not have been the breakout hit the group wanted, but it was an important step in their growth. It helped further establish and solidify the group’s production style and lyrical flavor, and allowed the group to realize what they weren’t good at, if nothing else. It was also essential in solidifying the groundwork upon which Kool Keith built his storied solo career in the years that followed. So while it might not have been appreciated at the time, 25 years later, much of Funk Your Head Up still holds up.