How the Ultimate Breaks & Beats bootlegs shaped popular music

The story of the bootlegs that powered not just the birth of hiphop, but the samples that would create Breakbeat, Jungle and Drum and Bass.

How the Ultimate Breaks & Beats bootlegs shaped popular music
The iconic DJ octopus from the Ultimate Breaks and Beats artwork.

In the realm of recorded sound, few compilations have wielded the level of influence as 'Ultimate Breaks and Beats' (UBB), the legendary series that fundamentally changed the face of music production, DJing, and hip-hop. From dusty basements to pristine digital studios, from underground parties to mainstream pop charts, the ripples created by the UBB series can still be felt today, echoing across a diverse sonic landscape.

In 1986, two groundbreaking DJs, Leonard 'Breakbeat Lenny' Roberts and Louis 'BreakBeat Lou' Flores, envisioned a project that would bridge the gap between the forgotten beats of yesteryears and the innovative sounds of the hip-hop era. That vision was 'Ultimate Breaks and Beats'.

Drawing from the deep wells of funk, soul, and rock, the UBB series re-introduced a treasure trove of musical nuggets, which were essentially fragments or 'breaks' from the tracks, often underscored by heavy drum patterns or distinct rhythmic sections. These "breakbeats" formed the skeletal framework of many hip-hop tracks to come.

UBB was not merely a series of collections; it was a cultural phenomenon that helped define an entire era. It gave DJs and producers easy access to drum breaks that were otherwise buried deep within records, often only lasting a few seconds but providing the rhythm and groove that made people move. For the first time, breaks from tracks by the likes of The Winstons, Billy Squier, and James Brown were made readily available and, consequently, became the backbone of countless classic hip-hop tracks.

At the time, the art of sampling was still in its infancy. While the Fairlight CMI had been available for those who could afford it, it wasn't until the first wave of affordable samplers (like the E-mu SP-1200s and Akai S950s) hit home studios that things really started to change. The UBB series served as a primer, allowing producers to explore, experiment, and push the boundaries of what could be achieved with a turntable, a mixer, and an imaginative mind. DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, pioneers of the hip-hop movement, famously used these breaks as the rhythmic foundation for their DJ sets and productions, essentially turning these obscure pieces of music into integral parts of hip-hop culture. Of these pioneers, stories about of Afrika Bambaata's copy of "Amen Brother" by The Winstons being used for the UBB version, likely the single most used source of the infamous Amen Break to this very day.

The innovative 'looping' of these breakbeats also sparked an evolution within music production techniques. The series inspired a generation of beatmakers, from Marley Marl to Kanye West, to manipulate and transform these breaks into fresh rhythmic canvases. Hip-hop classics like "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy and 'Straight Outta Compton' by NWA were essentially constructed around these dynamic breaks, showcasing the timeless appeal of these beats.

Over the decades, the influence of 'Ultimate Breaks and Beats' has extended far beyond hip-hop. Breakbeat culture has permeated various music genres, including drum 'n' bass, trip-hop, and big beat. Even contemporary pop music bears the signature of this revolutionary series, either through the direct use of its breakbeats or through the sampling culture it helped foster.

Sadly, Breakbeat Lenny passed away in 1991, but his legacy lives on. BreakBeat Lou continues to carry the torch, keeping the spirit of UBB alive through performances and talks. He remains a crucial figure in maintaining the narrative of UBB's influence, reminding us of a time when creativity and resourcefulness were the primary tools for groundbreaking music.

Over thirty-five years since its inception, 'Ultimate Breaks and Beats' still reigns as a critical anthology, standing as a testament to the power of rhythm and the enduring impact of the breakbeat. It helped spawn the creation of genres such as Breakbeat and Drum and Bass, and opened up a whole world of crate digging culture with one foot on either side of the shifting stance of legality. It is an audacious reminder that music can always be repurposed, recontextualized, and reborn.

In our increasingly digitized world, where music production has often been reduced to a series of mouse clicks, the UBB series serves as a beacon, reminding us of the raw, organic origins of the music we love. Its legacy is not just a collection of beats but the embodiment of a musical revolution that changed the course of music history. In the end, the story of 'Ultimate Breaks and Beats' is not just about a series of records - it's about how music can break barriers, shape cultures, and ultimately, move us all.