Read SPIN's Review of the 'Ultimate Breaks & Beats' Compilation Series

From our October '95 'Alternative Record Guide,' Charles Aaron goes 25 volumes deep

Ultimate Breaks & Beats
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
Charles Aaron WRITTEN BY
Charles Aaron

Once upon a time on Planet Hip Hop everything was up for grabs. DJs tricked B-boys into dancing to records they thought they hated. Steve Miller was just as funky as Rufus Thomas, if you caught him in the right light. And there were no quotes around reality — it was all real. Of course that was before any of the rest of us found out about it, gave away all the secrets and forgot what "B-boy" meant in the first place. But then again, that’s the story of pop music, which I get off on, so somebody else'll have to rock that violin.

To start with the obvious. "B-boy" does not mean Beastie Boy, though it might as well for '90s SPIN readers, who consider Mike and the Adams the only act worth mention in year after year-end polls. Anyway, "B-boys" were/are kids obsessed with all aspects of hip-hop culture — break dancing, graffiti writing, DJing (i.e., cuttin' and scratchin'), MCing or rapping. The "B" stood for "break," as in "break" music, the music that got the kids on the dance floor and our of their heads. The "break" is the what-the-fuck-was-that? part of a record, not necessarily the hook or the melody or the chorus, but the weird, unexpected moment — piano phrase, horn blast, bass line, bongo bug-out, quickie drum solo for no particular reason, vocal wail like somebody got elbowed in the ribs — that your wish you could hear again and again. Breaks might be two seconds long and the song's only redeeming factor. They might be jokes that bored session guys sneaked past the star while he checked his ego in the mirror. Or flashes of obscure brilliance that went unrecognized at the time.

For most of us who became hip-hop junkies early on, breaks were like glimpses of a righteous party we never got to attend. Messages in a bottle of Möet we never got to sip. They were keys to history's mystery, waiting for DJs to turn them, unlock a new context, and invite us in. This act of discovery was one of the most revolutionary things to happen to pop music in the past 15 or 20 years. And that's why James Brown may not himself fit into the "alternative" equation, but the little guitar riff at the beginning of his live version of "Give It Up or Turnit A Loose" on Volume Seven of The Ultimate Breaks & Beats definitely does.

A series of 25 DJ albums, the Ultimate Breaks & Beats was originated in the mid-'80s by Lenny Roberts, a 40-ish chauffeur and record collector from the Bronx whose son clued him into the hip-hop scene. (Another series, Paul Winley's Super Disco Brakes, had been around since the '70s, but was sloppily conceived and DJ-unfriendly.) Before Roberts made break music widely available at New York record stores, it existed only on the margins of a few memories. Previously, DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash sent runners downtown to record stores in search of these apparently worthless pieces of vinyl, soaked off the labels, then treated them like sacred, anonymous texts (available for $20 or so if you were lucky). Roberts' series changed all that. Dweebs like me could wander into the Music Factory on Times Square, bump into Eric B. or Jam Master Jay buying multiple copies of the Ultimate Breaks and trip out on the trombone part from "Ashley's Roachclip" (Volume 12) while loitering in the check-out line. The sound of hip hop was never the same again. Suddenly a new generation was unlocking history and making discoveries at the drop of a dime.

These collections were absurdly democratic, aggressively ironic, smartly remixed, all the best aspects of hip hop. The first song on the first volume of Ultimate Breaks was the Monkees' dopey "Mary Mary" (eventually made famous by Run-D.M.C. on 1988's Tougher Than Leather), followed by something called "Black Grass" (titles were listed, but never artist names, probably for copyright reasons), a ridiculously funky banjo/fiddle tune. Volume Nine rubbed the shoulders of Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade," Mountain's "Long Red," Billy Squier's "Big Beat," and ESG's "U.F.O.," among others. Then there was Volume 16, which featured perhaps the best definition of a break, Lynn Collins's "Think About It," concocted by James Brown and the JB's. After Collins sings the rather conventional first section, clear out of nowhere, a drum beat appears, so lithe it almost floats in midair, playing call-and-response with two distinctly random shouts that could've been bounced off a satellite from an alternative universe. Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock were so transfixed they repeated it again and again for their 1988 Top 40 hit "It Takes Two."

Nowadays, no self-respecting DJ would be caught dead repeating a beat from the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, though most of the best have studied it backward and forward. For instance, all the drum loops used by DJ Premier on Jeru the Damaja's 1994 debut The Sun Rises in the East were from the Ultimate Breaks, but Premier arranged them so craftily that nobody could say for sure. Admittedly, few DJs or producers exhibit such creativity. And in many ways, the Ultimate Breaks just hurried along the mindless, indiscriminate sampling phrase that followed. A handful of other DJ albums, most notably those by DJ Mark the 45 Kings (Straight Out Da Crate, etc.) and the Bulldog Breaks, were of high musical quality, but lacked the playful joy of Roberts's series. There was no weird context, no fun. And no art work as dope as Kev Harris's spacey/freaky B-boy cartoons that started with Volume 12. A New Testament on wax, the Ultimate Breaks series is required reading for anyone intrigued by hip hop's funked-up legacy.

Various Artists: 
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
      Volume 1 (Street Beat, 1986) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 2
(Street Beat, 1986) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 3
(Street Beat, 1986) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 4
(Street Beat, 1986) 6
Ultimate Breaks & Beats

      Volume 5 (Street Beat, 1986) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats

     Volume 6 (Street Beat, 1968) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 7 (Street Beat, 1986) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 8 (Street Beat, 1986) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 9 (Street Beat, 1986) 9
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 10 (Street Beat, 1986) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 11 (Street Beat, 1986) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 12 (Street Beat, 1987) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 13 (Street Beat, 1987) 6
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 14 (Street Beat, 1987) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 15 (Street Beat, 1987) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats

     Volume 16 (Street Beat, 1987) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 17
(Street Beat, 1987) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 18
(Street Beat, 1988) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 19
(Street Beat, 1988) 8
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 20
(Street Beat, 1988) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 21
(Street Beat, 1988) 6
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 22 (
Street Beat, 1989) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
     Volume 23
(Street Beat, 1989) 7
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 24
(Street Beat, 1990) 9
Ultimate Breaks & Beats
    
Volume 25 (
Street Beat, 1990) 7

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