There are 175 tracks included on Ultimate Breaks and Beats.
That’s an average of seven songs apiece across the 25-instalment compilation series. There’s some pretty staggering data available to us having completed this deep dive, but it’s worth noting that it’s likely inaccurate. WhoSampled, the resource I’ve used to compile these numbers, is far from entirely comprehensive: it relies on a dedicated and incredible user base who scour liner notes, listen intently and occasionally stumble across a familiar sound. Their work is invaluable in tracking cultural connections, but it’s a thankless and unending job.
Complicating things further is the lack of credit given to sampled artists on early sample-heavy tracks. Prior to the landmark legal battles that played out in the early '90s (namely Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc.), artists could more freely sample without any kind of attribution or compensation. Rich sonic collages such as Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique have been pieced together by fans in the year since, and without a comprehensive list of samples from the creatives behind the record, we’ll never truly know how complete these accounts are. In the infamous words of one prominent politician: “there are… unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
Beyond these issues, however, sample culture - though now limited by legal precedents - carries on. If each song is sampled just once in the time between counting and publishing, then the total number will be off by a staggering 175 samples. I can tell you that I tallied these sampling figures at the end of 2018 and, given sampling’s long history, they should provide an interesting account of the last 40-or-so years.
175 songs. 23,188 samples.
That’s an average sample-per-track rate of 132.5. Naturally, this is skewed by some rather large numbers: the three most popular samples have all accrued in excess of 1,400 flips a piece.
SBR 501, the first official instalment of the series, still stands as the most frequently sampled. The majority of the samples from that LP - 92%, to be exact - are taken from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother,” an obscure 1969 b-side-turned-turntable staple. It’s such a frequently sampled track, it actually represents roughly 12% of the 23,188 samples sourced from songs on the 25-instalment series. Put another way, 12% of UBB’s total samples are sourced from 0.6% of the compilation series.
Next up is SBR 512, a record buoyed by James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” The 1969 single spotlighted the efforts of Clyde Stubblefield, the titular funky drummer, who unleashes one of hip hop’s most distinctive cadences on the track’s oft-flipped drum break. It’s not the only inclusion doing big numbers: SBR 512 also features The Mohawks’ “The Champ” and The Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip.” These three tracks have accrued 1489, 667 and 403 samples, respectively.
In third place sits SBR 516, which trails SBR 512 by under 100 samples. 2135 of the 2637 samples logged - that’s 81% - are courtesy of Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It),” a classic 1972 single written and produced by James Brown. One of the foremost members of the James Brown Revue, Collins released the single through Brown’s People Records, achieving a career high of #66 on the Billboard 100. Though the track would later become ubiquitous via a swathe of high profile samples, it failed to launch Collins’ solo career, and she soon returned to working primarily as a backup singer. It’s not surprising that “Think (About It)” helps SBR 516 to third place: not only is the song bolstered by Brown’s hand, but it also features five seperate breaks.
The Major Players
1. Gregory Sylvester Coleman of The Winstons
In a twist that may surprise the casual hip hop fan, James Brown isn’t responsible for the most popular sample on the compilation. He does have more inclusions that anybody else, but that’s an entirely different story: the most popular flip included in the series doubles as the single most prolific sample of all time. It’s the handiwork of one Gregory Sylvester Coleman.
Doesn’t ring a bell? That speaks to the art of sampling as well as a great injustice. Whilst Coleman could never be considered a household name, he’s exerted more influence than most successful musicians manage in a whole career. He did so over six seconds in 1969.
The ‘amen break,’ the six-second instrumental passage played by Coleman on The Winstons’ “Amen Brother,” is inarguably one of the most influential soundbites of the sampling era: not only did it impact the evolution of hip hop, but it helped furnish emerging genres throughout the 1990s.
The version included on SBR 501 was edited by Louis ‘Breakbeat Lou’ Flores, who slowed the tempo of the otherwise-frenetic four bars to create a more accessible beat. His alteration proved popular, as it allowed DJs to more easily alternate between two copies of the record, producing the ‘merry-go-round’ effect pioneered by DJ Kool Herc in the early ‘70s. The inclusion marked the beginning of Coleman’s indirect fame, which would subsequently balloon as the break took hold in ‘90s rave culture.
The breakbeat was wholly embraced by members of the breakbeat hardcore community, who utilised the frantically paced passage to underpin their furiously energetic and relentless club tracks. Though Breakbeat Lou had slowed it for inclusion on the hip hop oriented compilation series, breakbeat hardcore producers actually sped up the already-frenetic excerpt to further complement their style. The genre would give way to forms such as jungle and drum ‘n bass, both of which hold the ‘Amen break’ as a cornerstone of their respective sounds.
Gregory Sylvester Coleman never made any money from the thousands of records on which he appeared. It left his bandmates feeling conflicted: on the one hand, The Winstons lead singer Richard Spencer told the BBC that "it felt like plagiarism and [he] felt ripped off and raped," but also noted that, as “a black man in America… the fact that someone wants to use something I created - that's flattering.”
Coleman himself died homeless and destitute in 2006. He struggled with drug addiction throughout the later stages of his life, and was survived by a daughter and a step daughter. Whilst the legal and ethical ramifications of sampling are oft-discussed, Coleman’s case is a tragic reminder of the pitfalls of limitless sampling - whilst I’m all for the unrestrained pre-1990 environment that brought us records such as It Takes A Nation of Millions and 3 Feet High And Rising, the fact that such a omnipresent musical force could die penniless is truly tragic.
2. James Brown
The godfather himself! It’s no surprise that Brown is a major player in the compilation series. If we’re counting him as the author of the breaks within his credited tracks, then he’s quite easily the most sampled artist of all time.
Brown makes six appearances throughout UBB: first with “Cold Sweat” on SBR 506, then with “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” on SBR 507, “Funky President” on SBR 510, “Funky Drummer” on SBR 512, “Soul Pride” on SBR 521 and “The Payback” on SBR 525. The final inclusion is actually the track that closes out the entire series, which is suely an honour of sorts.
Whilst Brown’s popularity amongst producers may have initially come about due to his love of instrumental passages and drum breaks, his distinctive vocal ad-libs have since become a popular punched phrase. These are also present in tracks by his contemporaries and collaborators: take Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It),” which features a break that includes wordless vocals from Brown and Bobby Byrd. It’s not uncommon to find that particular break flipped with elements of Brown’s voice retained as additional vocal punctuation.
WhoSampled lists Brown as the #1 most sampled artist on their database, having accrued an incredible 7,349 flips. In second place is The Winstons, who are credited with just over 3000. Unsurprisingly, almost all of those are flips of “Amen Brother.” JB is also the 79th most covered act, with just over 230 covers logged by fans.
3. Clyde Stubblefield
Though he’s a famous drummer in his own right, most would be familiar with Stubblefield by way of his legendary honorific: the funky drummer. It was Stubblefield who played on “Funky Drummer,” a move which unwittingly placed him at the centre of a culture quietly taking shape in the Bronx. “Give the drummer some,” which remains one of Brown’s more famous phrases, is taken from the track.
That’s hardly all Stubblefield contributed. In his five years with the James Brown Orchestra, he played on a swathe of classic tracks, including UBB inclusions “Cold Sweat” and “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose.”
Then there’s the ones that didn’t make the series, like “Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud,” “Ain't It Funky Now,” “Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved” and “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine.”
In 1971, Stubblefield moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he remained until his death in 2017. That’s not to say he ever gave up the mantel of the funky drummer: for over 20 years, The Clyde Stubblefield Band played two sets on Monday nights at The King Club. He continued recording, releasing three solo albums between 1999 and 2003 as well as recording two collaborative records alongside fellow Brown drummer John ‘Jabo’ Starks in 2000s. The J.B.’s reunited in 1999 for their own studio LP, Bring The Funk On Down. They did just that.
Stubblefield and Starks, two of Brown’s most revered drummers, played on trombonist Fred Wesley’s 2008 tribute album, Funk For Your Ass (A Tribute To The Godfather Of Soul). One of his most prominent appearances came in 2011, when he teamed up with Chuck D and Eclectic Message to perform “Fight The Power” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The supergroup billed themselves as the Copyright Criminals, a sly nod to the thousands of uncleared samples that featured Stubblefield’s tight break.
One of the more remarkable aspects of his later life was only revealed following his death: during his 15-year battle with kidney disease, Stubblefield was without health insurance. He was supported by longtime fan Prince, who apparently put over $80,000 towards his medical costs.
The Personal Favourites
After spending far more time than I’m willing to admit on this series, I’ve come out with a few favourites from the 175-track catalogue. Some of these favourites are samples I’ve come across before in my record-based work, whilst others are entirely new to me. I’d like to spotlight just a few of these before we wrap up!
Originally released in 1974, Brother Soul’s “Cookies” is best described as wacky. The central percussion - possibly familiar, especially given how unique it is - feels somehow anachronistic. In that flurry of tinny hits comes the central refrain, an unexpected piece of absurd juvenilia, before the track dives into some classic brassy funk.
I knew of this one before: it’s on one of my favourites from the Ultramagnetic MC’s.
Another cut from 1974, Monk Higgins & The Specialities’ “One Man Band” is quite the opposite. What draws me to this track is the mournful saxophone, the call-and-response vocals that play alongside Higgins’ melancholy licks and the sudden drum break that enters at 2:12.
I’ve written about Joey Badass’ 1999 before, but even then I didn’t discover this track. It was sampled on “Waves,” prod. by Freddie Joachim.
Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution” speaks to the power of sampling culture. When the sample was ‘broken in’ by Ultramagnetic MC’s on their 1986 single “Ego Trippin’,” Bliss was a little known Navy veteran-turned blues artist. The track was a b-side to 1973’s “Reward,” his first 7” single, which would ultimately be his sole release.
Now it’s one of the most sampled songs of all time. The drummer, Bernard Purdie, is far more famous.
Most famous for the instrumental crescendo that graced T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” Uncle Louie’s “I Like Funky Music” is a tune dedicated to the genre Louie likes. T La Rock’s track was amongst the first released on Def Jam, and the titular phrase was subsequently sampled on “The World Is Yours.”
Uncle Louie’s original is just some bona fide mid-’70s funk. I too like funky music.
A protest song regarding Watergate and the subsequent push for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President” is both a versatile sample and a relic of one of the most controversial and watershed moments in American political history.
There’s one statement we can all agree upon: “behind the walls of the White House, there’s a lot of things we should know about.”
I’m first and foremost a hip hop fan, and that passion immediately endears me to the work of Lightnin’ Rod. Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, a founding member of The Last Poets, released Hustlers Convention under the pseudonym in 1973. The record heavily influenced the development of hip hop, as did much of The Last Poet’s catalogue.
It’s not so much the sampling as the entire package, but I’m glad “Sport” was included.
Lonnie Liston Smith appears just once on UBB, but he could definitely fill up a few more spots with his cosmic funk. “Expansions,” the title track from his 1975 LP, is a telling slice of his signature style: alongside The Cosmic Echoes, the band he formed in 1973, he extols the virtues of “expand[ing] your mind” atop some spacey jazz.
Smith still tours to this day, and when he came by my city last, I was having my tonsils out. Still upset.
“Mister Magic” is the title track from saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s fourth studio album. That record was a smash hit for the jazz instrumentalist: it hit #10 on the Billboard 200, a mean feat for a jazz artist. The album featured keys from Bob James who, though he didn’t make any appearances on UBB, is an oft-sampled jazz act.
A song that was both a commercial hit and sample fodder? You know it’s worth checking out.
In the years since it emerged as a culture in the early 1970s, hip hop has irreversibly changed the relationship between artists and art. The innovative turntable techniques that kickstarted the artform recontextualised music of the past, and the subsequent advent of sampling turned the records of yesteryear into the palettes of tomorrow.
Though Ultimate Breaks and Beats wasn’t the beginning of sampling, it remains a document of its infancy, when demand was at an all-time high and producers hungered after the versatile and dependable. The introduction of sample-related legislation would ultimately push producers towards more obscure and inspired selections, but for a good half-decade there, it seemed as though musical history itself was a crate for the digging. Hits and b-sides alike fell under the commend of dextrous DJs and passionate producers, who used them to fashion some of hip hop’s most memorable compositions.
The sampling boom has since long passed, but hip hop still keeps a foot in the past, leaning on interpolations, references and quips scattered throughout the greater genre. It helps keep essential cultural history alive, paying homage and tracing influence as it passes down from generation to generation. As Stetsasonic keenly noted in 1988, “rap brings back old R&B, and if we would not, people could've forgot.” Where would James Brown be without Eric B. & Rakim, or perhaps more pressingly, where would Eric B. & Rakim be without Brown? Paid, to be sure, but perhaps only in part.
This cross-generational musical dialogue has helped establish producers and revive extinguished careers, elevating the obscure and played out to a position at the forefront of a new culture. Brown hardly needed to link up with Bambaataa in order to become a hip hop legend: his years as a peerless bandleader translated to the decks. Lyn Collins, hardly a star in her own right, is now one of the most prolific and influential artists of all time. Gregory Sylvester Coleman, who we’ve already discussed, is perhaps the most acute example of sampling’s influence: the gift of recognition and the curse of compensation.
Ultimately, these pieces are testament to both the producers themselves and the musicians who paved the way with their riffs, breaks and tracks. Without their breaks and beats, who’s to say what would become of hip hop’s golden age? Explore your favourite records, uncover the history within, and - most importantly - keep diggin’.