What It Is
January 19, 1988
A gift to be swift
follow the leader
the rhyme will go…
Everybody has an opinion.
MARLEY MARL: I think Eric B. went over the board, I think he went outrageous with “You Gotta Have Soul.” He took the name of the record, the drum sounds, everything. I mean, he should have just given them publishing.
Def with the record
That was mixed a long time ago
JAZZY JAY: It’s put together good, but if you ask me, it’s nothing more than just what we were doing back in ’78 and ’79: taking two records and spinning them back and forth. But that’s the raw, raw essence of the way it started.
It can be done
But only I can do it
SCOTT LA ROCK: Some people base their whole careers on James Brown. After James Brown, what are some people gonna do?
For those that can dance
And, of course, ERIC B.: James Brown is the thing. It’s just like why did everybody buy pink Cadillacs. It’s the thing to do. It’s been James Brown for years and years.
Then clap your hands to it.
—“I Know You Got Soul,” Eric B. & Rakim
It is a hot Friday afternoon, and inside the Music Factory, 1476 Broadway, an undistinguished looking record store just above 42nd Street, the DJ spins high-energy disco to a room full of B-boys. Late Friday afternoon, and this week’s paychecks avail themselves as generously as the time and the critical declaratives.
“This shit is dope.”
“This is a good record; you should buy it.”
“I should buy it? Your mother should buy it.” Blastmaster KRS One stands by the wall of rap records, not shopping, content to spend the day before his wedding watching his record — Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded — sell. And pronouncing dicta. “This is garbage. This is garbage. This,” he says, tapping a new single by Public Enemy, “and us are stomping. And this.” He touches Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full. “Stomping.” On the strength of its two singles, Paid in Full has for the past week left the Music Factory’s wall at a rate of one copy every five minutes, outselling even L.L. Cool J. The first single, “Eric B. Is President,” takes its title and beat from a digital sample off James Brown’s “Funky President,” and uses snatches of Mountain’s “Long Red” (live) and the Mohawks’ “Champ”; the second, “I Know You Got Soul,” owes an even greater debt to Brown’s production of the same name for Bobby Byrd, and to Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too.” James Brown is indeed the thing.
A B-boy grabs two copies of Paid in Full, and the count is straight for the next 10 minutes. In between the DJ and the 12-inch singles on the wall, another B-boy animatedly describes a record to Stanley Platzer, a Buddah-like 57-year-old white man with thick tinted glasses. “It has a very good break on it,” Stanley growls. “It’s a distinguished break.” He points to a display of 13 albums, most of them untitled and in generic white sleeves. The record labels list song titles but no performers. “Funky President” is on volume 10; “I Know You Got Soul,” impossibly rare in its original version, is on volume four. “Long Red” (live), “Champ,” and “You’ll Like It Tho” are on — volumes nine, 12 and two. The B-boy pauses to pick two copies of one, then another. A battered hand-lettered cardboard sign fastened with a rubber band to the front of each album reads ULTIMATE BREAKS AND BEATS.
Break music is that certain part of the record that you just be waiting for to come up and when that certain part comes, that percussion part with all those drums, congas, it makes you dance real wild. You just let all your feeling go, but that break is so short in the record, you get mad because the break was not long enough for you to really get down to do your thing. As soon as the break part comes in, boom, the singing or music part comes right back and the break part is gone.
— from The Beginning of Break Beat (Hip Hop) Music, by Afrika Bambaataa
ERIC B.: I’d say just about 100 per cent of all rap music, if not 99 per cent of all rap music, uses some kind of idea or something from those break records.
STANLEY PLATZER: Well, the Salt-n-Pepa girls were in, and then they went into the studio, they bought every one. Volume one to I think 12, at the time, and then they made the LP, they had them all on there. Jam-Master Jay bought four each, about three weeks ago.
On another afternoon in the Music Factory, Biz Markie stops in to ask Stanley about a mambo record that he says has a good break. Stanley doesn’t know the record. He pulls a battered blue loose-leaf binder, decorated with tags reading UPTOWN MUSIC and OLD SCHOOL BEATS, from behind the counter, and adds Biz’s description to a list of breaks he’s kept for seven years. Later, he’ll call Lenny Roberts.
Lenny Roberts was working in the garment district when he moved to the Leland House apartments in the southeast Bronx in 1976. A record collector and closet DJ, he joined the Sound on Sound record pool; his son joined Afrika Bambaataa’s budding Zulu Nation, an uptown social club.
“When I first moved here,” says Roberts, a soft-spoken 45-year-old chauffeur, “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. And my son, during the party, he came and asked, did I have certain records. And when the party was over, we came upstairs, and he started telling me about these various records: [The Herman Kelly Band’s] ‘Dance to the Drummer’s Beat,’ ‘Apache,’ all of them.’ ”
One of Kool Herc’s B-Beat discoveries, which became the Bronx National Anthem for over eight years, is a record called “Apache” by the lncredible Bongo Band, who also gave us the hit, “Bongo Rock.” “Apache” came out in 1973 and is still considered the top beat record of all time. If you are a B-Beat (Hip Hop) deejay and you don’t have “Apache,” then you’re not a B-Beat deejay.
— from The Beginning of Break Beat (Hip Hop) Music.
Years later — and here possible legal problems make the history a little fuzzy — Lenny included “Apache,” “Bongo Rock,” and the Herman Kelly Band’s “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats records.
GRAND WIZARD THEODORE: That’s a million-dollar company. They making a million dollars off those records. I don’t know how, but…
STANLEY PLATZER: Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat,” that’s the only time [the store] ever got threatened. We sold, of the bootleg, maybe about 5,000. Billy Squier’s representative threatened us with a letter that we should stop. We were buying the regular record and selling the regular record, then the stupid record company decided to discontinue the record cause it’s not selling. Well, what right have they got to cut out this record? It was the only thing that ever sold in our store by Billy Squier. These are the brains up at these major companies.
After the house party, Lenny was hooked. “So I went to Downstairs Records,” he says, referring to another Times Square shop, “because at the time there was nobody else selling those records but them. I think the first time I spent $155.
“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. ’Cause I knew all the guys, Bam, Jazzy, and all them. This was long before anybody thought about putting anything on wax.”
JAZZY JAY: We’d find these beats, these heavy percussive beats, that would drive the hip hop people on the dance floor to breakdance. A lot of times it would be a two-second spot, a drum beat, a drum break, and we’d mix that back and forth, extend it, make it 20 minutes long. If you weren’t in the hip hop industry or around it, you wouldn’t ever have heard a lot of these records. Records like “Apache,” [The Magic Disco Machine’s] “Scratchin’,” Funkadelics, I’m talking about records like [Perez Prado’s] “Mambo No. 5” — you could forget about it. That was the whole thing, the element of surprise, coming out with something new. Find a record nobody else has got, do a routine nobody else can do. That was what kept it going. I grew up under Bam, and basically, I got first shot at all those records that nobody else had, ’cause Bam had ’em. I was his DJ, so he’d pass me the records. Bam used to soak the labels off. I’d throw ’em on, a lot of times I wouldn’t even know what I was playing.
The Bronx River Senior Center, the hub of a large housing project complex sandwiched between East 174th Street and the Cross Bronx Expressway, is quiet on a summer afternoon. A few mothers air their babies, a workman pounds on some scrap metal, and two cops sit in their parked car. Amid a flurry of elaborate, colorful graffiti tags, a homely black scrawl on the wall. of the Center reads, ZULU NATION LIVES. In front of the center, a group of teenagers congregates around Afrika Bambaataa. They were all probably about five years old when Bam started giving parties here.
“A lot of people always think it started in the South Bronx,” he says, “but officially it came from the West Bronx, ’cause Kool Herc was from that area. Then it came over here to the South Bronx with myself and [Grandmaster] Flash. I was always following a DJ named Kool D., who used to play heavy disco. When I heard Herc, I heard music that he had that I had already in my house. So I said, I got the same thing he got, ain’t nothing he hiding from me, so when I graduated out of school, I got my system. I started playing in the street. I already had a large following from the gang era, so once I gave a party it was automatically packed.
“At that time, it was just called break music or wild style music or bebop music.
“A lot of people came to these parties to hear certain records that each DJ would have. Kool Herc might have his certain cuts that he would play. Bambaataa would have his. Flash would have his. Flash and everybody used to tape up their records; you tape over everything, all you can see is the color of the label. People would do their best to send their informers into each other’s camp. A lot of times I could walk up to the turntable and see the color of the record, know what label it was, then all I had to do was find all the records at that time that was on that label, and just look for certain words or something that they was cutting. ’Cause at that time, DJs didn’t tell each other, ’cause that was your power, and it was your what you call making your money.”
LENNY ROBERTS: 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.
JAZZY JAY: Maybe those records were ahead of their time. Maybe they were made specifically for the rap era; these people didn’t even know what they were making at that time. They thought, “Oh, we want to make a jazz record.”
STANLEY PLATZER: People come in, they think Break Beats are dance records, but they’re not exactly what you call dance records. You can dance to some, but they’re not.
ERIC B.: Every record has some kind of break. You can’t say there’s not one record that anybody’s made that doesn’t have a breakdown.
STANLEY PLATZER: No, Sinatra we haven’t found, but we got a Fausto Peppetti from Italy that has a break. Also the Mickey Mouse Club [Theme], and there’s the Cookie [“C is for Cookie”], a Sesame Street record. It’s one of the earlier ones.
The rear bedroom in Lenny Roberts’s apartment is dedicated to rows and rows of records: 45s, 12-inch singles, and thousands of albums, all in pairs, all in plastic sleeves. A half-dozen dusty yellow legal pads list, in painstakingly neat manuscript, as many records as Lenny has catalogued so far. The records, like the entries in the notebooks, are arranged alphabetically, according to record company.
In the living room, under a giant sunset mural, thousands more records are in cabinets, two rows deep. A flannel dustcover drapes over two turntables, a mixer, and the rest of Lenny’s stereo. “I had all the equipment,” he says, “But it was basically for my own personal taste. I would sit here and practice, and tape it, and then play it back, and see how it sounded, backspinning and all that. I could catch the shortest of breaks. And it was fun.
“I stayed in the garment center for about 14, 15 years. And I just got tired of it. I was in Downstairs once, and 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 what, 10 seconds, 20 seconds of a record. Just on a Saturday alone, just off these records, they were pulling fifteen hundred, two thousand dollars.”
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: I bought the Incredible Bongo Band for a dollar. I made a fortune off that. I had so many of those albums, I just walked down the street, “22 dollars,” sell ’em right off, no problem. A lot of cab drivers, like OJ’s, Godfather, Luxury Cabs, would buy the tapes of what we was playing for their customers. They would buy Grandmaster Flash music or Afrika Bambaataa music or Kool Herc music. This was our first thing of getting our music spread around. You could sell the cassettes for up to $10 to $20.
GRAND WIZARD THEODORE: In like 1975, I used to be a record boy. I used to be in charge of going downtown and buying records for Flash. I used to buy a lot of the white-boy records, like Aerosmith and the Steve Miller Band. Everybody wanted the records and knew I could get them. And I would tell them that I would go buy them a copy and they would pay me for the copy.
ERIC B.: There wasn’t no break records that couldn’t be found. Downstairs Records used to provide all of them. Now Stanley is the king of the beats.
Back at the Music Factory, Mantronik, the musical half of Mantronix, eyes the painting of a shattered skull on the cover of volume 12 of the Ultimate Breaks and Beats. He flips the jacket, new since his last visit, to look at the track listings. “What!?” Then, “Oh shit.” Then he realizes that the “Johnny the Fox” title he sees isn’t the Tricky Tee record he produced, but the Thin Lizzy original from which they took the title and beat.
On a pillar opposite the Ultimate Breaks and Beats is a column of albums in green or black jackets that bear the legend, SUPER DISCO BRAKE’S. Mantronik sneers, “Those pressings suck.” As the DJ cues up Anita Baker’s “Same Ole LLove (365 Days a Year)” for the fourth straight time, Stanley returns the book of breaks to its place. Anyone Stanley trusts can take it around the corner to the photocopy shop.
“This is a funny story,” Stanley says. “Bob James’s ‘Mardi Gras’ was cut out, discontinued by the label. And then when Paul Winley put it out on his Super Disco Brake’s, he recorded it from a used copy, and when they tried to scratch it, it wouldn’t work.”
LENNY ROBERTS: I used to buy from all the cutout houses, all of them. I would buy maybe 500 at a time. I’d pay anywhere from 25 cents to three dollars for a record. As far as the record being worth anything, it wasn’t worth nothing to nobody, other than the kids. They had sold as much as they were going to sell. They didn’t mean nothing to the guy that had the records. I only sold to what you call your specialty shops. At one point I had like 4,000 copies of the Jimmy Castor Bunch, “It’s Just Begun.” I did this until I just tapped everybody, just tapped ’em out.
STANLEY PLATZER: He’d get them for 35 cents, we’d sell them for $1.99 or $2.99, and after he ran out of them, it was either press ’em or forget about ’em. So he’d put ’em on his Break Beats.
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: A lot of times, certain records that I knew nobody would get, I would keep for a year before I let it get out. Lenny was still checking with us first to see if it was okay to put this out. And we would say, “Oh man, don’t be putting out stuff.” Then after a while, we said, “Yeah, okay, go ahead.”
One flight up from an industrial, cobblestone street in the Westchester Square section of the Bronx, a dozen B-boys are dancing to the beat of their demo tape in Jazzy Jay’s home studio. When the telephone rings, Jazzy picks up the receiver, throws it on the bed, and continues with what he’d been saying. “How important were Lenny’s records? Very important. Because it gave everybody in the industry, everybody who was down in this era…” He picks up the telephone.
STANLEY PLATZER: You get 50, a hundred new DJs every week, so they’re always buying. They gotta have them all.
Jazzy Jay yells “Yeah?” into the receiver, listens, takes another lick from his Popsicle, and hangs up. “It took a little bit of that mystery about out of it, ’cause it was hard to find these records. You didn’t find them every day of the week. When Lenny made them available, it was like, anybody can have them now.”
ERIC B.: I’ll be in the studio, and I’ll have records that I carry at all times. And I just go through them, and I’ll throw on something, then I’ll get an idea. It gets away from the drum machine and back to the drummer.
DOUG WIMBISH: The reason you hear tunes [on Sugar Hill raps] and say, “Damn, I heard that tune before” is that you did hear it before…
KEITH LEBLANC: …Sylvia [Robinson, Sugar Hill president and producer] would be at Harlem World or Disco Fever, and she’d watch who was mixing what four bars off of what record. She’d get that record, and then she’d play us those four bars and have us go in and cut it better.
LENNY ROBERTS: What it is now, you got a new breed of kids who are buyin’ these records. The ones who bought then then are older now, and they got into other things.
HURBY LUY BUG: Flash is in his late thirties. He was around when these records came out. I’m 22. I don’t remember these records.
MARLEY MARL: Rap died last summer [’86] if you ask me. Everybody stopped cutting up old breaks and everything, and they was going into the drum machine sound, straight up drum machine. You can’t polish rap too much. If it wasn’t for two good records like “Eric B. Is President” and “The Bridge” [by M.C. Sham, both records produced by Marley] to get people really into sampling, I think would have been doing very bad right now. The music today is too complicated for the youth. That’s why they can really get into the older records. They still have those authentic beat finders. Now they’ all producers. There’s not much of a difference, making a record and being a DJ cutting up beats and stuff.
MANTRONIK: Kids that are doing hip hop records nowadays don’t have the smarts to go one step ahead. They know how to sample a sound and do that, and copy someone’s idea. They don’t know how to create on their own. That’s why it’s coming back.
LENNY ROBERTS: There’s 17 volumes of Street Beat Records. That’s how many more I could do. Stanley gave me a list of about 10 records a couple weeks ago, he’d say. “Lenny, they’re using this on such and such. When is your next one coming out?”
In the basement of the McDaniels home in Hollis, Queens, D.M.C. removes Yellowman’s Bad Boy Shanking from the stereo and puts on a record very similar to volume five of the Ultimate Breaks and Beats, except it doesn’t have publishing credits or the logo of Street Beat Records, Lenny Roberts’s label. He sits down, and Run begins to cut up Freedom’s “Get Up and Dance.” The record has a cartoon of an octopus on the label. “Remember this?” D.M.C. asks.
LENNY ROBERTS: The octopus records have been around for a long time. Even prior to that, there was 12-inches. These records go back to ’80. They were put out by some guy in the Bronx. Street Beats is about a year or two old. I wrote away for all the licensing. I sell them in three stores. Every volume is in its second pressing.
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: They’re getting bold now. Some people started putting the whole records on. Something’s gonna happen I know in the industry with that, cause I guess a lot of people getting mad. Some artists, they don’t pay it no mind, they feel great to see somebody bringing their stuff forward. There’s other artists who don’t play around. I hear James [Brown] is soon gonna come after people.
JAZZY JAY: The laws on taking samples are, you take ’em until you get caught.
SCOTT LA ROCK: Every day I devote some time to looking for music. If you wanna get paid, you gotta work for it. Rap music, a lot of people say rappers can’t do nothing. You do rap records, all rap is is the message you give it and borrowing beats and music from other records. That’s what makes rap records. I don’t worry about the law…
BLASTMASTER KRS ONE: …’cause even if they sue you it don’t matter, ’cause by the time they get their money, you’ll be rich.
SCOTT LA ROCK: You can’t stop what is. You can’t tell me, “Oh, you’re gonna go to down the block is gonna do it. That’s it.
MOST KINGINGEST KICKS: Avidas
In the same way the B-boy splash was once marked by a certain conformity in kicks, it now seems to hail diversity as the ruling dynamic.- Despite the exclamations of a certain well-heeled duo, Adidas is no longer the only game in town, nor has it been for quite some time. Nike, for one, has ·made considerable inroads into their market (Delta Force & Trainers are the move). Troop, Wilson, Converse, Diadora, New Balance, SpotBilt, Puma, and Etonic, are all creating popular, wild-styled, hi-top boots. Ellesse, British Knights, Fila, Bally, L.A. Gear are Cali. Though still worn in certain comers of softness, Reeboks are weak. Wearing them is a compromising compromise in a world of far more efficient, interplanetary gear. That is to say, thy kicks should keep you locked down inter the planet as coldly as possible.
Avia (uh-VEE-uh) has been gaining wider acceptance with certain posses. The kicks look dope when you’re just chillin’, like they should. I’m championing the 870-”Those shits are bad! Stoopid ankle support!” says Kenny Brown, Athlete’s Foot salesman/business student/forward in the Rucker League. With its nylon web straps, Pivotal Flex Joint, and other stuff only mothers and ballers would care about, these sneakers could be a new letter man standard. Only problem is Adidas has gone beyond the shell-top, and still makes some of the dopest, funky-fresh footwear known to man (Run-D.M.C.’s three models: Eldorado, Fleetwood, Brougham; and the very silly Conductor and Instinct). So, a merger is definitely in order. See the top of this article for the new corporate name.
HIP-HOP VIDEO: What Video?
Who was it that said that filmmaking could never be an art until cameras were as cheap as pencils? You might think I’m buggin’, but I don’t think there are any hip-hop videos. By that I mean either a filmic equivalent (doing the same thing contextually to mainstream filmmaking that hip-hop does to mainstream music) or counterpoint (that resonates with the existing sensibilities of the core audience) to hip-hop music. The medium has not really opened up yet, with far too few videos being made, and far too many white art students making the ones that are, for a hip-hop aesthetic to develop. What you often end up with are moments that might reflect a hip-hop attitude, but which are not sustained.
Bright spots can be found in the work of the Hudlin Bros. (Heavy D’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Uptown Crew’s “Uptown Is Kickin’ It “) and Atlantis Productions (Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now?,” L.L. Cool J’s “I’m Bad”) as far as the sustenance of a politically correct counterpoint is concerned Vivien Goldman & Mick SaWYer’s video for Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” is, like its subject, totally unpretentious. The emergence of the Beastie Boys might hold film possibilities for some sort of temporary “reverse crossover.” And while Velore & Double- O’s “Your Ugly,” directed by Drew Carolan, is def, I’m not really sure it’s hip-hop. I hope it is. What I’m saying is that not enough Black films in any genre are being made for a resonant Black mix to become obvious (whadd’ya think, A.J.?), and not enough hip- hop videos are being made within this body for a hip-hop aesthetic to be made equally clear. So until this happens, I’d like to suggest that Salt ‘n Pepa’s “‘Iramp,” by Atlantis, is hip-hop’s best music video, with Anita Baker’s ”No One in the World” by Spike Lee, trailing a very distant second
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 2, 2019