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Breaking Up

The Ongoing Legacy Of Ultimate Breaks And Beats And The Stalled Promise Of What It Is!

Deanna Staffo

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 2/14/2007

With all due respect to the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled 55 years ago and reissued on CD 45 years after that, the multivolume various-artists collection that had the greatest reach was the work not of a genius itinerant polymath with a gift for creating master narratives from ready-made objects. It was the work of a small-time Bronx businessman who, like any good entrepreneur, saw a gap in the marketplace and moved to fill it. The differences between Harry Smith and Lenny Roberts are manifest, and so are those between Smith's Anthology and Roberts' Ultimate Breaks and Beats. The grandly declarative title of the former--and the utilitarian one of the latter--indicates the clearest split: Smith built a monument meant to be listened to. Roberts made one that was meant to be taken apart.

Not that playing any of UBB's 25 separate vinyl volumes, originally released between 1986 and '90, front to back wasn't often rewarding. They unearthed many amazing recordings that might have otherwise been buried by history; several numbers were classics already and remain so. But no way was Roberts out to construct a story from his selections. He simply set out to document the songs the founding hip-hop DJs used and newer ones they wanted but in many cases couldn't find. The Anthology sent a generation of folk revivalists on their way, and for a decade or so they helped change popular music. UBB sent a generation of DJs and producers on their way, and they've been changing popular music ever since.

I don't want to overstate Roberts' importance, per se--he was a canny entrepreneur, not a genius, though employing tape-cutting DJ Louis Flores to re-edit some of the breaks in the series to DJ-friendlier length was certainly brilliant. Roberts was not the first person to curate a breaks vinyl series; Paul Winley's Super Disco Breaks came first. But he did it better than anyone else and, even more impressive, he managed to do it for years without getting sued. Unlike Smith, Roberts wasn't working with material that had largely fallen out of copyright.

There's no word yet whether anyone's filed charges on StreetBeat's new Ultimate Breaks and Beats: The Complete Collection. As with the vinyl, artist names are kept off the track listing, presumably to mask the scent. But even if the label never gets served, my advice would still be to grab it immediately if you care at all about hip-hop, the nature of inspiration, drums, how culture works, how thievery works, where stuff comes from, who the real good and bad guys are, bass lines, and the world. Like the title says, the orange box contains the entire series twice over, as MP3s on two CDs and as audio (AIFF) files on a single DVD, along with a booklet with a cheerily banal intro and full-color reproductions of the front and back cover of every vinyl volume--yes, even the mono-color ones with white and black type.

Essentially, this box contains the building blocks of three decades of hip-hop, trip-hop, jungle, broken beat, and every other style built from the drums up since the sampler overtook the guitar as pop music instrument No. 1. What The Complete evokes, though, is the burnt-out feeling of the time it drew most heavily from, the post-hippie/Black Power 1970s. There are lots of tracks here, but if it feels bloated it's because the music itself is. Stadium-rock hackery (Jefferson Airplane's horrid "Rock Music" on Vol. 15), Shindig-ready crap by the Monkees (whose "Mary, Mary" leads off Vol. 1, an implicit signal that, yes, Virginia, you really can find a great beat anywhere), overplayed jazz-funk (three Roy Ayers cuts), soundtrack schlock (David Matthews' "Main Theme From Star Wars" from Vol. 15)--plenty of UBB helps advance the argument for the DJ as heroic figure. Surely discovering the perfect beat by slogging through Grass Roots' "You and Love Are the Same" or Ingrid's "Easter Parade" is a variant on turning water into wine.

It's tempting to imagine that StreetBeat issued The Complete in the wake of What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977, a four-CD box Rhino Records issued last fall to rapturous acclaim. As with Smith's Anthology, it's probably unfair to compare the Rhino box with UBB, but it feels appropriate to anyway, since UBB helped create the market for funk rarities that What It Is! plays can-you-top-this? with. UBB is uneven, and song-for-song it's nowhere near as good as What It Is! But song-for-song What It Is! is nowhere near as great as UBB.

When it's your $70 being spent, this becomes important. So does the fact that the bad songs on UBB have killer breaks. The bad songs on What It Is!, which for the most part mean the jazz songs--hold your applause for Brother Jack McDuff's cocktail-tinkle-and-flute version of "The Shadow of Your Smile"--generally just suck all the way through. Aside from "Sexy Coffee Pot" by Tony Alvon and the Belairs, Ananda Shankar's psych-sitar-funk "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and Funk Factory's "Rien Ne Va Plus" (most recognizable as the core of the Beastie Boys' "Shadrach"), all the best stuff is from names you already know: singles by Little Sister and 6ix produced by Sly Stone, a handful of James Brown and P-Funk satellites, several cuts with the Meters playing backup, early Earth, Wind, and Fire, late Little Richard. Best of all are the Bar-Kays' "Soul Finger" and Curtis Mayfield's "If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go"--you know, actual hits. (The alternate take of Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady" is close enough to the original to count, too.)

A good rarity is a thing to treasure forever, but little on What It Is! overwhelms the way great funk does; it just whelms. Obviously, a great deal of knowledge went into it. But you'd hate to think of kids who might potentially look at it and figure it's the one funk collection they'll need. Strictly speaking, UBB isn't, either--it's a mountain to be climbed. But its ridges and peaks are more fun and much more durable.

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