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The Story of Mantronix and Fresh/Sleeping Bag Records: Introduction by A&R Virgil Simms
The Story of Mantronix and Fresh/Sleeping Bag Records: Introduction by A&R Virgil Simms

By JR on 5:48 AM

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"EPMD‘s 1989 hit “Please Listen to My Demo” is one of rap’s great anthems of humility, our heroes Parrish Smith and Erick Sermon weathering sundry dramas to reach their dotted finish line. Neither an overheated car nor unforgiving labels dull the duo’s dreams of a recording contract. Manhattan is still “enchanting,” even as the sweat soaks through their fly gear. But their unflappable grins get them in the door at 1974 Broadway, home of Fresh Records, and as their “funky fresh demo” wafts through the system, the staff — ebullient A&R man Virgil Simms, legendary exec Juggy Gayles and his son Ron Resnick, all of whom are namechecked in the song — catch the vapors. “It felt good, as I remember,” Sermon raps in the last verse, “We signed the dotted line: now we Fresh Record members.”

Few record labels have been immortalized in song this way, but as the Fresh back catalogue attests, the 1980s were a very different time. Fresh was founded in 1985, a sub-label of New York’s famed Sleeping Bag Records, which had been started four years earlier by Gayles, Will Socolov and the avant-garde cellist, composer and disco artist Arthur Russell. Their intention was to create a label that defied genres and fixed instead on the bizarre eclecticism of New York dance clubs. Some of the best examples of the Sleeping Bag aesthetic can be found on 24-24 Music, a collection of Russell’s material as Dinosaur L, and Greatest Mixers Collection, a set of bubbling, electro-tinged dance-funk from the likes of Danny Krivit and Larry Levan.

Socolov started Fresh as a way to tap into the burgeoning rap scene. And one of his secret weapons was Kurtis Mantronik, who pulled double duty as Fresh A&R and one-half of the group Mantronix. Mantronik and MC Tee formed Mantronix (man + electronics = “mantronics,” if you couldn’t figure it out) in 1985 and their first two records constitute a seminal moment in the history of hip-hop — though few recognized it at the time. Borrowing a page from the electro-futurism of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, Jonzun Crew and Newcleus, Mantronik’s hope was to create a new hip-hop aesthetic drawing from the latest technology: drum machines and primitive samplers, mostly. While MC Tee was a fairly generic lyricist, he sounded absolutely beastly over Mantronik’s cascading waves of synth stabs and 808 taps. “Bassline,” “Needle to the Groove,” the loping “Fresh Is the Word” (all from 1985′s Mantronix: The Album) and “Who Is It” (off 1986′s Music Madness) still sound hard and imposing.

Mantronik’s rugged electronics were a better match for two Bronx legends: Just-Ice and T La Rock. His production style here was more frenetic, all choppy samples, blaring bells and guitar stabs. T La Rock is probably best known nowadays for his role in bringing together Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. In 1984 Rubin and T La Rock had recorded and self-released “It’s Yours,” one of the first great modern hip-hop tracks, the blueprint for LL Cool J’s career (the good bits, at least) and a favorite of Simmons. Simmons sought out Rubin and the pair founded Def Jam, borrowing a phrase from the sleeve of the original “It’s Yours” 12-inch. “It’s Yours,” along with “Breakdown” (famously sampled by DJ Shadow) and the all-time classic exercise in drum programming, “Breaking Bells,” is included in the bonus features of Lyrical King, T La Rock and Mantronik’s classic 1987 album. (The album also features production from another of Fresh/Sleeping Bag’s marquee producers, house legend Todd Terry.) On the barkier side of things was Just-Ice, whose 1986 debut Back to the Old School was one of hip-hop’s first great albums, leaping out the gate with the snarling brag-fest “Cold Gettin ‘Dumb” and the booming beatbox cut “Latoya.” The following year, Just-Ice reappeared with the grim Kool & Deadly, KRS-One assuming beat duties from Mantronik. (In a related bit of trivia, one of the first singles on Fresh in the mid-1980s was “Success Is the Word” by 12:41, otherwise known as the pre-Boogie Down Productions incarnation of KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock.)

Mantronik’s production style was a bit too spaced-out and stripped-down for hardcore rap audiences, who preferred the shirt-ripping macho of LL Cool J or the brash toughness of Run-DMC. But it’s arguable that Mantronik’s sound was the more influential, especially as hip-hop’s romance with sampling came to an end in the late-1990s. You can hear traces of Mantronix still today, in the twists-and-swerves of Timbaland and the bouncy plinks of Mannie Fresh. One of the year’s best records, Turf Talk’s West Coast Vaccine, is highlighted by “Sick Wid It Is the Crew,” an update of Mantronix’s “Fresh Is the Word.”

The Fresh/Sleeping Bag aesthetic was a foundational touchstone for Fool’s Gold, a new label started by A-Trak (best known as Kanye West’s DJ or the youngest-ever DMC DJ champ, depending on what moves you) and Nick Catchdubs. The label’s first few releases all strive for this middle-space between genres, and it’s best displayed on Kid Sister’s first two singles: the aggro dancefloor glam of “Pro Nails” (featuring a fittingly vain guest verse from Kanye West) and the distorted, Justice-isms of the Control EP. “To me, Fool’s Gold is the modern version of what labels like Sleeping Bag and Nervous were doing in the ’80s and early ’90s,” Catchdubs explains. “They would put out house records and freestyle records at the same time as Black Moon or some experimental Arthur Russell, and it all made sense.”" -

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