Kurtis Mantronik likes to keep moving. Born in Jamaica, he then moved to Canada before joining his mother in a New York apartment in the late-70s. He spent 11 years in the UK and has eventually ended up in Johannesburg, South Africa. (More about that move later.)
The timing of young Kurtis’ move to America’s East Coast was perfect. Mantronik – born Kurtis el Khaleel to a Jamaican mother and a Syrian father – arrived in New York at the same time as a new-fangled music that people were calling ‘hip-hop’.
“Back when I was in Canada, I listened to traditional music in a traditional setting,” he explains. “By that, I mean music that was made by people playing guitars and drums. Chart music. Pop groups like ABBA. And if you wanted to listen to music, you would go to a club or an arena. You would go to the school disco. You turned on the radio.
“But when I got to New York, it felt like music was going through some sort of revolution. I would walk down the street and suddenly three guys would set up their turntables and speakers next to a lamppost. They’d break off the lamppost cover and wire their turntables into the electricity supply. One guy would start cutting up all sorts of crazy records on the turntables, with another rapping over the top. The third guy would bring out a cassette player to record the set, which would then be on sale a couple of days later.
“At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was beyond anything I’d ever imagined. Where was the guitarist and the fancy outfits? These guys didn’t even need a stage, they were right there on the sidewalk. After a couple of weeks, I was in love with this stuff. Rap, hip-hop… call it what you want. As far as I was concerned, it was the future of music. And it became part of my future, too.”
Along with LL Cool J, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, the Beastie Boys etc, Mantronik – working under the band name, Mantronix – became one of the scene’s original heroes, shaping the sound of this innovative electronic music with tracks like Needle to the Groove, Fresh is the Word and Bass Machine. Indeed, some argue that 1986’s Bass Machine was the tune that provided the rhythmic blueprint for Miami bass and trap.
Perhaps acknowledging his influential past, Mantronix included a couple of trap mixes on his most recent single, Good Woman – released earlier last summer – but it was the fully funked-up Salsoul mixes that triggered the biggest smiles. While slicker, shinier and beefier than his 80s productions, Good Woman’s soaring soul vocal – courtesy of North London’s Phebe Edwards, who’s worked with everyone from Rita Ora and Gabrielle to James Brown and Craig David – evokes sweat-soaked memories of his work with the legendary Joyce Sims.
And there’s more to come. He’s been back in the studio with the original ‘original gangsta’, Just-Ice, reworking their 1986 classic, Cold Gettin’ Dumb.
“There’s a lot of good music out there, but there’s also a lot of very ordinary music. Maybe that’s why I keep making tunes. I hear stuff and think, ‘I can do better than that’.”
What prompted the move to South Africa?
“My wife’s South African, so it kinda made sense. We have family here. And I love the lifestyle. It’s a very easy place to live.”
And the music/club scene?
“No idea. I am not connected with the music business over here. From what I hear on the radio, it sounds pretty similar to what you’d hear in the UK or the US. I guess that’s the big change that’s happened in this modern era. Music is now a global thing.
“Back when I first started, the music that you heard coming out of the UK was very different to what was happening in the US, which was very different to what was happening in Germany or France or Belgium. And I gotta admit I miss that. I remember first hearing bands like Bronski Beat and Depeche Mode and thinking, ‘What the fuck!’ Sure, we had great music in the States too – Funky 4 + 1, Sugarhill Gang, Bambaataa – but it was nice to hear something totally different. The European sounds inspired us.
“You’ve only got to look at what was happening when Bambaataa was DJ-ing at the Roxy. He was cutting up Kraftwerk, the Human League and Visage. All kinds of shit! I just used to order a bottle of whiskey, grab a table and sit there in awe. Even now, 40 years later, it’s hard for me to put into words just how mind-blowing those nights were.
“Music was breaking out in all kinds of directions. It wasn’t just hip-hop and rap, there was funk and disco and electro. There were weird sounds and rhythms being created on all this new technology. It felt like we were being given the freedom to experiment… to take music wherever we wanted to go. No rules, no boundaries. Go here, then here, try this beat and this bassline.”
That always seemed to be your approach, anyway. Even if you look back at the early releases, you were never shy of trying something different.
“Absolutely! I think that also had a lot to do with my childhood, moving around from place to place. Even though the reggae and dub sound of Jamaica wasn’t a big thing in my music, I do remember hearing it when I was a kid. I remember the sound systems and the basslines booming across the island. You can’t escape that vibe in Jamaica.
“Then, suddenly, I’m in Canada and the whole thing goes mainstream. It’s all Top 40 and rock bands packing out the local arena. That’s where I learned to appreciate a great pop song with a great hook. At 14, everything changes and I’m in New York City. Fresh sounds and styles coming out of every doorway. Guys in hi-top trainers and baseball hats on back to front. Those big Cazal sunglasses and gold chains. And breakdancing! My God, what was happening? You didn’t see that at a Kiss concert. The development of rap and hip-hop was happening in front of my eyes, and I wanted to be part of it.”
Were you interested in making your own music back then?
“At first? Not at all. I was just a tall skinny kid who was desperate to be cool. When I watched these guys DJ-ing, I saw how the crowd reacted and thought, ‘That’s my chance to be with the cool crowd. That’s my chance to get all the accolades and people knowing my name’. Of course, it didn’t work out like that. Ha ha! I didn’t have enough money to buy the right equipment. I didn’t know where to go if I wanted to buy the best records. The closest I got was me and my cousin ripping up my uncle’s hi-fi and trying to rig up some kind of crossfader. And us both getting electrocuted!
“Even when I did save up enough money to get my turntables, I still didn’t have nowhere to play. I didn’t know how to get a gig. So, I played at home. Every night, my mom would come back from work, and she would have to sit and listen to me DJ-ing. That was my audience. After an hour or so, she would give me the sign that she’d had enough, and it was time to eat. That was the extent of my early career.”
What changed? How did you end up releasing your first single, Fresh is the Word?
“Perseverance and access to technology. I kept DJ-ing and listening to music. I got hold of my first drum machine – an early Boss model, I can’t remember the name; maybe the DR-55 – and started to investigate the whole idea of rhythm. Manipulating beats in a way that made my head start bobbing up and down. I also got hold of a Roland 303 and 606, but all I was doing was freaking around with the knobs. I didn’t have a sound that I could latch on to. It felt as if I was trying to take all of the different music I’d ever heard and condense it into one song.
“Eventually, my stumbling in the dark turned into the demo for Fresh is the Word and that’s when things began to change. The record company put me in the studio with all this fancy gear – mixing desks and 808s and compressors – and said, ‘Do you know how to use this stuff?’ I had no fucking idea, but I didn’t tell them that. ‘Yeah, I’ve been programming the 808 since I was a kid.’ Somehow, I got away with it and I made a record.”
Those early records were quite… raw.
“You’re not kidding! Ha ha! That’s because I didn’t have a clue about how the studio worked. I didn’t know about processing and reverbs and all that shit. I didn’t know how you were supposed to make a bassline and which chords fitted with which note. It was all about the feel and instinct.
“When I recorded my beats, all you had was the 808. In your face and powerful. No processing. And that was the beauty of those early records. Our naivety in the studio became an advantage. We weren’t following the rules, we were just going with our gut. If it sounded good to us, we assumed other people would like it, too. We just kept it raw and simple.
“Unfortunately, once the money started rolling in, things started to change. My approach wasn’t quite so raw and simple as it was, because I became a gearhead. For the first few years, I never asked about my royalty cheques because everything was spent on keyboards and studio gear. I had a thing going with Sam Ash [famous music shop in NYC] where they would let me borrow gear as soon as it came into the shop. I would take it home, try it out, and if I liked it, I would get the record company to send over the money.
“I remember taking home the Yamaha V50 and not being too impressed with it. But there was one bass sound that I liked and that was the bass that ended up on Got To Have Your Love. I recorded the bassline the following day – I was working on an early version of Sound Tools by this time – and sent the Yamaha back to Sam Ash. Kinda sneaky of me, but I tried not to blow all my money on gear!”
Sound Tools back in 1989? And you weren’t bothered by the inexorable shift away from analogue?
“There were all kinds of people in the studio saying, ‘Tape is warmer, digital is too cold’, but I couldn’t have been happier. I had a huge studio full of gear and the process of recording was becoming more complicated with every new piece of equipment. Plugging and unplugging. Having to stop in the middle of a session and never being able to recreate that amazing sound you found. As soon as I could afford an audio set-up, I got it. Then I got Opcode’s Studio Vision, which gave me sequencing as well as audio. It was buggy as hell, but I loved it.
“After that, I moved to Digital Performer, and then Logic, which is where I’m still at. Been with them a long time. A lonnnnnng time! I know there’s a lot of kids coming up via Ableton these days, but I tried it when it first came out and I didn’t like it. Now I guess I’m at the point where I’m too set in my ways to change platforms. Just the thought brings me out in a cold sweat.”
Are you generally working completely inside the box these days?
“I’ve still got some of the analogue gear, but all the important stuff happens inside my MacBook Pro. That’s my studio and it works beautifully. No plugging and unplugging. No synths going out of tune. No problems with 30-year-old power supplies.
“Just like the analogue days, I have gone a bit crazy with plugins, but 95% of the stuff on the computer never gets used. Most of my sounds come from Kontakt, plus I like to use the Logic synths – find a decent preset and tweak it till it fits. My drums come from all over the place. One shots and loops I find on the internet, samples I’ve collected over the years. I used to program my beats from the keyboard, but I’ve become too lazy for that. I prefer to place the audio on the page, then move things around till I get the right amount of funk.
“I do use a lot of production plugins. A lot of Waves, iZotope, the SPL Iron compressor and – one of the most important bits of software on the computer – Sonarworks SoundID Reference. I do a lot of work on headphones and that thing is crucial.
“With plugins, I really analyse each one when I first get it and try to work out if it’s got something that I need. If it has, it goes into my template; if not, it goes into the other folder. That way, I’ve got all the useful stuff right there in front of me and I’m not wasting time auditioning plugins that don’t have what I’m looking for.”
Do you have any advice for producers starting on their journey into music production?
“There is no right or wrong way. There is no blueprint. I put things together and when my body starts moving, I know I’m getting close. What else can I say? Don’t always think you have to start with the kick. Try starting with hats because that can often take you in interesting directions. And don’t be afraid to push things out of line. Don’t over-quantise. Move your elements about a bit; push them forward, pull them back. Allow your beat to take people by surprise.
“Cold Gettin’ Dumb is a good example of that. If you just listen to the beat on its own, it feels kinda clunky and odd. But when you put all the other elements on top, everything seems to pull itself back together. The usual rule is that the beat is supposed to keep everything in time, but why not turn things around? Give the beat some freedom and let the bassline or the vocal keep things in the groove.”
Your music has been linked with all sorts of genres over the years – hip-hop, electro, R&B, trap, house. Have you ever tried to give it a name?
“There was a time when it was possible to separate music into different genres. Hip-hop sounded different to R&B, which sounded different to house. Now, it all seems to blend together in a sort of… pop-dance-hip-hop thing. There is interesting stuff out there, but it never gets played on the radio. Everything sounds kinda samey. A bunch of OK songs featuring OK singers. I guess I’m trying to make music that is more than OK. I always try to make music that stands out.
“Can you remember that cover version of Ain’t Nobody from a couple of years back? [Felix Jaehn.] That’s a good example of what I’m talking about. It was an OK version with an OK vocalist. But if I’d made that record back in the day, I would have been laughed out of town. You don’t touch Chaka Khan! That’s sacrilegious, man.
“Look at all this great gear you’ve got at your fingertips. You have a studio set-up that will take your imagination anywhere you want to go. And then you go and use it to make an OK version of an incredible song that was released over 40 years ago? I dunno… maybe it’s time for another musical revolution.”