Mantronix’ word was fresh

Kurtis el Khaleel, better known as Kurtis Mantronik, was one of the most innovative electronic music artists active in the 1980s. He made his first demo in his mum’s tiny Manhattan apartment, armed only with a Roland 606 drum machine and a TB-303 Bass Line. His early releases, on Sleeping Bag Records, prefigured the tweaking sound later perfected by Phuture on ‘Acid Tracks’ by a few years and his productions for artists like Joyce Sims and Just-Ice, moving effortlessly between hip hop and dance music, still stand among the finest of the era (many made while still in his teens). These days, he lives in South Africa.

Interviewed 15.12.20 by Bill

How did you first discover hip hop? Because you moved around a lot when you were young.
Yeah. I grew up in Canada and so the first album that my uncle bought me was Queen, and that’s the one with the robot on the front, with ’We Will Rock You’. That whole album was just absolutely fantastic, and then I found Uriah Heep and Nazareth. Then I found Kiss and I wanted to be part of the Kiss Army. Canada was completely rock. But there was a little station that was picking up a transmission from, I think, New York, and they were playing disco. I was like, ‘Oh, I like this also’. I was about six months away from moving to New York with my family. I’d seen people on TV doing disco dancing, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit, I’m going to be the disco king. I’m going to be a dancer.’ Then I went to my cousin’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and this is where it all changed. 

So I get to Brooklyn and I’m on the G-Train or something, really shitty and seedy and scary. And I’m wearing really tight pants. Now, I just looked odd and I was very skinny on top of that. Really tight pants and a leather jacket. I didn’t fit in. I get to my cousin’s house and they’re playing this stuff, and I’m like, ‘What is this?’ It was rap. And what they were doing, they were passing cassette tapes around of rap groups rapping in the parks. They would record it on their cassette and then someone would copy it and give it to somebody else. And it was really distorted. They’re sitting on the stoop, hot summer day, and I’m trying to get my head around this, because I’m a rocker. I mean, this doesn’t make any sense to me.

I remember waking up the next day and my cousin said to me, ‘You want to come to a park jam?’ Basically what happened was guys would have two turntables and speakers, and they would set up their DJ kit in the park and plug it into the lamppost. Then they would start playing and people would come around. And then I saw the crowd and I just said, ‘Wow, this is cool’. My uncle had an old stereo system, one of these built-in units where it had the speakers and it had a little record player inside. And I thought to myself, ‘Okay, let’s put a record on. Let me try to scratch with that.’ It wasn’t happening. These guys had Technics 1200s or whatever they were called back then and we didn’t have much money. So what we did, we took apart my uncle’s stereo system, this old wooden thing, and I somehow made a crossfader, and I found a turntable. I tried to make a crossfader and I managed to do it, but the scratching, it still wasn’t happening. But we were able to play some records and pretend that we were doing the thing. Then eventually, after being completely smitten with this music, I left Brooklyn. I’d been there for about a week. Went back to my mom’s small place in Manhattan, and I took some pocket money and went out and bought a little drum machine. It was a Casio or a Dr. Rhythm or something. It had pre-set beats on it and I was flipping through the beats, not waiting for the bar to finish, sort of interrupting it, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I got something else which I could program, the Roland TR-606 and then I bought the Bass Line, and I’d sync the two of them up together and started playing-

Do you mean the Roland 303?
Yeah, the Roland TB-303 Bass Line. I synched the two up together and I started recording stuff on cassette tape and just playing it back to myself. And then I managed to get two turntables. Technics. And so while my mom was at work, I was at home making beats and practising my scratching. But I had nobody to really show it off to. And some of the stuff I was doing, I never released. Basically what I was doing is what ended up being called acid, because that’s the basic sort of sound that you get out of the 303 without an EQ.

I was going to ask you about that because tracks like ‘Bassline’ obviously use the 303 in much the same way that DJ Pierre did later on.
Yeah. So I had these things, but I never released them. But the one that stuck with me was ‘Bassline’. That’s when I started learning how to sort of filter it, tune it and get it. And I always kept that sequence recorded and that’s where ‘Bassline’ came from; me playing around.

How did you get from that to meeting guys like [Sleeping Bag owner] Will Socolov?
My mother told me that I needed to go get a job, because I was home all day eating all her food and doing nothing. And remember, hip hop was nothing back then. It was two turntables and a 303 and 606, all this equipment sitting there on her dresser. So anyway, I went out and I walked to a record store. It was called Downtown Records.

I know it very well.
It was a guy named Frankie Ramos that owned it. And I got a job in there. Was stacking records and then they had a turntable set up in there. They would play the records for the DJs that were coming in to show them the new product and so forth. So I asked him if I could do that one day and he said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not? Just give it a shot and see how good you are’. So they put me back there, so I wasn’t stacking records anymore. I was now playing tracks that I thought would impress potential buyers, DJs that were coming in. So there was a lot of imports coming from the UK and a lot of domestic stuff, and I started playing it, and I started getting a bit of an audience, especially on a Friday when these guys got paid.

There was a messenger guy that came in, his name was Touré Embden [aka MC Tee]. He came in and I said to him, ‘Listen, I’ve got a little beat here, but I don’t have a rapper. Would you mind writing some lyrics to this?’ 

He goes, ‘Well, I’m not really a rapper. I write poetry.’ 
Well, I didn’t have any other choice, so I said, ‘Well, let’s give it a shot’. So I booked a little studio. We went in and I made the beat. He did the rap over it, and I bounced it down to a cassette tape. Then I brought it into the shop. They had one of these … Back in the days, you had dual cassette decks so you could make copies and you could EQ it while you’re copying it.

Then when I would be pushing new releases for the DJs and customers coming in, I would put the cassette on every once in a while, and I’d see people bopping their heads. So one of the managers, Albert. He said to me, ‘There’s a guy that usually comes in. I’ll introduce you to him, and his name is Will Socolov’. Will owned Sleeping Bag, so he would bring in product to sell to them. So Will comes in one day and Albert introduces Will to me, and I said, ‘Will, here’s a tape of mine. See if you might be interested’. About two or three days later, he comes back. He said, ‘Kurtis, I really love this, but I’ve got partners in my company’. Now, at the time, like I said, barely anyone was doing rap. Just very small independent labels, and Will had Arthur Russell and he had…

Ron Resnick worked there as well, didn’t he?
Yeah. Ron and Juggy Gayles.

Juggy Gayles was a legend.
I hadn’t met them. But Will says, ‘Kurtis, they’re not going to understand this at all. But out of my own money, I’m going to pay for it and I’m going to convince them that this is going to work’. 
I said, ‘Okay, good luck’. So I remember meeting Ron and Juggy, old scratchy Juggy, and Ron was just smoking the ganja and was just like, ‘Hey, whatever.’ And then sometimes he was cool. Sometimes he was a bit of a dickhead. And so anyways, we ended up getting the record done. I think it was Juggy who was like, ‘What are you doing? I’ve been 50 years in radio. What is this shit?’ Whatever. And so Will had to deal with that. And Will says, ‘Kurtis, I don’t care what they say. I’m a partner with Juggy in this label’. Ron’s his son. So Ron was just sort of there because of Juggy. But Ron always had his two bits to say. So, Will pressed it and then started taking it around, and then it started getting traction. People started liking it, and that’s pretty much how it all started with Sleeping Bag.

Do you remember the impact ‘Fresh Is The Word’ had?
Oh, yeah. My mom went from, ‘You need to go get a job’, to hearing it on the radio, saying, ‘Oh, son, this is really good. You might make a lot of money’. So she wasn’t pressuring me any more to go get a job.

Typical mum.
Yeah, and it just started getting more and more traction. Then Roman Ricardo one of the DJs from The Roxy, I was a bit of a pest to him, and I gave him my tape. Roman had that place rocking. He had the Friday night, Saturday night and that place was packed. I was always like this little gnat in the DJ booth, ‘Roman, let me DJ.’ 

‘No, no, no. Just go away.’ But he was a nice guy. Anyhow, later he calls me up and says, ‘Listen, Kurtis, I think this track is fantastic. I want to book you before anybody else does.’ 

So I remember what we got paid. It was $800, and 800 bucks back then, that was a lot. So they started advertising on the radio, Mantronix is going to be at The Roxy. Now, this is the early days of the track. So the adverts were on KISS FM, WBLS, and 92KTU, the disco station. So we get there and we do the show, and that went sort of fine. It wasn’t packed as Roxy normally is, but now, this is only two or three weeks. The record hasn’t even been really released and it’s just starting to get airplay.

About six weeks later, Roman goes, ‘I want to book you again. This time I’ll pay you a lot more money’. I think it was $3,000. This is where everything changed. So now the record has taken off and it’s very popular on the radio, being played eight, nine times a day on each station and The Roxy was sort the Mecca for hip hop in those days because it was just so big and so many people could fit in it. So I remember  I was pretty confident like, okay, I’m going to rock this even though I’d only done one show before. And enquiries were coming in about me doing other shows in Philadelphia and everywhere.

You know, we’re kids. We were like, ‘Wow, that is a lot of money.’ We don’t have that kind of money. Parents aren’t going to give you $3,000 or even $800. They sent a car to pick us up, and this is completely different now, because the first time we went to the Roxy, we took our own taxi down there. So this time we have a Lincoln Town Car that picks us up. A block before we get there, we see this crowd of people. I thought something had happened on the street. Maybe there was a car accident or something. We’re getting closer and it’s people trying to get into The Roxy to see us. And that’s when I started getting nervous.

The lines were around the block, in front of the door. The people were across the street and I thought, okay, well, these are the people that are trying to get in. So we get there, and then one of the bouncers came over to get us, and we couldn’t even get into the club. People were just pushing to get in. It was a lot of people. We get inside the club and we go up those steps. I turn the corner, the place is rammed, wall to wall people. I started shitting myself. I was getting nervous. And the DJ setup was in the middle of the stage, so it was a circular club. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there before.

Many times. Large and very wide.
Yeah, and really good sound system. So it’s like, ‘Shit’. I was getting really nervous. And I think this was around midnight or something. I’m not sure when we went on. So I had the 808 with me and I pre-programmed the beat to ‘Fresh Is The Word’. We’re about to go on. We get through the crowd, we get on the stage, turn on the 808. MC Tee is ready. They made the announcement, KURTIS MANTRONIK! The place is going, ‘Aaah!’ So, MC Tee does the introduction. ‘Mantronix, are you ready?’ I’m shaking. There’s a sea of people looking at me and he gives some sort of cue. I hit play and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, what the hell is that?!’ Everyone is looking like, ‘What’s going on?’

What I didn’t realise is that the tempo was set at like 256 bpm.

So I reset it. He does the intro again and this time we nailed it and it was boom ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, and the place just absolutely exploded. That’s when I got the bug to make more music.

That must have been an amazing feeling.

How did you discover the potential of the 303? Because ‘Bassline’ was the first instance I can think of anyone really using it in the way that you did.
That’s all I had available to me, and I didn’t know other people weren’t using it. It was just something I was just… Yeah, I don’t know. It matched the 606, so I just thought it would be cool. 

Mantronix performing live at Street Sounds showcase at Town & Country, London, 1986

Out of those early tracks that you did, which ones are you most proud of making?
Well, I’ll always go back to … especially when it comes to hip hop, would be Just-Ice’s ‘Cold Gettin’ Dumb’. To me, that’s the pinnacle of hip hop beats for me. I don’t know about anybody else. I can’t top that. Just the way it came out, and it was done sort of almost live.

Yeah it still stands up now. It’s a classic record. You started working with singers like Joyce Sims. I think ‘All And All’ was probably the first one that you did?

Was it a natural move for you to go from that kind of raw hip hop style that you’d been making to working with Joyce?
I always liked dance music, so I wanted to do it. I had never done it before, and Will gave me the chance. It was a demo in his drawer. I was going through this drawer when he said, ‘Kurtis, this is a demo that this lady sent in, and we’ve been trying to get it right, but we just can’t seem to.’ 
I said, ‘Well, I really like this. Can I have a shot at this?’ 
‘Okay. I’ll put you in the studio.’ Because I didn’t have all the equipment at the time to pull it off. So I just stripped everything back except her vocals, and I put the 808 beat and did the bassline and the brass line, which is – if I can remember where I stole that from – It was from Propaganda.

That’s a Trevor Horn production.
Yeah. I loved that record, and I said, ‘Let me do it and try to flip it around’. So we took the demo back and they loved it and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll put you in the big studio now and let’s finish it.’ That was my first foray into dance music. So I had just done ‘Fresh Is The Word’ and I think I did ‘Johnny The Fox’ with Tricky Tee. Then I did Joyce Sims, and that was huge. 

That presumably got a great response as well?
That did very well. So I was basically doing all the music for Sleeping Bag. I had a ton of stuff to do. The Joyce Sims album and the songs that came after that, and then in the middle of that, they threw Just-Ice into the mix with hardcore… So I was just sort of doing all of that at the same time, keeping everything having its own sort of identity.

I’m wondering what influence Will Socolov had on you at Sleeping Bag, because he seemed to give you a lot of confidence, put a lot of trust in you, that maybe you didn’t get when you were at places like Capitol? Would that be fair?
Will was very instrumental. He was always there. I mean, I was in Unique Recording Studios and those places aren’t cheap, for days on end, not sleeping. And I’d say at two in the morning after he’s been running the company all day, ‘Will, I’m stuck. Can you come in and help me? Just give me some ideas.’ And he’d come in. Will’s a funny guy, and he would crack me up and then I’d get tired of his jokes and then we’d get into a fight, and then something would happen. But no, he was very instrumental. He just let me do what I wanted to do, and he would tell me if it doesn’t sound right. But most of the things I did, he just sort of let me go with it. Because it was also very new, so there was nothing to compare it against.

And you missed having that rapport with someone when you were at Capitol.
Well, yeah, you nailed it on the head. I was on my own. I remember when I did the deal, it was a lot of money, but now I’ve lost Will. We’re fighting, we’re not friends. I remember crying. I was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t have anyone to rely on now but myself. So I started making some really weird, stupid shit, and had no one to stop me. I don’t want to say weird, stupid, but it just wasn’t on point. It just wasn’t hitting the mark. Before, I would see Will every day. We would joke, we had breakfast together, we would have fights in the office, all sorts of stuff. We were friends. Now the relationship had broken apart. And Ron Resnick was instrumental in that, you know. 

Was Juggy instrumental in you moving to Capitol?
We had records that were doing well. The figures were like 50,000 or 100,000 12 inch singles. But it was only reaching the east coast. So I was getting frustrated because it wasn’t going to the other parts of the country. And I said, ‘Will, we need bigger distribution. We need more money for this’. And that’s how it all started. So I was doing all of this stuff, and then I remember Will came in one night and he said to me, ‘Kurtis I was approached by Warner Bros. They want to sign the label.’

I said, ‘Oh, okay. Well, that’s a start. They have the distribution machine, and that will go a long way. What are they offering?’ I think it was two million or three million for the label. Meanwhile, I was never getting a royalty. So I was basically getting whatever equipment I needed. I mean, I had everything, and some pocket money. So the money I would make would be pretty much from my shows. But I was up there churning out tunes for Sleeping Bag, and so they’re going into this deal now. I said, ‘Well, how much am I going to get out of it? I wouldn’t mind $300,000 or something, you know?’ 

I just pulled a figure out of my ass. I had no idea. And he’s like, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t think Juggy and Ron would go for that.’

‘Will, I’m doing most of the records here.’ 

That’s when it started falling apart. I don’t blame Will. He had a business deal with Juggy, and he had to sort of deal with that. So I started becoming upset. So I said, ‘Well, Will, I’m going to have to move on.’ What I found out later, was they were buying the label to get to me to do productions and so forth. And there were a lot of people that were interested in having me do production for them. Lots of labels. I had no idea. Will and I had a bit of a falling out over that. I mean, we speak today. I still love Will, but back then, that was just business. So Will gets me a lawyer, and the lawyer says to me, ‘You realise that you’ve only actually signed Sleeping Bag for one single? So you can move on.’ I didn’t know because I signed it when I was a kid. The lawyer says, ‘I’ve got some better news for you. I started mentioning you might be leaving and every major label’s interested.’ I said, ‘Really?’ I was completely in the dark. ‘Well, what about Sleeping Bag?’ 

He said, ‘They’re not interested in Sleeping Bag. They want you.’ Because I was the guy at the time, the new upcoming kid. Oh shit, how’s this going to work? Because Will’s my friend now. I’ve done all this work with Sleeping Bag. I live right upstairs from the label. How’s all this going to work? The offers were becoming huge. I’m a kid. Of course, I’m going to jump at that. The relationship broke apart. Sleeping Bag sued me. 

I went to the New Music Seminar at the Marriott Hotel and I’m not pumping myself up, but I get there, and it’s like everybody from every label, ‘Kurtis, I hear you’re leaving Sleeping Bag. I want to do a deal. Here’s my card. Give it to your lawyer, blah, blah, blah.’ Warner Bros boss Benny Medina flew me out to California. But that didn’t really work out. Then I don’t know if you know this guy at Virgin/10 called Mick Clark?

Joyce Sims performing Come Into My Life on TOTP

Yes, I do. He died about three years ago.
Has Mick passed away? Oh, shit… Well, Mick got wind of what was happening because there was a license deal between Sleeping Bag and Virgin/10. I was comfortable with Mick and they put in an offer but I don’t remember what the offer was. But Capitol put in the biggest offer. When Mick found out I was signing with Capitol, he lost his shit: ‘How the fuck could you do that? We go way back.’ 

I spent about two, three weeks of looking at offers from the different labels and Capitol came through big time. Basically they gave me carte blanche. The way the contract was worded was I could deliver thin air. That’s how good the contract was. Anyway, they paid me all this money, I relaxed for a little while, but I’ve now lost my friend Will and they were suing me. I was on my own. All this money on my own, not knowing, not really sure what to do. And that’s where ‘Got To Have Your Love’ came in. Capitol sent it to EMI in the UK. EMI in the UK loved it. It took off there. So, my new home was now in the UK. 

When I interviewed Will Socolov several years ago, he told me some nightmare-ish stories about Ron Resnick, and I’m just wondering what your experience of working with him was.
I remember we had just finished, ‘You’re My (All And All)’, and we were in the studio all night and we had to get to a mastering session at 10am with Herb Powers. Herb was a very popular mastering engineer back in the day, so if he gave you a time, you had to get there exactly at that slot. Will and I were battling against time, and there were no computers then, so we were cutting tape to do the edits, put it together and get it ready for 10. Ron arrives all fresh. We let him hear it. We’re in the elevator going up to Frankford/Wayne Mastering where Herb is, and we’re absolutely exhausted and Ron comes out with some really smart-ass shit: ‘Oh, this is fucked up, and this is… etc, etc’ I almost lost it with Ron. I wanted to turn around and punch him in his fucking face. We didn’t listen to him. But he was always talking shit. So, that’s Ron. He’d smoke his ganja and just sit there and talk shit.

You must be proud of the catalog of work you’ve done over the years. What sticks in your memory most?
It’s a little bit of everything, I guess. One of the things which wasn’t my original work was when I did the remix with Shirley Bassey’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. That I really liked. Some of the Joyce Sims stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that I do like. Some of the stuff, I’m like, did I actually do that? Some of the stuff, like ‘Ladies’. I know people like it, but I’m thinking, what was I trying to do there? But I was just trying to do different stuff, and yeah, I was having fun. Where I didn’t have fun, and to be God’s honest truth, is dealing with MC Tee. I mean, some of the shit that he would say, I would go, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?” And then I would have to push him to write lyrics because we had to get the album done, and we’d get into big fights in the studio. We had moved up to very expensive studios. But it became more of a pleasure when I started working with Just-Ice and T La Rock, because those guys are ready to go, you know? Yeah, those guys were just good. 

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton