How one essential vinyl collection transformed the sound of music and helped funky beats conquer the world
What do David Bowie, Skrillex and Hanson have in common with Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy and Kanye West?
All of them have sampled music that was spotlighted on the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, a collection of 25 vinyl albums featuring songs with unforgettable funky rhythms. The series launched in 1986 and became the foundation of hip-hop, dance and pop music for the next three decades and beyond.
“Breaks” or “breakbeats” first emerged in the formative days of the early 1970s, when a DJ in the Bronx, New York named Kool Herc popularized a sound based around the hard funk drums of James Brown. Herc kept the dancefloor jumping by isolating parts of the records with the “breakdown” — typically in the form of a percussion solo. Since these sections would always generate the most excitement from the dancers, why not continue the energy using two copies of the record? Herc’s cutting-edge practice of extending the break led to the emergence of “break boys” (aka b-boys), who would take the opportunity to showcase their best dance moves during these passages, hence the term “break dancing.”
This brilliantly effective DJ technique continued to evolve, as pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa drew a big following with obscure, funky records that no one else thought to play. Grandmaster Flash mastered the technical aspects of the form, advancing the art of playing the same section of a song endlessly on two turntables — allowing MCs to keep the crowd entertained by chanting phrases over the beats. This vocal party-rocking eventually morphed into what we now consider rapping.
Once hip-hop was released on vinyl in 1979, breakbeats were replaced by studio bands, who would reinterpret popular disco grooves to provide backing tracks for rappers. But in 1983, everything changed when Run-DMC and Larry Smith released “Sucker MC’s,” ushering in the era of the electronic drum machine.
Three years later, a producer from Queensbridge named Marley Marl changed the game once again when he accidentally sampled a snare drum while working on a remix and realized he could abandon the rigid format of drum machines. Marley began borrowing from rhythms such as the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President,” making songs with the same classic drum breaks he grew up hearing at the park jams.
A majority of the rap world was quick to follow in Marley’s footsteps, as newly-affordable sampling equipment proliferated. While James Brown songs provided a rich source of tight, hard grooves to loop and rhyme over, the rapidly developing sound of hip-hop demanded innovation on an almost weekly basis, creating a huge demand for fresh breaks and catchy drums producers could manipulate.
Enter Lenny Roberts, a Bronx-based music aficionado who had made some impact providing bootleg compilations of popular breakbeat tracks for DJs earlier in the decade. Lenny discovered a renewed demand for his compilation albums, and in 1986 he established the Street Beat label to release officially-licensed versions of these collections with his studio editing partner Lou Flores. They named the series Ultimate Breaks & Beats and featured a carefully-curated mixture of diverse selections, primarily from the late 60s and early 70s. Artists ranged from James Brown to the Rolling Stones to Tom Jones to Roy Ayers to Funkadelic, but artists’ names were, by design, not included in the credits. What all the songs had in common was a killer live drum performance, a funky break that would live forever.
Between 1986 and 1991, 25 volumes of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series were distributed worldwide, providing producers and DJs the sonic tools that served as the foundation for countless rap and dance tracks. Eventually this production style migrated from hip-hop to other genres, and the songs featured on UBB were incorporated into some of the biggest pop hits on the Billboard charts, including work by Prince, George Michael, Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande, Linkin Park, TLC, Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris, Katy Perry and many more (see details below). Even smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G sampled a piece of Ultimate Breaks & Beats.
“The decisions that Lou and Lenny made making those 25 records basically influenced how pop music would sound for the next two decades.”
— Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback.
This is the story of how two music fanatics in the Bronx inspired a generation of artists, reinvigorated hip-hop and helped funky beats conquer the world.
An influential collector and record dealer, Breakbeat Lenny was the driving force behind the Octopus Breaks and Ultimate Breaks & Beats albums, which he released on his Street Beat Records label from 1986 to 1991.
A DJ since ’74 and digger since ‘78, “Breakbeat Lou” was Lenny’s partner in creating the Octopus Breaks and Ultimate Breaks & Beats compilations, providing unique DJ-friendly edits and impeccable selections.
Producer and DJ who is currently working on a mixtape titled
Lenny Roberts Changed My Life.
Record dealer and founder of the BBP label.
Legendary hip-hop producer and MC from Main Source who introduced Nas to the world.
Producer, DJ and author of The Rap Records book.
Member of the pioneering Bronx-based hip-hop group Ultramagnetic MC’s.
Phill Most Chill aka Soulman:
MC and producer who started the ‘World of Beats’ column in Rap Sheet.
DJ Rob Swift:
Award-winning DJ, founder of the X-Ecutioners and a Professor at the New School for Liberal Arts in New York City.
Half of Nottingham’s P Brothers DJ/production team and creator of the influential Hear No Evil series of mixtapes.
Vinyl junkie who worked at Eightball Records with New York DJs Cosmo Baker and Max Glazer.
Grammy-winning producer of Ozomatli, Cypress Hill, Artifacts and more.
Lenny Roberts: When I first moved here [Soundview in the Bronx], we had a party in the building and somebody asked me to DJ. It was a young crowd, and I couldn’t understand why nobody was dancing. I was playing whatever was hot at the time. My son came and asked did I have certain records? The Herman Kelly Band’s “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat,” the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” all of them. So I went to Downstairs Records, because at the time there was nobody else selling those records. I was fascinated. The guy was cleaning up on this shit. You’d be surprised at the money that was paid for these things, just for ten, twenty seconds of a record. Just on a Saturday alone, those records were pulling $1,500, $2,000. I used to buy from all the cut-out houses. I would buy maybe 500 at a time. I’d pay anywhere from $0.25 cents to $3.00 for a record. At one point I had 4,000 copies of the Jimmy Castor Bunch LP, It’s Just Begun; I did this until I tapped everybody out.
K-Prince: This dude in Maryland told me a story about working at this distributor in Harlem. It was mainly a jazz distributor, but they also dealt with cut-out and old store stock from closed-down mom and pop shops. They had tons of funk like James Brown and Dyke and the Blazers, but nobody was into it. He realized around ’77 that stores started ordering multiple copies of James Brown’s “Funky President,” “Funky Drummer.” They just sat there for years and years, collecting dust, and all of sudden these stores just started ordering and reordering these titles. He remembers Downstairs Records ordering multiple copies.
Lenny Roberts: All during the summer there’d be jams all over the place. I used to go to all of them. I even bought a box just for that purpose. I would go to the jams and plug into the system, and tape the whole show. Because I knew all the guys, Bam, Jazzy. This was long before anybody thought about putting anything on wax. Most of these kids’ parents had a lot of the records in their collection. The parents didn’t know nothing for a break or what the hell the kid was talking about.
Freddy Fresh: Lenny was a legend. I used to hang out with him a little bit in the Bronx. He was a livery driver—he had an unmarked car that was used for driving people around—and he did that on the side to make money as well. Lenny was a wheeler and dealer of records and breakbeat collector. He had a store on Pugsley Avenue in the Bronx and then he had a store at 1154 Castle Hill, which was upstairs at S.O.S [Sound On Sound] DJ Robert Gregory’s store. He would run his offices upstairs and drive around the city, going to record shows, record conventions, digging. He used to dig for people and he was a real avid, knowledgeable guy about breakbeats. A lot of the famous rappers like Ced-Gee, Biz Markie, those guys would look for Lenny to suggest breaks that they could rap over. He also had a legendary record collection, I’m the one that gave him the nickname “The Godfather of Breaks.”
Lou Flores: As far as meeting Lenny? There was a feedback committee meeting that we had at S.O.S. Record Pool. There was a comment about a particular record and I said, “Yeah, I know that record.” He said, “How do you know that record?” That’s where the connection with breakbeats came in between him and I. I started seeing early Cold Crush routines; they were using “Love Rap” as a breakbeat. “Feel The Heartbeat” is another one they used to use. It seemed to be the norm for people rapping over other people’s records when there were a whole plethora of breaks from the original inception. I felt if you really wanted to know about the culture you should know where the foundation really comes from, and the foundation is these breaks! First it was bootleg 12-inches we released on Sure Shot Records. The biggest factor in starting UBB was the Bozo Meko records; Lenny did that. “Fusion Beats” is a pause tape done by [Afrika] Islam and the recording of “Flash To The Beat” was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s infamous beatbox routine. The 12-inches did alright, but when we put out the “Champ,” the “Get Up and Get Involved,” and the Dyke and the Blazers it seemed like people really wanted that. The Super Disco Brakes had already been released, but because Disco Brakes were inferior to everything else, it was less appealing. So we decided to release the Octopus Breakbeats bootlegs, what we called the foundation beats.
ESG “UFO” (1981)
Sampled approx. 375 times, including:
Big Daddy Kane “Ain’t No Half Steppin”
Ice-T “New Jack Hustler”
“Return Of The Mack”
Nine Inch Nails “Metal”
Aaron Hall “Don’t Be Afraid”
The Notorious B.I.G. “Party and Bullshit”
Skull Snaps “It’s a New Day” (1973)
Sampled approx. 375 times
The original Octopus Breakbeats were unofficial releases, with the label listing them as being manufactured by “Enterprise Music Inc., Hollywood Fla”—an attempt to shake off any potential legal headaches. But when the decision was made to form a proper record label and expand the series to cater to this new-found demand, Lenny and Lou realized they needed to seek out proper licensing for the music they were compiling.
Lou Flores: Everybody in the city had the Octopus Breakbeats. Around 1983, 1984, they died down; nobody wants them anymore. Marley Marl samples “Impeach The President”—the sampling craze starts. Chep Nuñez and I were in the same record pool with Lenny, and made a production company called The Original Beat Junkie Productions. Lenny said, “I’ll make a label, and you guys can do my first record.” The first record was gonna be called Classic Beat Junkies, and the record was gonna be called “Get Up.” We sampled “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose;” we sampled The Joshua Tree and Depeche Mode. It was one of those party records like Kenny Dope or “Shake Whatcha Mama Gave Ya.” So Lenny goes to Downstairs Records, goes to Rock ‘N Soul, then he goes to Stanley [Platzer], telling him, “I run this label.” [Stanley] goes, “Do you have anymore of those Octopus Breakbeats? Do me a favor? If you could press up a few, because I’m starting to get calls because everyone’s looking for some of these breaks again.” From that time, Music Factory became the store to go to, because Stanley knew beats.
Stanley Platzer was a larger, older gentleman who often held court from a stool at Music Factory, a retail record store located in Times Square. Stanley began tracking the breakbeat phenomenon so closely that he compiled a comprehensive list of every break he could find in a battered blue loose leaf binder, decorated with tags reading “Uptown Music” and “Old School Beats.”
TR Love: That was a list of what records were what, just to keep a direct catalog of what you had. Nobody could just look at the book. You had to be cool with Stanley to do that, or he wanted to prove a point, like, “Alright, I’ma show you the year and everything it came out.” And he’s got right in the book; that was his proof. Big Stan was cool. He had a whole lotta knowledge.
Konrad: He was this old kind of crotchety guy, typical old school New Yorker for the time. I used to go there as a kid in the early 80s and you could find Grand Wizard Theodore on any given day grilling Stanley about records. He was a machine. You could describe just about any obscure part of any record from the late 50s into the late 70s, and he knew what it was and exactly where in that shop you could find it.
The impact of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series on a generation of music fans cannot be overstated. Up-and-coming DJs suddenly had access to two copies of classic breaks to practice their turntable skills, while aspiring producers and MC’s had beats that they could loop and rap over without having to spend hundreds of dollars on out-of-print original copies.
Lou Flores: It was easier in those days to get mechanical licensing. There’s a scale for certain records — it’d be like 5 cents for this or 7 cents for that — and you say, “I’m pressing up 2,000 records, eight songs at five cents, that’s 40 cents — you’ve got 40 cents times 2,000.” You give that check out and that’s it. It’s the same thing that K-Tel used to do, or Time Life records. You’re not using the artist; all you’re using is a song and taking advantage of the mechanical licensing. You’re not changing anything. Now, you’ve gotta get pre-approval, but in those days you didn’t have to. More stringent laws came into place because of the sampling craze, so now you’ve gotta get the master’s rights plus the publishing rights.
DJ Rob Swift: When I started DJing in the mid-80s, none of my friends had these original breaks. Although my brother had a decent record collection, there were still joints I didn’t have but would hear cats like Chuck Chillout and Red Alert play over the radio. When [they] started releasing the Ultimate Breaks & Beat volumes I now had access to gems like Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.”
Phill Most Chill: Those records had a huge impact on hip-hop! When that stuff first came out, I wasn’t as deep into digging, so I didn’t know a lot of these songs. “Oh shit! What is that?” The Octopus records? I bought all those when they first came out; two copies, at least, of each. The Ultimate Breaks? The same thing. When a new one would come out, that was a big event. Boom! You had to have that! It was a big deal.
DJ Ivory: I can’t even say how official Ultimates are. I still take them out and play them at every jam; I’ve always got Ultimates on me.
Paul Nice: I ended up saving my money as a dishwater in the summer of ’86 and going down and buying the copies that were out at the time. At the Music Factory, the rack was off to the right from the counter, and there was just a little white placard card in front of each record, and it said, “Volume 1,” “Volume 2,” and so on. Among the local DJs where I was from, we didn’t refer to them as Ultimate Breaks & Beats, we referred to them as “The Volumes.” When I was ringing them up, there was an 8-x-10 piece of paper that was a catalog, a track listing of every song on every volume they had, in addition to the artists’ names, which weren’t on the back of the records. That was very helpful. My sister collected stuff from all genres, and I remember digging through her crates and finding stuff on my own. But having that list was crucial because when I started to search for my own records, I recognized the names of artists that I wouldn’t have otherwise decided to pick out.
The Mohawks “The Champ” (1968)
Sampled approx. 428 times, including:
KRS-One “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight)”
TLC “Shock Dat Monkey”
Guy “Groove Me”
Ariana Grande “They Don’t Understand”
Ini Kamoze “Here Comes The Hotstepper”
Michael Jackson “2 Bad [Refugee Camp Mix]”
Mountain “Long Red” (1972)
Sampled approx. 452 times, including:
Louis Flores: Lenny had a storefront for Street Beat Records, which also he would keep the records that he would sell at the record shows, but he never had a real store himself. A selected few people were able to go — Diamond D, Biz Markie, Lord Finesse — guys that were diggers were able to go there. L.B.M Records is the store in the Bronx that myself and Trevor [TR Love] both used to work at. Lenny was like his uncle, but he wasn’t his uncle by blood. I worked with Trevor in the Ultramagentic stuff early, with the Tim Dog album, so we all in the same kind of family situation.
Phill Most Chill: Back in the days, going to parties — talking about the late 70s, early 80s — there were certain songs I knew. A lotta them we didn’t even call them by name — “Mardi Gras?” We called it “The Bells.” “Last Night Changed It All?” We called it “The Telephone Jam.” When the breakbeat records started coming out, it was like, “Oh! That’s what that shit is!” And you still didn’t really know what it was because they didn’t put the artists name on ‘em. All they put was the song title, so you might have to do a little homework. This was in the days before Google, so it was hard to find out what some of these records were if you didn’t know somebody who knew.
Melvin Bliss “Synthetic Substitution” (1973)
Sampled approx. 528 times, including:
Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin’’’
Naughty By Nature “O.P.P.”
Pusha-T and Kanye West “New God Flow”
Moby “Extreme Ways”
Justin Bieber “Die In Your Arms”
Mariah Carey “I’ve Been Thinking About You”
The Honey Drippers “Impeach the President” (1973)
Sampled approx. 567 times, including:
Janet Jackson “That’s The Way Love Goes”
Kriss Kross “Jump”
Shaggy “Luv Me, Luv Me”
Alanis Morissette “You Learn”
Aaliyah “No One Knows How To Love Me Like You Do”
Mick Jagger “Sweet Thing”
Meredith Brooks “Bitch”
Louis Flores: In the beginning we didn’t care what kind of vinyl it was, because we didn’t know any better, but the UBB stuff we made sure was pressed-up on virgin vinyl. Volumes 1 through 9, we used to go through a commercial jingle studio in New York, and most early engineers do not like to push the envelope — so technical that they will keep stuff a certain way. When I started getting involved with the actual recording and doing the editing myself, I decided to push the envelope on the levels. Dance music started coming into play, and there was a mastering guy named Herb Powers in New York that was responsible for having the “omph” in music — it had a little more of a kick to it. Herb being a DJ himself, he decided to push the envelope, so that’s what I did. I didn’t mind going into the red when I was peaking into my recordings. If I had to run it through a board to beef it up a little bit I would do so. Plus, we made sure we didn’t go past the seventeen-minute limit per side so we had full sounding grooves. We really did our homework in getting the best sound that we can get; we just made sure it was a powerful sound.
DJ Ivory: The way in which Ultimates were mastered, they’ve got a distinct sound on them. In many ways, a lot of them are better than the originals. I’ll play them out rather than the original LPs just because they sound better. If your house was burning down you’d literally grab the Ultimates, because at least you’d have all that shit to cut-up still! [laughs]
TR Love: People were already sampling from the Octopus [bootlegs]. The Ultimate Breaks & Beats came out with clearer vinyl, boosted-up sound levels, edits of the break. So you’ve a got a two-second break, it was extended to eight seconds, now you’ve got something to play with as a DJ and that makes the dick hard, because now you’re feeling good about something that you’ve got. You can play around with it correctly or you can add it to your repertoire as far as your performance and your skill as a DJ. In essence, those records were made in that way for the DJ.
Another important innovation of the UBB series were the tape edits that Lou and Chep put together to extend certain breaks and change the pitch of certain songs:
Lou Flores: Bambaataa was the catalyst for all of this; he was the one who catapulted us to using a lot of these obscure records. A lot of those records like “UFO” we heard first at Bronx River. We had the mentality where a record had to have a certain bounce to it, or a certain groove or a bop-your-head sound to it. Those records that had a dope beat but it was too fast? We’d experiment and put it at 33 [rpm]. “UFO” was always played that way. It took that extra ingenuity that Bam would put in, how he used to play “Rocket in the Pocket” or how he used to play “Theme from the Planets.” Knowing how to experiment if the record’s technically a ballad so you put it on 45 to make it sound better. With the “Amen Brother” — the song itself is played at 45 — but when the break comes in we edited it, slowed it down to 33, recorded it and put it back to 45. [This edit of “Amen Brother” would later be heard on N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” and served as the foundation for many Jungle and Dubstep records in the 90s]
The artwork was also essential, as they wanted the covers to stand out on crowded record racks while also representing the important culture behind the music.
Louis Flores: We had another guy who did the first three volumes — 1, 3 and 9. It wasn’t really “hip-hop” covers; they were more futuristic with the spaceman and all that good stuff. The reason why was ‘cos he was looking at Bam at Bronx River, and Bam in the early days was very Parliament/Funkadelic, Mothership, Sly and the Family Stone kind look. When I told Lenny we need to get better covers to reflect more what it was, we had one other guy that tried to do something — it wasn’t that good — and we had put the word out and Danny [Dan The Beat Man] came back with Kevin Harris. Kevin was the perfect fit, because one of the original artworks that he had was a skull, and we ended up modifying that, reflecting that hip-hop was dying — as we knew it. The symbolic gold chain of the skull with the Kangol, then you had the MC on the tombstone and the b-boy on the other tombstone.
The popularity and easy access to the series created an inevitable backlash, as less creative beat makers drank from its bountiful well one too many times. Understandably, you won’t find a lot of artists who will confess to actually sampling directly from an Ultimate Breaks & Beats LP, possibly as a matter of professional pride.
Todd Ray: Those Ultimate Beats and Breaks would drop, and next thing you know, Eric B. and Rakim has a song with a beat that was on it. I’d start seeing how the breaks were really influencing not only the artists, the rappers and the producers and DJs, but now all of a sudden these breaks are influencing the whole culture.
Louis Flores: There’s a certain way that I edited “Impeach The President,” there’s a slight pop on one of the edits that you can hear and people tend to sample that, and they have no idea that I can tell. It’s a little crackle.
Questlove has pointed that out to me, “I know when somebody samples from you and when they use the original, because I hear the crackle and pop that they use.” They’re identifiable sounds. Like with “Think,” there’s a slight little swing to the way I looped the record, because I didn’t record it at the locked-in 45 rpm. The way I locked it in is maybe 46 or 47 rpm.
K-Prince: I heard people were trying to get the test presses before the actual volumes came out, because they would be the first to sample the white label a few months before the actual pressings came out. My friend Willie Dynamite used to work at Downstairs Records. Ced-Gee, Marley Marl would come into the shop, asking if they had gotten the test pressings for the next volume.
Phill Most Chill: You had dudes that would do their whole album using just Ultimate Breaks & Beats for a while there in the late 80s. When De La Soul came out with 3 Feet High and Rising that let people know you have to go deeper, you can’t just take those breaks. You’ve gotta find your own stuff. After that, you saw more people go deeper and deeper. You started seeing stuff by Tribe Called Quest using stuff like the RAMP album. People started to realize, “We can’t just use the obvious stuff if we’re really gonna be respected for what we’re doing.”
Louis Flores: Mantronik would want to get a test-pressing as soon as we got them. He would say, “Whatever you want, I’ll give you for the test pressing.” In the later volumes, we were trying to push the envelope in the sense to do your homework the same way we used to do our homework. We tried to give you the tools to let you know there’s more you can search for than just what’s here. You can do your homework and go to a store and find out what else can be on Stax Records, what else can be on People Records. We were the college for diggers. The digging craze started with us.
Paul Nice: Unless you were in the circle of the Zulu Nation DJ’s, you weren’t gonna know what these records were. I look at it as a transitional period, from the time that those records first came out. It kind of fed on itself in terms of the creativity of producers and trying to dig deeper. It was a digging renaissance when the volumes stopped coming out and people were forced to be more creative and dig deeper and sample records that people wouldn’t have sampled before.
Large Professor: [Producer] Paul C would invite me over there [1212 Studio], cause once we started going over there to record demos, Paul just noticed the hunger that I had. I was coming in with new records; I wasn’t just coming in with “Impeach The President” and the same old shit. That was the big thing back then, if you could get outside of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats. If you could come in with some old other shit and be like, “Yo! This part!” I was going out to Lefrak and getting mad records. People was like, “Yo, my parents aren’t using these no more, take ‘em.” So I had crazy records that was not on the Ultimate Breaks. Paul liked that about me because he was big on the records too.
Despite the wealth of online resources such as WhoSampled.com and YouTube, there are still songs on the UBB albums that still have collectors scratching their heads to this very day.
James Brown “Funky Drummer” (1970)
Sampled approx. 980 times, including:
Public Enemy “Rebel Without A Pause”
LL Cool J “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Sinead O’Connor “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”
Emile Sande “Heaven”
Nine Inch Nails “Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)”
Kenny G “G-Bop”
George Michael “Freedom ‘90"
K-Prince: Some of the groups on there are still unknown people, like Disco Italiano — the break that Tuff Crew used — nobody seems to know who that group is, still in 2015. There’s another group called Ingrid that did a track called “Easter Parade.” That’s the only record that they released, and nobody seems to know about them either. I don’t even know if it’s a group or a girl. It’s got a girl on the cover of the 12-inch, but it’s still a mystery.
As collectors, DJs and producers dug deeper, new breeds of bootleg vinyl hit the shelves to fill the gap left by the UBB series, which concluded in 1991. The Strictly Breaks series collected the original source material for some of the notable hip-hop records of the period, while the Dusty Fingers series continues to this day, in the hopes of inspiring rap producers to return to richer, sample-based beats.
Louis Flores: We had already decided to do 25 and see what happens after that. We didn’t want to go out like we did with the infamous [Octopus Breakbeats] volume 8 — 2,000 copies and it took years to sell those. Now everybody wish they had ‘em! If you find a Street Beat [UBB] number 8, it’s a bootleg, because we never put number 8 out. Some of the records were released on other volumes. We decided to keep it 25; then it became more significant when Chep passed away in 1990. He’d been one of the pivotal parts for the company itself; that’s why you saw 25 was a grey cover — it was no artwork — as we were still mourning his death when we did that volume. People thought we stopped because we didn’t have no more beats. Don’t get it twisted: we stopped because we wanted to stop!
TR Love: There’s different people that jumped on the bandwagon after the fact. You’ve gotta remember the originator — the originator is Lenny. Ultimate Breaks & Beats served the masses, from there spawned other entities, other eggs, other offshoots of everybody else doing their own versions with their own volumes of drum breaks. Anybody can capitalize, if it’s done correctly. But if you just throw ‘em together it’s not gonna work, because it doesn’t have the same quality.
Sadly, Lenny Roberts passed away in 1996, but he is very fondly remembered by those that worked with him.
Louis Flores: He was the ultimate digger — he knew where to go, when to go — he would always come back with everything, and sometimes more, than he was even expecting to get. Lenny was a lover of music, a very caring man. Very smart guy, knowing what can invoke certain things in people. His intuitiveness in finding digging spots — he would go to certain stores and look for certain records — and the whole looking at labels and that stuff I picked up from him. There was a time in my life that he was almost like a father to me, because I was always around him.
TR Love: He was an outgoing person. If you were cool with him, he was good with you. He was a spectacular dude, great father, great husband, just a cool dude.
Freddy Fresh: It was about 1995 or ‘96, I got a phone call from his wife, telling me that he died, and she asked me if I wanted to buy the collection. They wanted hundreds of thousands of dollars; it was insanely expensive. There was no way I could have bought it — I was delivering pizza! About eight years went by and I was writing my book and I had to call his wife to ask some questions about his label, and she says, “We’re so frustrated from that record collection; no one wants it! We can’t sell it.” I said, “I thought you sold it ten years ago to Biz Markie? That’s what everybody in the streets are saying.” I found her a buyer, she probably got about 25 grand for it, and I got to cherry-pick what I wanted, so I ended up with a bunch of rare 12-inches. That was a karmic thing that happened — Lenny wanted me to have those records. I dedicated my book to him.
Louis Flores: The records were extremely instrumental in shaping the music industry as a whole. In 1997, 32 of the 52 weeks on Billboard’s singles chart, the number 1’s had some kind of element from the UBB compilation. That year you had Mariah Carey sampled “Blind Alley,” Janet Jackson sampled “The Big Payback,” and [Hanson’s] “MMMBop” sampled “Substitution.” To also see how my edit became a whole genre of music with Baltimore House and our introducing “Amen Brother” enabled Mantronix to do “King of the Beats” and then it became the whole Jungle craze in Europe. To have Bambaataa and Red Alert saying, “If it wasn’t for you guys putting that out? It kept the culture going.” It’s very humbling for something that I did as a labor of love.
Paul Nice: 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.
Breakbeat Lenny Roberts’ collection of classic hip-hop recordings and flyers from 1979–1982 can be viewed at the Cornell University Hip-Hop Collection
“Breakbeat Lou” Flores continues to dig for rare records and to DJ for appreciative audiences worldwide
Lenny Roberts quotes are taken from John Leland and Steinski’s feature “The Big Steal” [The Face magazine, 1988]
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