“Simple Simon”: Brooklyn’s Mantronix blended old school hip-hop, rap, electro-funk & more

By on November 28, 2017

Night Flight’s “Take Off” episodes — collecting music videos based around a single, unifying theme, often with interviews and movie clips — are among our most popular episodes, and “Take Off to Progressive Rap,” which also featured “Night Flight Goes to the Movies: Villains,” is a Night Flight fan favorite. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

One of the highlights of this episode — which originally aired on May 21, 1988 — is the video for “Simple Simon” by Mantronix, which was directed by Joel Stillerman (an animator on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”), choreographed by Fab 5 Freddy, and features jokers and hipsters from Brooklyn’s mid-80s hip-hop scene.

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The video showcases the combined talents of versatile DJ Kurtis Mantronik and rapper MC Tee, considered one of the more innovative Brooklyn hip-hop acts, blending in rap, electro-funk, reggae, techno, and house music elements.

Mantronik has said his musical mission was to “to take rap a step beyond the streets.”

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MC Tee and Kurtis Mantronik of Mantronix

He did indeed take rap beyond by using sharp, stabbing beats, synthesizers and samplers to produce a rhythmatic mix, rather than merely creating hooks from samples from previously-released records.

Touted as a “multi-instrumentalist,” Mantronik once admitted to Billboard that he didn’t actually “play” any instrument: “I don’t really play, but you can construct things by touching the keys and sequencing.”

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Mantronik was born Kurtis el Kahleel in Jamaica, though his family — his father from Syria, his mother Jamaican — soon moved to Canada, ending up in New York by the late ’70s.

After abandoning his studies in aerospace engineering and video directing, Mantronik devoted himself to music, and within a year his producing skills would end up scoring him a Top Twenty UK dance hit.

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Influenced by Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa and the SoulSonic Force, Mantronik soon began DJing around NYC.

In 1984, he met Haitian-born rapper Touré Embden at Manhattan’s Downtown Record Store in 1984, where he was working as a deejay, introducing customers to new releases.

Two weeks later, they had a demo tape of “Fresh Is the Word,” with Mantronik providing the electronic snare whomps with rubbery beat-box ticks and sophisticated rhythms for MC Tee to rap over with his East Coast b-boy rhymes.

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Mantronik was playing “Fresh Is the Word” in Downtown Records one day when William Socolov, founder and president of an indie imprint of Warlock Records called Sleeping Bag, heard the recordings.

He soon was offering Mantronix — their group name a variant on Kahleel’s stage name — a recording contract.

Read more about Mantronix below.

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“Fresh Is the Word” became a dancefloor hit in 1985 (#16 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Singles chart).

The heavily-polyrhymic synth-based sound stood apart from other artists of the day primarily because of its unconventional, high-tech, futuristic production, practically an homage to bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!

By late ’85, Mantronix had released Mantronix: The Album, which featured two hit singles, the R&B-flavored “Ladies” and the R&B/hip-hop mash-up “Bassline.”

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One of the more interesting bits of trivia about Mantronix is associated with yet another track, “Needle to the Groove,” which was sampled by Beck a decade later for his hit song “Where It’s At” (sing along now: “I got two turntables and a microphone!”).

Other tracks from the album would end up being heavily-remixed and sampled by the Beastie Boys (“Jimmy James”), the Chemical Brothers (“Song to the Siren”), Future Sound of London (“Moscow”), Prodigy (“Hyperspeed”) and Master P, among others.

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By now, Mantronik was producing other artists, including Tricky Tee, Just-Ice, T la Rock, 12.41 (“Success is the Word” was the first credit for KRS-One), and Joyce Sims’ (You Are My) “All and All” (#16 on the UK Singles charts).

Over his career, he would also produce or remix tracks by Dr. Octagon, Kylie Minogue and Simply Red, among many, many others.

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Their second album, Music Madness, suffered slightly from the ol’ sophomore slump, but the popularity of the title track — which sampled a snatch of “Stone Fox Chase” by Area Code 615, better known in the UK as the theme to the BBC’s “The Old Grey Whistle Test” — led to them appearing at the historic UK Fresh hip-hop festival at London’s Wembley Arena in the summer of 1986.

Despite having little actual “live” performing experience, Mantronix made several UK appearances (once with Kurtis Blow), and their success in England prompted several of the first sampladelic dance hits, like “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S.

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Their increasing popularity meant that now Mantronix were soon being courted by major labels.

They ended up signing to Capitol Records, who, in 1988, released In Full Effect, revealing that they’d begun experimenting with a less abrasive, smoother dance-based sound.

Led by the single “Simple Simon (You Gotta Regard),” the album peaked at #18 on the 1988 Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, their biggest success to date.

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After the release of In Full Effect, rapper MC Tee would depart the group and join the U.S. Air Force, which would turn out to be the first of several lineup changes for Mantronix.

Their second album, This Should Move Ya — now featuring two rappers, Bryce Luvah (who was LL Cool J’s cousin) and DJ Dee (Kahleel’s cousin) in place of MC Tee — was given a big promotional push by Capitol Records.

Much of the group’s original fanbase would eventually move on too, as Mantronix began to morph from old school hip hop and rap to a more electro-funk and house music-based sound, even though Mantronik and company would have more hits.

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Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to Progressive Rap” — also featuring videos by Eric B. & Rakim, Velore & Double O, LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., INXS, Anthrax and the Fat Boys & the Beach Boys (“Wipeout”) — on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.