'Ultimate Breaks & Beats' and Rap Music’s Golden Era
By Jay Quan
Rap’s Golden Era.
Those who speak of it generally agree that it started around 1986 and ended some time in the early 1990’s. What there is very little disagreement about is what made the era golden. The diversity of style, subject matter and image of the artists during this time was definitely a contributing factor, but the sample-based production of this period was what set it apart from everything before and after it. Before rap records, D.J.’s and M.C.’s rhymed over the percussive heavy breakdown portions of records (called break beats) from various music genres, but primarily Funk, Disco, Jazz, Rock and Soul manipulated by a D.J. on two turntables.
When Rap appeared on records in late 1979 the music was supplied by bands mimicking the previously mentioned break beats. This era lasted until 1983 when the drum machine era was ushered in by Run-D.M.C.’s nearly drum-only release “Sucker M.C.’s/It’s Like That." The drum machine era lasted until 1986 or so, when two tools would change the face of rap production.
Affordable sampling technology and a breakbeat compilation titled The Ultimate Breaks & Beats gave birth to a new generation of bedroom producers and a new era of production. Digital sampling technology was available in 1969 and in use by artists like Herbie Hancock ten years later with the CMI Fairlight sampler. This technology was so expensive that only artists connected to major record labels had access to it (Mercury records recording artist Kurtis Blow says that he and Davy DMX used a Fairlight on “If I Ruled The World” in 1985 when they looped “Pump Me Up” by Trouble Funk.)
The Sacred Crates
In terms of break beats we need to revisit the era before rap records for a clear understanding of the influence of The Ultimate Breaks & Beats series. Before rap records D.J.’s searched for records with drum breakdowns to incorporate into their sets and for their M.C.’s to rhyme over. Grandmixer D.ST refers to this collection of records as “the sacred crates." D.J.s were so serious about the hunt for and acquisition of these records that they soaked or scratched the labels off and utilized security to guard the turntables and crates in an effort to keep prying eyes from discovering the source of these beats.
In 1979, record label owner Paul Winley who released early records by his wife Ann Winley, George Benson, The Harlem Underground Band, his daughters Paulette & Tanya and speeches from Malcolm X released a series of break compilations titled The Super Disco Brakes. This series was a rudimentary collection recorded directly from the original vinyl and some songs would have cracks, pops and skips. The advantage of The Super Disco Brakes was that D.J.’s no longer needed to search or spend a fortune tracking down rare records. You could get as many as eight complete songs for the price of one record.
Lenny & Lou
In the early 1980s, record collector and dealer Lenny Roberts released a bootleg recording on a label he called Bozo Meko which was a pause tape recording (where segments of music are fused together by using the pause button of a cassette recorder) called “Fusion Beats” by Afrika Islam. The flip side was a live recording from Bronx River of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 performing “Flash To The Beat." Once Lenny released “The Champ” and “Let A Woman Be A Woman” the success of those led to Lenny and his engineer/editor assistant Luis “Break Beat Lou” Flores releasing a bootleg series titled “The Octopus Breaks”. “The Octopus Breaks” were superior in sound quality to the “Super Disco Brakes” and they were the foundation of The Ultimate Breaks & Beats.
The Octopus Breaks
Lou says that he met Lenny around 1979, which was the year that he bought his first break beat.
“The first break that I bought was by Manzel and it was called 'Space Funk.' I worked at Crazy Eddie’s Records and I used to go to Downstairs Records. Downstairs was the place that you went to find breaks and that’s where I met Lenny. Lots of D.J.s hung at Downstairs because they wanted to know what records Flash, Bam, Theodore and other D.J.’s were playing. The way that Grandwizzard Theodore got his name is because of the pinball machine that he used to play at Downstairs. Lenny was a guy that knew records and he befriended Nick who owned Downstairs. We both loved breaks and we talked about them a lot. We both were part of S.O.S record pool in the Bronx as well."
Lou says that they soon started to collaborate on music and that Lenny got 2 tapes from Afrika Bambaataa and those became “Fusion Beats."
“I was working as a consultant for Lenny at the time and I would take the music down to Angel Sound. We were putting out bootleg 12-inch singles like 'Big Beat,' 'Kool Is Back,' 'Long Red,' 'Funky President,' 'Apache' and 'Impeach the President.' When we noticed that “Fusion Beats” was the best seller that led us to create 'The Octopus Breaks."'
According to Lou, “the name Octopus came about because Lenny wasn’t a D.J. and he asked me what a D.J.’s job was. I said that we did it all - we work the turntables, the mixer, strobe lights, move fans around to make sure that amp doesn’t get too hot, grab records and even use the mic at times. Lenny came up with the Octopus based on that conversation."
Street Beat Records
By 1984, there was barely a demand for the Octopus Breaks. The first bootlegs that they released were used by D.J.’s who desired breaks to practice with or to provide beats for their M.C.’s and/or mixtapes. There was no sampling technology that these D.J.’s could access or afford. By 1983 the drum machine was the primary production tool in rap and during the drum machine era a D.J. would throw in a snippet of a break over top of a drum machine beat. Stanley Platzer from Music Factory was getting calls around ’85 from D.J.’s looking for some of the old Octopus Breaks. Lenny still had some old stock from that series. The recording industry was going after bootleg labels heavily so in 1985 Lenny & Lou formed Street Beat Records as a legitimate label to release records by Lou and Chep Nunez (one of the industry’s top editors at the time) under the name The Klassic Beat Junkies.
Because Stanley and other D.J.’s were still asking about the Octopus Breaks. Lou suggested releasing the top sellers legitimately on Street Beat. The top sellers were Volume 1 with “Funky Penguin,” Mary Mary”, “Amen Brother” and “Daisy Lady” Volume 3 with “Apache”, “Dance To The Drummers Beat”, “Pussy Footer” and “Got To Be Real” and lastly Volume 9 with “Big Beat”, “Long Red” and “The Cavern”. Many of those songs made up the bulk of the first few volumes of “Ultimate Breaks & Beats”. “Today the lines are blurred with sampling and copyrights, but we went the same route as K-Tel did back in the days and Arista did later with the “CD Now” compilations. Its just a matter of acquiring mechanical and mastering licenses."
I told Break Beat Lou that I believed that the "Golden Era" was deemed such because of two elements – affordable sampling technology and Ultimate Breaks & Beats. When I asked if he agreed he said “yes the technology finally existed to loop a sample opposed to just scratching in a segment. That was very important. With the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” you now had six or so songs on one record for the price of one record and you finally knew the name of these songs – but I’d add one more factor and that’s Marley Marl”. Before “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” existed, Marley Marl was ahead of other D.J.’s and producers as far as sampling and manipulation of break beats. When he isolated the individual kick, snare and hit hat sounds from “Impeach The President” by the Honey Drippers and reprogrammed them with his own drum patterns on M.C. Shan’s 1986 game changer “The Bridge” he unlocked infinite possibilities for the Hip Hop producer. This technique referred to as “chopping” samples breathed new life into the art of sampling and the technique is still very much in use today.
The Golden Era
Many artists didn’t like to admit that they were sampling from Ultimate Breaks & Beats. Many saw it as cheating. KRS-One boasts “you can’t find beats like this every day on a breakbeat album” on Steady B’s 1988 release “The Undertaker”. “On those compilations I extended many drum breaks so that it would be easier for D.J.’s and producers to use them. Sometimes I would change the speed of a break and other times there might be a pop sound in the break. I could always tell who sampled “Impeach The President” from “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” because I could hear that pop” says Lou. Hurby Luv Bug – producer for Salt 'N Pepa, Sweet T, Dana Dane and Kid 'n Play responds to those who accuse him of not searching for original breaks and using several breaks from the same volume of “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” - “I didn’t use those records often. They weren’t even around when I started, but I wish they were. It would have made my job a lot easier. I remember Octopus Breaks, Paul Winley and all those but I’ve always had original breaks before those. When I did “Last Night” by Kid 'n Play and when I chopped “Impeach The President” for “I Got An Attitude” by Antionette those were original copies”.
“Some records we played around with the speed on. Like “Amen Brother” (one of the most sampled records in history) is played at 45 rpm, but when the break started we slowed it down to 33 rpm and that version is used on “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A.” says Flores.
The First Generation
The great irony is that many of the records that made the mid to late 80s such a great sonic period were actually discovered and utilized in Hip Hop more than a decade before. A record like “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James was immortalized on “Peter Piper” by Run-D.M.C. and later formed the basis of “Ownlee Eue” by Kwamé – but Grandmaster Flash was spinning two copies of it behind his M.C.’s before rap records and he called it simply “The Bells." Many songs that became staples on “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” were first staples in Afrika Bambaataa’s Bronx River sets. “Mary Mary”, “UFO”, “Theme From The Planets” and “Rocket In The Pocket” were all records that Lenny Roberts and Lou Flores first heard from Bambaataa and they all played a major part in that era that is considered golden. Grandwizzard Theodore was spinning “The Funky Drummer” behind his M.C.’s almost a decade before “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” existed. It could be argued that a 4th element could be added to the creation of the golden era of Rap and that is the first-generation Hip Hop D.J., as the sacred crates formed the basis of the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” series.
The Ultimate Breaks & Beats changed the soundscape of Rap music and Hip Hop culture as well as popular music in general. Many producers and D.J.’s sharpened their skill sets as a result of “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” and many became serious diggers as well. The series has been bootlegged, mimicked and released in different formats. Lenny Roberts passed in 1996 but he left a 25-volume compilation that some argue saved Rap as a genre. In 2015 producer and D.J. Paul Nice told Robbie Ettelson of Cuepoint “The golden era of hip-hop wouldn’t be what it was if it wasn’t for that series. If that series wasn’t available, recorded rap might have died. It might have had a much shorter history. When he came out with that, the drum machine sound was kinda played-out. It was an invaluable resource for producers”. The influence of the series is still extremely strong today – more than 3 decades after its inception.