Ultimate Breaks & Beats
1986 was rap’s first truly explosive year, when the still-nascent genre began to expand and the previously unheard of became possible: Run-D.M.C. went triple-platinum, the Beastie Boys became rap’s first white superstars, the Juice Crew/Boogie Down Productions “Bridge Wars” set the early gold standard for beef, Ice-T turned Schooly D’s gangsta flair into a West Coast turning point with “6’N the Mornin'”, and Public Enemy laid the groundwork for a new era when they signed to Def Jam.
That same year, the pairing of remixer Louis Flores and a limo driver and record collector in his early forties named Lenny Roberts set the rap world on its ear in an entirely different way. Street Beat catalogue number SBR-501, a six-song, 19 1/2-minute EP better known as Ultimate Breaks & Beats, was originally supposed to be a quick go-to for less-established and/or cratedigging-averse DJs, a collection of party-rocking tracks that were tweaked and remixed to facilitate easy mixing and beat-juggling. But as the 808 and its boom-clap beats waned in the face of affordable sampler technology, the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series– 25 volumes in all, released between 1986-91– quickly developed another function: a do-it-yourself production kit.
Coupled with that year’s James Brown comp In the Jungle Groove (which reintroduced “Funky Drummer” and a ton of other Clyde Stubblefield breaks into the hip-hop production repertoire), the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series would prove to be a roadmap for the history and evolution of the sample-era hip-hop beat, even if hardcore wax-hoarders and MPC wizards considered the series’ divulging of decades-old sources to be nothing short of snitching.
Of course, these days sites like the-breaks.com help even the most new-school kids brush up on their DJ Premier ingredients, which means that the recent release of Ultimate Breaks & Beats: The Complete Collection isn’t the huge epiphany it could be. What it does accomplish, however, is nothing short of exhaustive (and almost certainly illegal): Two CDs with all 174 of the series’ tracks as 192 kbps mp3s, plus a DVD that reproduces each song as a higher-quality .aiff file. Also thrown in is a reproduction of all the original cover art, including the Kevin Harris graf-style visuals that appeared on most volumes from No. 13 onwards. For a series that’s been plagued with muddy-sounding second-hand reproductions and bootleg-of-a-bootleg white-label shadiness, everything here sounds at least as good as its source material; vinyl crackle occasionally manifests itself if you listen for it, but otherwise it richly rewards a good set of headphones.
As an archival reference it’s priceless, but as a musical collection it’s simultaneously inviting and overwhelming. It’s fun to start into an unfamiliar track, waiting for that pivotal three- or four-second moment you recognize from a classic EPMD or Gang Starr cut, but so many of the songs– Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache”, Melvin Bliss’ “Substitution”, Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Just Begun”, ESG’s “U.F.O.”, the Mohawks’ “The Champ”– have become so integral to hip-hop production lore that it’s easy to take them for granted, at least until you listen to them and remember why they rocked so many parties in the first place. Other songs seem useful only as breaks; once the vocals come in on Jefferson Starship’s gonad showcase “Rock Music” or Delegation’s syrupy lounge-soul “Oh Honey” it’s a good time to tune out. It might also irritate the casual, non-DJ listener that Flores remixed a few tracks a bit too liberally– it’s fun to hear the cowbell for another few seconds at the beginning of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”, but slowing the break in the Winstons’ “Amen, My Brother” to a drastically reduced BPM than the rest of the track is more utilitarian than entertaining. (Besides, it sounds better fast anyways, as approximately 5,000 jungle songs have proven.)
But take away the break-source context of this collection, and it’s a scattershot but highly entertaining and often bizarre nonlinear history of funk, r&b, soul jazz and, occasionally, rock (yes, Thin Lizzy’s “Johnny the Fox” and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” are here). This is a remarkably egalitarian collection, where a James Brown track everyone knows rubs elbows with long-forgotten obscurities from Magic Touch and John Davis. And some of the more interesting moments center around rare breaks that never got much further than their first UB&B appearance. An Afrika Bambaataa-unearthed version of “Sing a Simple Song” by the Filipino funk band Please showed up on Volume 6, but it didn’t catch on since the massive drum break in the Sly & the Family Stone original was already so popular. Lucy Hawkins’ gutsy “Gotta Get Out of Here” suffered not just from its overtly disco unfashionability but from the fact that it appeared on 1987’s Volume 11, overshadowed by omnipresent breaks like the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach the President” and the Headhunters’ “God Made Me Funky”. And while there were probably a few parties that went crazy when the DJ threw on David Matthews’ ultra-weird orchestral funk-lite mutation of the theme from Star Wars (Volume 15), I still can’t recall anyone who bothered taking advantage of its resonant, R2D2-inflected break on an actual record.
The Ultimate Breaks & Beats series ceased around 1991– maybe not coincidentally, the same year Biz Markie was taken to court by Gilbert O’Sullivan over an uncleared sample. In its final years, the series hinted at a few of the changes rap production would go through in the ensuing decade: The 86-88 comps are heavy on funk and r&b, while those from 89-91 have a few more of the soul jazz sources (Lonnie Liston Smith, Tom Scott, Lou Donaldson) that would define much of East Coast rap at the end of the decade. In its absence, compilations like the psych and fusion-heavy Dusty Fingers and the RZA-centric Shaolin Soul did their part to fill its shoes, but it wasn’t quite the same. With sampling proving to be a secondary or even inessential option to many modern producers, The Complete Collection serves as a double-shot of nostalgia– both for the early-mid 70s block parties, where many of these records debuted, and the late ’80s revolution that translated these breaks into rap’s first golden age.
Source: By Nate Patrin