Ultramagnetic MC's leader Ced Gee can't even remember what inspired his rapping partner Kool Keith (Keith Thornton) to utter the phrase "Change my pitch up/ Smack my bitch up," on the Ultramagnetic's 1988 song "Give the Drummer Some." (RealAudio excerpt)
"We were just working on tracks for the album," said 34-year-old Gee, whose real name is Cedric Miller, talking about the four-man underground hip-hop group's influential Critical Beatdown LP. "We were sitting around and freestylin', we weren't trying to say anything. We just say things, whatever comes to our minds."
While the lyric, rapped by Keith, went virtually unnoticed nine years ago, the line -- sampled and electronically altered by English techno-rockers Prodigy for their track
"Smack My Bitch Up," (RealAudio excerpt) off their multi-platinum The Fat of the Land album -- has resulted in the latest controversy for the much-hyped Prodigy. The National Organization for Women recently decried what it says is implicit violence against women in the lyric, leading to several large retail chains pulling the album from their shelves.
Following an article in last week's L.A. Times in which Janice Rocco, president of the Los Angeles chapter of NOW, described the song as "totally offensive, it's degrading to women, it's trash," the six-month-old album was taken off the shelves of more than 5,000 Kmart and Wal-Mart stores across the U.S.
"You can look at it any way you want to," Gee said almost dismissively about the Prodigy track. "If that's the way you want to see it, to each his own. It means whatever it means when we said it. That's why people listen to [Kool] Keith's rhymes, because he's all over the place and he jumps from one thing to another."
In the Ultramagnetic original, based on a James Brown sample, Keith rhymes "I'm ready and now's my turn to build/ Uplift/ Get swift/ Then drift off and do my own thing/ Switch up/ Change my pitch up/ Smack my bitch up/ Like a pimp/ For any rapper/ Who attempts to wear Troops/ And step in my path/ I'm willing as an A-1 general/ Rhyme enforcer/ 235 on a rhyme test."
The song was recorded at producer Paul C.'s Studio 1212 in New York in 1988. One of the premier hip-hop producers of the era -- credited with inspiring such hip-hop acts as Large Professor (Main Source), Organized Konfusion, Kool G Rap and Eric B with his technique the -- C. was murdered in 1991.
In an interview with Addicted To Noise this past summer, Prodigy leader Liam Howlett denied that his song is about beating women, saying he used the sample as a kind of hip-hop tribute.
"I was into hip-hop and I was into the fact that MC's could rap about anything, they could rap about smacking women up and it'd just be more comical than anything else," he said. "You wouldn't actually take it serious. You wouldn't think the Prodigy are about beating their girlfriends up and shit like that. It has a certain amount of b-boy style in the actual song. It's just basically bringing that through. To be honest, people, if they think that song is about smacking girlfriends up, then they're pretty brainless."
This is not the first controversy Prodigy has faced in the past six months as a result of the song. First, they caused a stir with the live unveiling of "Smack My Bitch Up" on May 31 at the eighth annual HFStival in Washington, D.C., a benefit for Tori Amos' Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The band also agreed to re-work the art from the single after complaints that the image of a car smashed into a tree might be offensive in light of the car-crash death of Princess Diana.
Rocco, who explained that she was aware of but hadn't heard the Ultramagnetic song, said on Thursday she thought the sample was "offensive in the Prodigy song regardless of where it came from. I think they chose to lift particular words with a standard meaning in our society."
But Gee said she has it all wrong.
"It wasn't intended as any statement," said Gee, of the original song, which mixes bouts of misogyny and homophobia with a healthy dose of old-school MC-boasting and dissing. "Yeah, it's a harsh thing to say, I guess that's why they're [Prodigy] getting heat ... Even though they're not a typical mainstream group, they're getting more airplay and publicity."
Asked why the same controversy didn't arise from the original use of the lines, Gee added, "It's more publicized [today] because Ultras were totally underground. We didn't get any shit then."[Thurs., Dec. 11, 1997, 6:00 p.m. PST]