It was 1987, and a nervous teenager, palms sweaty, made his way to the grimy old Times Square, hoping to score. I wasn’t looking for any of the typical contraband the “Deuce” was then known for, but making my regular pilgrimage to Music Factory in Times Square, searching for goodies of the audible kind. Passing the Buddha-like figure of Stan Platzer, the rotund store manager who seemed permanently ensconced behind a small counter near the front of the no-frills, bustling record store, I eagerly thumbed through the latest releases on labels like Cold Chillin’, Prism, Fresh, and First Priority.
On the wall, removed from the racks, a few mysterious records caught my eye. Looking over the titles—“Apache,” “Big Beat,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” the words generic yet vaguely familiar—I saw no artists listed. Were these some low budget knock-offs by a no-name cover band? Why were songs by the Rolling Stones and Billy Squier, two acts that personified mainstream rock-n-roll, loitering in the prime real estate of wall space reserved for the hottest slices of the underground music known at the time as “new school rap”? I didn’t know, and didn’t give it much thought, quickly making my sought-after transaction and hustling back to the subway clutching the “Pickin’ Boogers” and “Juice Crew Dis” singles.
Flashback to a few years before. Late at night, high up on the radio dial, I would occasionally hear weird collages of music that seeped into my subconscious and laid the foundation that would eventually explain this phenomena to me. Cheech and Chong routines suddenly bisected by a pounding drum beat that made even a playin’-the-wall herb like me want to shake my pants, repeating, reversing and stuttering back on itself, then—wait, what’s that weird electronic outer space-sounding noise?…into something that sounds like “White Lines,” but I know that’s not Melle Mel. I rummaged through a shoebox to find a tape I could record over.
Rap music had been a sort of novelty for me; I was not a b-boy from the Bronx, simply a kid with an expanding taste in music. The popular rap hits of the early ’80s were records I bought, but they didn’t hold any particular prominence in my world over the rest of the pop music of the day. But by the mid-’80s things had changed. I had always been an avid taper of radio shows, and my ear steadily gravitated towards the sounds I was hearing. When I discovered stores like Music Factory, I made them my Mecca, quickly becoming a fanatic of what were clearly the freshest sounds out there.
As sampling became more prevalent, these sounds became even more appealing to me. I started to hear elements in the new jams that I recognized. Like those vaguely evocative song titles, I couldn’t quite place most of them, but they were familiar as a Beatles melody. A friend hipped me to the fact that a funky cowbell riff I loved so much was in fact from a song called “Mardi Gras.” I started examining those cheap-looking records that had SUPER DISCO BRAKE’S written in big block type across the front, and soon enough came across one with a song that fit the description.
I placed the decidedly unofficial-looking record with the off-center orange and black label on the turntable, dropped the needle on the first track, and, with that sensation that only vinyl can give, waited for the tune to kick in. Huh? The needle must’ve jumped, because there was my cowbell jam, but it wasn’t playing right. Examining the brand new record, I couldn’t see anything wrong. I later found that every single copy of that bootleg pressing had the same skip in it (and still does; check out Super Disco Brake's Vol. 1).
In spite of this minor obstacle, a flame had been sparked which only gained in intensity. I quickly graduated to the superior pressings of Street Beat Records’ Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, then in its prime—already to fourteen volumes or so by the time I got to them. My toe in the water was UBB #9, with the cover illustration of a dancing Oscar statuette come to spasmodic life, and I was immediately hooked. What you're reading here is a study, an attempt to get at why these records have had such resonance, and above all a tribute to an essential ingredient of hip-hop.
There is a logical starting point when attempting to understand this obscure culture that has grown from the roots of hip-hop and flowered into what we call beatdigging. When a fledgling beat-maker is getting started there is essential 101-knowledge. You crawl before you walk, and when it comes to this game, crawling means learning the foundation: the beats and breaks that gave birth to hip-hop. These tunes are our music theory and history, the rules you need to know before you can break them.
If all this seems abstract and removed from where we’re at these days, let me take you back. A party, just getting bubbling. The room is not too big, not too small. A few groups of ladies, some fellas maintaining neutral ground. The DJ has a stack of 45s in front of him and has begun cueing up the next. The groove sends a wave of bass up from your feet, meeting the highs and mids in your chest and causing an involuntary ripple of your torso. The fellas nod. The ladies swing heads appreciatively. Alright. Suddenly a grin breaks out on one of your crew. They've caught the intro for the next song being brought in. BAM! The DJ brings the fader over and the rest of the room shares the joy as energy starts building in the rapidly filling room. It doesn’t stop there, feet begin shuffling as drums you have heard since childhood get worked out, snapping and splintering as the DJ gets busy with two copies of the same joint. The next jam comes in and by now somebody is going for theirs, body working in time to a groove as sweet and familiar as the fragrance of spring. The next record hits the spot like a perfect pick-and-roll and you know you’re in the right place. The room is full, the party is live, and it’s just begun.
Beautiful, right? Don’t think this is some late ’70s flashback, though. This scene took place less than a month ago, late 2001, as I was finishing up this article. The DJ was Spinna, the location was a small, basement club in Manhattan, and nearly all the joints that got everyone so open can be found in one place: the Ultimate Breaks series.
Ultimate Breaks & Beats is essentially a catalog of rhythm. The 150-plus songs it compiles over its twenty-five volumes demonstrate an impressive array of 4/4 drum patterns and variations that form a textbook for any rhythmatist looking to generate motion, whether your kit is an Akai, Technics, or Ludwig.
To take it further, a case can be made that the breaks featured on Street Beat’s Ultimate Breaks & Beats series form the basis for modern popular rhythm. This thesis does not seem so far-fetched when you trace the roots of contemporary electronic and dance styles and their indebtedness to rap music and its production techniques. It’s a chronology that leads from community center parties and park jams in Harlem and the Bronx to the rise of sampling in the mid-’80s and onward to the creations of the dance music innovators who were inspired by the rhythm patterns of hip-hop music.
Avant-garde experimentalists like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Steve Reich worked with primal “samples” on tape loops in the ’50s and ’60s, and music professionals in the ’70s used expensive machines like the Fairlight and the Mellotron to imitate various live instruments. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s, however, that digital sampling equipment began to come within the reach of non-professional musicians.
As sampling became an option for more folks involved in making music, it was a natural step to take the funkiest pieces of party classics and loop them, thereby imitating the feel of a DJ repeating a break with two copies of the same record. Grandmaster Flash explained the concept to David Toop in the 1984 book Rap Attack: “My main objective was to take small parts of records…maybe forty seconds, keeping it going for about five minutes.” In fact, this strategy was employed well before samplers came into use. As Keith LeBlanc, drummer on many of the early Sugar Hill records, explained in the January, 1988 edition of The Village Voice, “Sylvia [Robinson, Sugar Hill Records president] would be at Harlem World or Disco Fever, and she’d watch who was mixing what four bars off of what record. She’d get that record, and then she’d play us those four bars and have us go in and cut it better.”
In 1985, E-mu introduced the SP-12 sampling drum machine, and soon after that sampling started to pop up in rap music. Rick Rubin redid LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” using a large chunk of Trouble Funk as its rhythmic bed (the original version of “Bells” was all drum machine), while Marley Marl hooked Biz Markie up with “The Biz Dance” (graced by drum hits chopped from Rufus Thomas’s “Do the Funky Penguin”) and “Make the Music with Your Mouth Biz” (Isaac Hayes in fact making much of the music with his piano via a nice sample). Ced Gee handled production for Ultramagnetic MC’s and Boogie Down Productions, creating the hardcore cut “Ego Trippin’” with little more than an SP-12, a synth bass and a loungey-sounding 45 with a dope drum break. His usage of James Brown on "Ego Trippin'" and, more extensively, on BDP’s “South Bronx” kicked off a long, unrequited love affair between samplists and the Godfather of Soul (Double Dee & Steinski had used liberal chunks of Soul Brother #1 as early as 1984 on their landmark remix of “Play that Beat Mr. DJ” by G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid, but the mix was never officially released, and certainly never caught rap fans' attention the way “South Bronx” did).
So where did folks go for their source material, the sure-shot beats that would resonate with such power in their listeners? Some had access to record collections of their parents and the creativity to use them, but for many, the most convenient way to obtain these essential beats was through break compilations.
Street Beat Records, the company that distributed UBB, was incorporated in 1986 by a car service driver and part-time DJ named Lenny Roberts, aka Breakbeat Lenny. It was not the first or only label reissuing what was called B-Beat (Break Beat) music. There were plenty of one-off “Disco Mixer” 12-inches that edited uptempo disco breakdowns together for the club jocks, and 12-inch bootleg reedits of anthems like “Scratchin’” (extended past eight minutes) and “Apache” that had been around since the late ’70s. As noted earlier, Paul Winley’s infamous Super Disco Brakes series was in lo-fi effect straight out of 125th Street, and the equally infamous but more mysterious Octopus (as the unnamed series is commonly referred to) records were coming out of Florida... or was it the Bronx? Much more obscure, these direct predecessors of the UBB series date to 1980 and are the pithecanthropus erectus to UBB’s homo sapien. The Octopus track listing is duplicated almost exactly on the first ten Ultimate Breaks records, raising questions about the relationship between the two.
In an article published in 1988, Lenny Roberts claimed that the Octopus records were put out by “some guy in the Bronx,” and stressed that, unlike other bootlegs, he “wrote away for all the licensing” on his comps. So where did the Octopus originate? I talked to a longtime employee of NYC’s Downstairs Records who told me about a series of doo-wop bootlegs making the rounds in the mid- to late ’70s, allegedly Mafia-sponsored. The compiler, apparently also an aspiring cartoonist, adorned these bootlegs with various anthropomorphic animal characters. Thus the Octopus—shown on the label cheerfully cueing up a couple of records under the words “Break Beats,” a phone to one ear and headphones to the other—was perhaps initially just an attempt to diversify the market, the "Hollywood, Florida" address on the label a ruse to throw off nosy rights-holders. Regardless, there is no question that the initial run of Ultimate Breaks & Beats albums follows the Octopus template precisely.
Octopus #7 and #8 became the UBB “mystery” LPs (SBR-507 and SBR-508), more available even in rare Octopus form than on the rapidly discontinued Street Beat pressings of these two volumes (rumor has it that John Davis threatened lawsuits over the inclusion of his “I Can’t Stop” on SBR-507 and that the master for SBR-508 was lost). Beyond these two and a song that appeared on some pressings of Octopus #4 called “Get Up” (Pookie Blow rhyming over the “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” break), the Octopus survives to this day in the guise of UBB.
What sets Street Beat’s Ultimate Breaks apart from all its competitors is its sheer longevity, its superior sound quality and most of all being in the right place at the right time.
The series is fascinating on several levels. For one, the fusion of styles it contains demands the listener disregard notions of genre. This is mindset is perhaps not as revolutionary as it once was, but at the time it was alchemically magical, a roots tonic straight out of a witchdoctor’s apothecary. After all, play lists of these records were copped from party favorites spun by Bambaata, Herc, even David Mancuso (by way of GM Flash). UBB was the series that really broke the original “wall of silence” surrounding breakbeat music and set a precedent in break compilations.
I spoke to David Mancuso about how he feels seeing records he introduced at his legendary Loft parties end up on break records. Although his attitude towards unauthorized copies of tunes isn’t positive (“I don’t like bootlegs!”), Mancuso has always been about spreading the love when it comes to hot tracks. He was one of the founders of the first record pool (the New York Record Pool, founded in 1974), a system devised to keep influential DJs stocked with the latest, greatest tunes. In exchange for new releases, members of the pool were required to rate records according to their personal reaction and to the floor reaction when it was played. One of the members of the record pool was Joseph Saddler, aka Grandmaster Flash. Afrika Bambaataa was also known to show up at Loft parties, where records like “Woman” by Barrabas (originally picked up by Mancuso at a flea market in Amsterdam) and Lonnie Liston Smith’s “Expansions” were in heavy rotation. These tunes quickly made their way uptown and from there eventually onto the UBB comps.
Both the Octopus and the Street Beat records share the sometimes useful, sometimes infuriating trait of looping breaks within certain songs. The idea was to make short breaks easier to catch, but in some cases this resulted in uncomfortably stiff edits such as on Lyn Collins’s “Think” or Dyke & the Blazers’ “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man.” Louis Flores, who, along with Chep Nuñez, is credited with editing the tracks, used another interesting technique that occurs a couple times in the series: the pitch change. “UFO” by ESG was originally issued by 99 Records on a 45 rpm 12-inch. The grinding, heavy groove heard on UBB #9 is the result of hearing this record at the lower (wrong) turntable tempo setting (play your break record at 45 to hear it as it was originally recorded). Dexter Wansel’s stately “Theme From the Planets” gets flipped by reversing this method, sending it into warp drive on 45. Even weirder is the edit of the 7-inch of the Winstons’ “Amen Brother.” It sounds like Flores pitched down this crazy uptempo drum break (later to become a junglist staple) by simply tapping the 33/45 buttons once at the beginning of the break, then again at the end to bring the song back to its intended pitch.
Flores also tacked several vocal phrases onto various cuts; these fall into the category of DJ tools. Most notable is “(Runaway) Wouldn’t Change a Thing,” an excerpt from a Thomas “Coke” Escovedo LP. On the original Escovedo album, a last shout of “runaway!” from the song before precedes the percussion intro to “Wouldn’t Change a Thing” by several seconds—typical track spacing on an album. On UBB #13 the gap is removed, making it easier for DJs to imitate the routine Flash used when he would scratch the vocal shout over the next tune’s breakbeat intro.
The series combined the obvious with the unheard-of. A quick glance finds such unlikely comrades as Rufus Thomas and Gary Numan (#22) or the Rolling Stones rubbing shoulders with an obscure Italian disco band (#2). Long before folks like Keb Darge were compiling impossibly rare 7-inches for mass consumption, Street Beat ensured that thousands of DJs and aficionados had copies of obscure cuts like “Impeach the President” by the enigmatic Honey Drippers or Please’s Filipino funk version of “Sing a Simple Song.”
Neither Octopus nor UBB listed artists for any of their songs, however. As Lenny Roberts said, the UBB series does include nominal publishing information, but that’s it. Whether the decision to not include artists’ names was a result of publishing rights (that is, the lack of them) or a code of honor is debatable. The legendary level of secrecy surrounding break records was tight, and to this day a big part of the competition that goes on among DJs is finding a record that your brethren are not up on. In the late ’70s when the Zulu Nation and the Herculords sound systems were battling, it was all about volume and coming up with that mystery joint that would catch the b-boys out there, spin heads around, and make wanna-be's rush the decks to catch a glimpse of the label while the dancers boil in a frenzy. First-wave innovators such as Kool Herc, Bam, Jazzy Jay, and Flash made a science out of unearthing these obscure rhythmic riffs that would not only move the crowd but confound their rivals as well. Many felt that it was out of bounds for anyone to be revealing ingredients, under any circumstances, let alone on record.
It took a little bit of that mystery out of it, ’cause it was hard to find these records. You didn’t find them every day of the week. When Lenny made them available, it was like, anybody can have them now.–Jazzy Jay (The Village Voice, 1988)
But for a new generation of fans who never saw Bam rock the parks in the Bronx, these comps were gold. As Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, told me, “I’m down with them ’cause they taught a lot of us about breaks. They were key in a lot of people’s collections, even though people knock them.” Renowned breakbeat aficionado DJ Spinna related, “I picked up my first Ultimate Breaks in ’85. There used to be a store on 42nd Street where cats went to get all the bootleg breakbeat 12-inches like ‘Impeach the President’ and ‘Funky President,’ which are even harder to get than the Octopus joints.” For many contemporary masters, UBB was school—or, as Q-Bert put it in his barnstorming tour through the Street Beat series, preschool (DJ Q-Bert, Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze – A Pre School Break Mix).
Of course fame will bring its share of biters. From the disco/electro oriented Street Beat bootlegs with pre-UBB catalog numbers SBR-498, SBR-499, and SBR-500 (the actual Street Beat series started at SBR-501) to the current bootleg versions of the discontinued #7, there have been countless coattail-riding copycat compilations. The popular Diggin’ series, now in double digits, started as a blatant UBB spin-off, shamelessly titling the inaugural LP Ultimate Breaks & Beats #26. Before you could say, “Yo, you could catch a smack for that,” this blasphemy was corrected; on subsequent pressings the brash upstart reverted to its proper moniker Diggin’ (Vol. 1).
These days the shelves of record stores are littered with similar spot-the-sample-type break compilations and reissues seemingly intent on turning over every last funky rock. Looking at the role these comps play now, it may be hard to understand or remember the weight UBB held during its prime. The pinnacle of UBB’s influence was probably in 1987–88, when it was not uncommon for hip-hop tracks and even LPs to be based almost wholly on tracks contained in the latest UBB. Many classic singles released in that time, like “My Philosophy” (BDP), “It’s My Thing” (EPMD), “I Know You Got Soul” (Eric B. & Rakim) and “It Takes Two” (Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock), fit this description. There are even stories of a certain well-known producer getting his hands on Street Beat test pressings in order to outdo the competition, but that’s a story we’ll have to leave for another time, as my sources were undecided on whether this clever insider beat-trading was to be lauded or frowned upon.
As the ’80s came to a close, breakbeat culture had moved far from its roots. Innovative beat-makers began disdaining the now well-known breaks on UBB and the series lost steam. Cuts began to be included on new volumes because they had been sampled, rather than for their pre-established fame with the b-boys (a group rapidly being overwhelmed in number by “rap” fans who often had little connection to the culture that gave birth to the music). All the People’s “Cramp Your Style,” the basis for BDP’s “Still #1,” found its way onto #21 a year or so after BDP used it. AJ Woodson, better known as AJ Rok of JVC Force, told me, “I sampled Freda Payne’s “Easiest Way to Fall” off both her 45 and her album. It was added to the breakbeat album some two or three years after we used it because we used it [on ‘Strong Island’].” The track appeared on #23, issued towards the end of 1989.
Street Beat would only release two more LPs in the series, #24 and the final 25th “Silver Anniversary” edition appearing in 1991 and dedicated to the memory of Chep Nuñez, who passed away in December of ’90. It’s been over ten years since then, but, to this day, the Ultimate Breaks & Beats records are still available, still essential, still the rhythm kings.