Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Legendary Bronx-Born DJ and Hip Hop Head, “Breakbeat Lou” Flores

“BreakBeat Lou” Flores has been a student of sound since he was three years old. The legendary Bronx-born DJ, B-Boy and hip hop pioneer — whose modus operandi could be summed up by the line, “If it’s funky, it’s funky” — cut his sonic teeth in the early 70s in New York City, where he says “there was no better recipe” for hip hop to happen. Here he chats with longtime Ace friend and fellow New York mainstay Justin Strauss for this edition of Just/Talk about the octopoidal nature of being a DJ, soaking records in bathtubs to hide their labels from rival music crews and the first record he ever bought. 

Justin Strauss: In my mind, you’re one of the architects of hip hop. You were there at a very important part of New York and music culture. What was your introduction to music? Obviously, it’s been a passion — what triggered that?

Lou Flores:
Well, the music started at a very early age. My mother used to have a social club in the Bronx, and at the age of three I got the interest in playing the bongos because I had seen the band members rehearse. When my mother was opening the club up, I gravitated.

JS: How old were you?

LF:
I was three. So I learned to play bongos first and then congas at the age of three, and that really catapulted the love for the intricacies of music. In my household, my mother, on the weekends, she was always playing. Wake up in the morning, it was cleaning day, so she was always playing music, everything from The Beatles, Elvis, Frankie Lyman, Marvin Gaye, so it wasn’t just Latin music. It was a little bit of everything, so my palate for music was very cultured from the beginning as far as I can remember.

JS:This is in the 60s?

LF:
This is in the 60s, early 60s for sure.

JS:You were working and helping out in the club, hanging out in the club.

LF:
Yeah, just hanging out.

JS:And the club was in the Bronx?

LF:
Yes the Bronx, 138th and Brook Avenue. My mother and I were extremely, extremely close. My mother was my hero. In most cases, most have the father, but my mother was my hero. The man that I am today across the board, even in music, it comes because of her. She gave me that love and passion, respect and the love for music.

JS:Was that something you knew you were going to pursue at any certain point?

LF:
No. I was heavy into sports when I was younger, but I think the first thing that really got me, that touched me, the bug that really touched me, was in New York City, there’s the numbers game that people play. So I was young, I played the number one time. I had a dollar, played the number. Well, this is 1973,  and I won the number. One dollar got me seven dollars, so I went to a record store.

JS:And the numbers is street lottery?

LF:
Illegal lottery, street gambling. Musically, first thing was a Willie Colon album called El Malo, which featured a record called “Che Che Cole,” which featured, at that time, Héctor Lavoe. I loved the record to death. I used to play with my mother’s albums. She was like, “Stop playing my record. You’re going to wear my record out.” When I played the number that day, I won, and I went to a record store and bought my first record in 1973, a 45 of “Che Che Cole,” which I still own to this day.

Lou Flores:
It’s 1973, at that same period, this whole culture called hip hop started to bubble up.

JS: It wasn’t known as hip hop.

LF:
It wasn’t known as hip hop. You started hearing the jams at block parties. It was going on. You would hear those things, but there wasn’t the continuous aspect as the break beat facet of the culture. At that time, B-Boys weren’t called B-Boys yet, but I was already dancing in 1973.

JS:Where were you going? Just to clubs or parties?

LF:
Not even clubs. This is block parties, or house parties, that’s the way mainly the whole thing of New York, especially in the Bronx was the house parties. We had parties for everything. We had birthday parties, Christmas, Thanksgiving, rent parties.

JS:What DJs were playing — was it Kool Herc?

LF:
No, this is before him. Way before that. But, you would hear guys like PBJ Jones doing certain things in the Bronx, you would hear other guys that were not as notable as Kool Herc. But that actually had equipment, because, think about it… in those days, getting two turntables and a mixer was extremely expensive. Then a little while after, you started hearing about this guy that had this vision playing this continuous musical interlude. That’s the best way to describe it, which became what they call, “rocking the breaks.”

He would take the intro of a record that had a featured drum or a breakdown of a record, which usually means the music tends to leave a portion on the record and you would hear mainly just drums, baseline or just a very sparse aspect of music. Just concentrating on a groove more than a melody. So, that he was concentrating on that because he noticed that when that part would come in, the height of the activity of his parties would come when these breakdowns would come into play. He concentrated on that to get the energy of the particular event to have a peak period. So, instead of having it flow 30 or 40 seconds, he extended it for a couple of minutes. But it wasn’t two copies, yet. At the time, he was rocking… he would go from break to break. It was playing, let’s say from “The Mexican” breakdown, to the “Give It Up Turnit a Loose” breakdown, to the “It’s Just Begun” breakdown and vice versa.

JS:These records were all from different genres?

LF:
Yeah, “The Mexican” by Babe Ruth was a rock record, “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” was a James Brown record and Jimmy Castor’s “Just Begun” was a combination… was leaning more into a disco aspect, but not really disco, but had the funk aspect to it. So, it was a multicultural, multi-genre facet of music display. Because at that time in New York, if you know… New York was very multicultural. 

JS:Very diverse.

LF:
Diverse listening palette for music, I remember at that time, I think it was WABC was the main station that everyone was listening and you heard everything from Marvin Gaye to Aerosmith so, New York was probably more cultural than most places in the country, I would say. So, that started bubbling up.

JS:When did you start digging for records?

LF:
I started working 1978. Real quick, in 1974, I started DJing. I joined this crew called, The Paradise Crew. Which is one of the first crews that came out. So, from 1974 to spring of 77, there was few and far between crews that came out that actually had systems. Here comes the 1977 blackout and for whatever reason, the city decided to donate systems to a lot of kids. And, I’m being facetious.… the stores were vandalized and looted … and from you having one DJ crew in a matter of a two mile radius. Now you have a DJ crew every three blocks. So, that was 1977. For sure, from 1974 to 1977, I was really… more or less… a bedroom DJ, I helped carry record crates for DJs and stuff like that, so I wasn’t really hard-bodied into it. Come 1978, I got booked to do my first hookie party in New York.

This is how I live, breathe — DJing, producing all over the world.

JS:
What’s a hookie party?

LF:
Hookie project is when you left school at 12 o’clock and you stood somewhere else ‘til three o’clock and made believe you were at school, but you weren’t at school.

JS:
You were in your own school.

LF:
Exactly. So, I got hired to do that. We went to a friend’s basement where his father was the Super. We set up equipment and we rocked there. So, that particular summer, I got a job at Crazy Eddie’s. Which used to be a electronics and record store chain in the tri-state area. I was hearing this break that Afrika Bambaataa was playing and I didn’t know what the heck it was. One day I was putting records away while working at Crazy Eddie. I saw this 45 promo, which I was already gravitating to promos. I put the record on and it was Manzel’s “Space Funk”.

JS:That was the record?

LF:
That was the first digging record that I bought in 1978 and after that I became a hard-core digger… I decided just everywhere I would go, from Brad’s Records to Bleecker Bob’s, to The Music Factory, to Downstairs Records. Just looking for records, looking for breaks. And, I would spend every penny my mom would give me for lunch money went to that. Every little gig that I would get, would go into records so… 1978 was when the bug really bit me and I became hardcore embedded into DJing and hardcore embedded into digging.

JS:And, at the parties where you DJ’d were people rapping and rhyming over records? Is that something that was starting already?

LF:
I would say, by 1975 it really caught on real heavy. Because that’s when you have Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Three and then you had the Mighty Fours which in turn became the Cold Crush Brothers. You had Funky Four Plus One More, you had Masterdon Committee, you had Soulsonic Force. You had The Jazzy Five. 

JS:What year is that?

LF:
This is from 74 all the way to 76.

JS:Okay, that’s pretty early.

LF:
Yeah, there were crews already in those days. 

JS:This phenomenon hadn’t come downtown yet.

LF:
Yeah. It hadn’t come downtown yet. This is before the Negril parties downtown, this is before Michael Holman, this is before all those days —

JS:Okay. I remember when I was DJing at the Ritz in 1980 and they had the Sugarhill night. It was one of the first downtown hip hop events.

LF:
Oh, yeah.

JS:And The Funky Four, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang all played and everybody was blown away. You’re really not old enough to be in clubs at this point, correct?

LF:
No, but those days nobody cared. My sister was the one that enabled me to go because she’s older than me by a few years. She would go so it enabled me to go into these clubs. I was a dancer, at least in 73… so I was already dancing hustle from 74–75, so I would dance with my sister. So, it was an attraction. My sister and I became known as dancers. And, people would look at us and they were like… okay, so that’s why I was let into most of these little jams back in the day. So, I was able to be exposed to that life really early on because I was a dancer.

JS:It was important. So, you DJ’d at these parties and your friends and crews started developing?

LF:
Yeah, then everybody wanted to be like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Three — everybody wanted to be like The Mighty Four. So, the crews started developing there and I had a crew already. We used to rock every so often. It would be simple, at that time I would consider more like nursery rhymes kind of things. Like rhyming Mikey and Nike. And, stuff like that. But, the thing was everybody wanted to be rapping on a beat. Like these, what I call, Ghetto Superstars, because these guys became iconic to a lot of the young generation that we had. Because, think about it, in the beginning of the 70s we were losing a lot of cultural things in school. We weren’t getting enough art classes, we weren’t getting enough music classes. So, that hunger and thirst that we had, that creative aspect was being fed to us through what became hip hop.

So, the music aspect of being creative and even in just a rapping cadence that wasn’t really singing, but you had this new thing of rocking over just a drum beat mainly. And, being able to create some kind of poetry on rhythm over these particular beats that became a bold thing to do. So, it became a thing that everybody wanted to have… every crew wanted to have some guy that would be able to be on the mic. What we called crowd pleasing in those days, because it was more like, you know, people say, “Ho”… So, it was more of a call and response kind of situation. It became something that was extremely attractive to the youth and especially in the hood. It was something that you didn’t have to get caught up with, not joining any gang, or anything like that. You had the dancing, you had the music and then you had the entertaining person, Master of Ceremony. Which became the MC, which became attractive and a peaceful thing to be around.

JS: And, you guys would go from party to party, setting up your own equipment, bringing all the records —

LF:
Yeah. Because it became a competitive thing. My crew is better than yours.

JS:And, did your crew each have certain records that you wouldn’t want anybody else to know about?

LF:
That’s how it started. The thing was to discover the break that nobody else had. Something that fit that mold but nobody knew about. Think about it, even at that early time, a lot of records were very unknown to people. So, you will find, in the dollar bins, you would find them, like at Korvettes or Woolworth.

JS:Records that were basically ignored.

LF:
Yeah.

JS:The rest of the record might have been terrible but if it had twenty seconds of an amazing break…

LF:
It was incredible, I remember the first time we heard, we used to call it “Toys in the Attic,” by Aerosmith, it was “Walk This Way.” Even the Black Sabbath, the first album, that drum break. It was incredible. “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. Even though we weren’t really into a rock kind of situation, but those drum breaks were that phenomenal that we gravitated to that.

The Winstons was a gospel group that had a big record, won a Grammy but the B-side became the biggest record they ever had, which was the “Amen Brother” break. Which you know, by us bringing that out into the world, made it what it became. But, it was just those kind of things, to be unique enough and find records that nobody else had but that fit the mold. And, you know, Bambaataa was the master of that. I can only say this, the culture wouldn’t be what it was, or there wouldn’t be the name breakbeat culture if it wasn’t for Bam because he set the template for the music being so versatile. Because he would say break beats are not genre specific. If it’s funky, it’s funky.

JS:The Monkees was one of his, I remember him playing “Mary Mary,” like, I heard that and I was like, “Wow!” Remember there was this, obviously the competition between the crews and you guys would scratch off the labels so nobody would know each other’s records.

LF:
I will go even further. I would put the record in the bathtub with water so the label completely comes off. So, you wouldn’t know anything.

JS:And, everyone wanted to know what it was —

LF:
Exactly, because I know, I remember one of the biggest things for me. I remember I went to a street jam and Charlie Chase was playing. He was playing, “Rocket in the Pocket” by Cerrone. So, I’m looking at his record and it’s Atlantic Records and I’m like, “What the heck is this freaking record?” So, you were very secretive so he told me, I mean, for whatever reason, I asked him and he goes, “Cerrone.” And, I’m like, “Cerrone? Okay, fine.” I go to Crazy Eddie’s and I see Cerrone Four and I see “Rocket in the Pocket,” this is the record. I play the record and I said, “This is not the freaking record, it’s a disco record. What the heck was he playing?” But, then Cerrone was on Cotillion Records, it wasn’t on Atlantic. So, I’m looking, I’m saying, “But this is not the same thing, what the heck!” So, I don’t know if you remember Cerrone had, there was two releases. There was one with a white cover and there was one with a black cover. So, I found the black cover. So, I found the black cover, I said, “This has to be it. It was the same crap record. So, then one day, I was looking in the bin. And, something comes in that’s this live Cerrone album. And, I’m like, “What the heck is this, double album?” So, I look and I see, “Rocket in the Pocket.” I open the back of the thing and it said Atlantic Records and I said “Damn, this has to be it.” So, I put it on and it’s like, real slow. I’m like, “It doesn’t sound like it,” but because, I know what we were doing already, there.

We would take 45s and put them on 33. We would take 33 and put it on 45. I played that on 45 and I was like, at least I know what that was. But, before that, I was thinking the record that he had was so worn out that, that’s what you heard the “Shhhhh” which really wasn’t worn out, it was the applause from the live crowd. And, then you stumble records like that. But, then when I found out, I easily was able to find the record he had, that’s where I decided to take the whole label off. And, I was like, nah, my cannons, secret weapons, you’re not going to find out. No.

JS:But you eventually used a lot of this knowledge. What was the inspiration for the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series of records, which basically laid the foundation for a lot of what came in hip hop and other genres after those records were released?

LF:
Well, it’s two-fold. Lenny Roberts is the founder and co-creator and what I would say, the money man behind all the records I was involved in as far as break beats. We started doing bootleg 12 inches because we couldn’t find all the obscure records and people wanted them. Then all of a sudden, Bambaataa said to Lenny, I’ve got two tapes that I want you to put out and make a 12 inch out of.

So, we were like, sure. The one side was a live recording of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at Bronx River and then the other side was a pause-tape done by Afrika Islam, which became the infamous Bozo Meko 12 inch with “Fusion Beats” on one side and “Flash it to The Beat” on the other side.

When we put out this particular 12 inch, it outsold every other 12 inch that we had. And, the reason why is because that pause-tape that was done by Islam had multiple records. He had “Champ” by the Mohawks. He had the “Get Up, Get Int It, Get Involved” by James Brown and then he had Dyke and the Blazers “Let a Woman Be a Woman.” 

So, it had those three records on it, so it became more of a compilation than just a single 12 inch. At the same time Super Disco Brake’s — Paul Winley was putting his records out. The thing that Paul Winley was not conscious of, or he didn’t care two bits about what the culture was. The quality of the records he put out was horrible. He had put, “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” with a skip on it. He wasn’t using virgin vinyl either. So, we saw that. So, we said, let’s create one ourselves that would compliment what we did with the Fusion Beats 12”. We thought, “What can we do to make it attractive for DJs?” We’re not going to call it ‘”Disco Breaks” because we’re trying to get away from disco.

So, we’re going to call it “Break Beats.” If you look back at the late 70s, early 80s time… the DJ did almost everything. The DJ took care of everything. So, that’s why the logo became the octopus. But, if you look at it, it only has six tentacles out of eight. The DJ was the MC when he had to be, the DJ dealt with the strobe light, the DJ was the sound guy and the DJ also DJ’d the two turntables. So, we were trying to show that aspect of a DJ. 

JS:This is the era before sampling records had begun.

LF:
This is 1980. DJs were either scratching the record or just throwing in record. No one was even thinking about sampling drums or anything. 

JS:Right, this is strictly for DJs. Who’s the first one to record, in your mind, the first rap record?

LF:
Well, that’s a big argument between the Fatback Band, “King Tim III” and then Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” I think those as far as rap records as we know it, from the hip hop standpoint. But, if you want to hear the first record that has a cadence and it sounds like hip hop and everything else, it’s Pigmeat Markham, “Here Comes the Judge” — 1968. It has the same cadence and everything. But, it wasn’t done with that mindset. But as far as rap as we know it, there is a big dispute between Fatback Band and Sugarhill Gang as to which was actually released first. As far as in New York, it was Sugarhill Gang. And, Sugarhill Gang fit more of the mold, because it was recorded like you were rocking over a break beat, which was “Good Times” by Chic even though it was played live. 

JS:I started DJing at the Mudd Club in New York City in 1980 and I was just buying everything. I bought every kind of record, Everything was new. Punk, New Wave, disco, hip hop all at the same time. It was an amazing period.

LF:
It’s like I said, New York is the only place that it could have happened as far as hip hop and let’s say punk and all of that stuff is because the melting pot of people in New York in cultures, there’s no other place in the world that was like New York, let’s say from early to mid-70s to early to mid-80s. There was no better recipe for that to happen than New York.

The club scenes and the rebellious aspect to it that we had at that time was just everything, it was like the perfect dish that we needed to cook, it had to be cooked in New York at that particular time.

JS:So with the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series, was it an immediate success?

LF:
Yeah. And, another point I want to bring across is the reason we also put those records out in the early 80ss. Then what was happening was, some of the second generation of DJs that were making hip hop, instead of the cutting up break beats because they couldn’t find them, they were cutting up rap records. They were cutting up “Love Rap,” they were cutting up “Feel the Heartbeat,” they were cutting up “Catch the Beat.” Good drum breaks, but they weren’t break beats per se. They were rap records that had drum breaks in it. So, that’s another reason that we wanted to keep doing it… to make sure it continues to have a solid legacy, that the foundations are intact. So, for me the foundation for what we know and what we love as hip hop is the break beats. 

JS:How many volumes did you end up doing?

LF:
We ended up doing 25, a total of 25.

JS:When you were doing them, do you think about, I don’t want to put this… I want to keep this for myself. Or were you happy to share the knowledge?

LF:
On volumes one through nine, which we did as bootlegs, were to cover the foundations of break beats. We got a lot of flack from a lot of OGs for sure. But, again, we have to keep the DJ culture alive, and keep the hip hop culture alive. But then by 1986, when we decided to do the Ultimate Breaks and Beats, as legal records. That’s when sampling came into play. So, now you have a different dynamic of what music is being used for.

JS:So, now sampling becomes a thing. Do you remember when you first became aware of sampling and how that changed everything as far as record production and hip hop production in particular? Because now record producers, like myself included, were buying you series and sampling for our productions. So music would sound a lot different now without those records. 

LF:
1986. Yeah. This is my motto. I would say that we were instrumental for keeping hip hop, hip hop. In the sense that the aesthetic sonic dynamic that hip hop has would not have been what it is, if we had not put those records out. Starting in 86. Because, when Marly Marl stumbled on sampling the kick and snare, that changed everything. That changed the whole… to me, it brought the rap music back to the park. That’s where I say, because it sounded like the records or the performances that you heard back in the parks in those days, so it took it to a new level of appreciation and creativity because, after a while, there’s only so much you can do with a drum machine … from the DMX or the BX or 808 or the 909, that was around along with the LinnDrum, you know there’s only so many styles you can do. When you were able to take all the kick snare from different drum machines and make it sound the way you want it because, if you look in the first two records that Marly Marl produced with that technique, it was Boogie Down Productions’ “The Bridge Is Over” and “Eric B. Is President,” by Eric B. and Rakim. It just changed the whole dynamic, it was like, how the heck do you do this? 

JS:So, that started a whole industry of people clearing samples and making a whole lot of money for people who might have never made money from the original release or hadn’t in years. You helped a lot of people, in a way.

LF:
Exactly. Syl Johnson said it best when he said, “As much as people may hate sampling, I love sampling. Because sampling bought me my house, sampling gave me a new life to a new generation and sampling kept my legacy alive.” We exposed a lot of artists that were not really known and kept their legacy alive. 

Also if it wasn’t for reggae, there would be no hip hop. In reality. The whole aspect of playing with the systems and talking on the mic while music was going on came from the “toasting” aspect of reggae music. So that played an intricate part in what we were doing. But, in a million years, I didn’t think it was going to be that huge. And, the thing is, I knew exactly when it changed. It changed exactly between 84–86. It was two pivotal points. It was Crazy Legs doing the Flashdance movie which gave a new audience to the culture of hip hop through the B-Boys. Those two things were extremely pivotal. That changed the whole dynamic aspect of how hip hop was being heard and how hip hop was being seen.

JS:And “White Lines,” again by Grandmaster Flash sampled or replayed the bass line from a Downtown New York band, Liquid Liquid, was massive in all the clubs, Uptown and Downtown. 

LF:
And, I think we played a big part in that because we put Liquid Liquid on Volume 9 of the Ultimate Breaks and Beats. Which was used as a break because Bambaataa was using it in his sets.

JS:So, let’s fast forward a bit. Now, you’re back into music full time?

LF:
Yeah. I left, for 12 years, I worked in the banking, the financial area and I was miserable. Great money but I was miserable and I had to come back to my passion so 2009, I came back and this is what I do now. This is how I live, breathe — DJing, producing all over the world. I’ve been blessed too. Starting first on the lecture circuit. Teaching it, breaking down a historical aspect of what this culture is. Then people finding out I DJ also.

JS:How do you feel about hip hop today? 

LF:
Hip hop has always been very different in many different ways. There’s good and bad of course and there’s also an individuality aspect of it. So, I say this, at the end of the day, hip hop has always been the music of the youth and it speaks more as a youth language. So, what I would say is this, the language they’re speaking, it is speaking to the youth, the only problem that I may have with hip hop is that the individuality of hip hop is not being utilized the way that it’s supposed to be. And, I’m saying this to say that in our era, as you know, it took more than just having Apple Garage Band and iTunes to bring a record to the masses. When I go to do lectures, I’ll tell them, before, when we had to do a record back in our day, it literally took blood, sweat and tears. 

But, I still respect a lot of it. Because I think there’s creativity and everything else. Anderson Paak – he’s extremely creative, J. Cole is another guy that’s extremely creative that I think deserves the second listen to, third listen to. That’s on that side. There’s a young kid, incredible, by the name of Cavalier. Out of Brooklyn and now lives in Atlanta. Extremely creative, even down to the sounds. You don’t even hear the mundane 808 that everybody is using. Or the mundane keyboard pads that everybody is using. So, people are actually taking it to the next level.

Then you got guys like Adrian Young. I don’t know if you know who Adrian Young is. He’s taken it to a whole different level, he’s probably the most impressive to me because he’s taken the bull by its horn and broken down how it’s done. He has an incredible studio in LA. Down to vintage board, an incredible sound room, everything from the Rhodes and to the grand piano that he uses. He’s captured that side. I think he’s probably the one I’ve been most impressed by in a long time sonically. And, every album that I hear, again, we’ve been students to this sound for a long time and he’s captured that sound extremely well, extremely well.

And, another guy, an old goodie but classic guy that does that on a regular basis, I don’t know if you’ve heard Kenny Dope’s regular R&B or funk stuff. In those projects, he’s captured the essence also. I’ve been privy and honored to have seen and heard some of the projects and if I close my eyes I can honestly think that this is something that was recorded in the 60s. That’s how good it sounds. So, those — as far as music — those things sound incredible to me.

JS:So, you’re still inspired.

LF:
Oh, everyday. I have to be, man. I think, this is the way I feel. You have to be a lover and respect the views. You have to be a lover and respect of the craft that you do and you have to be a lover and respecter of the culture of what we do. And, I think again, we haven’t seen each other in a trillion years, but your impact and the way you put music together — even from those days that we were doing this the old fashioned way — was impressive to me. And, even listen to some of that stuff way back, like the other day, I was listening to your Debbie Harry remix and the drums you did, I’m like, “What they heck, this freaking guy just took this record and made a freestyle sound out of it.”

JS:You were an inspiration as well. I always went into the studio armed with a handful of Ultimate Breaks and Beats albums, as well as other stuff that I would find. It’s been an honor to have stayed in touch. And, we were always connected through music and through our mutual friend, the editor supreme Chep Nuñez, who edited a lot of my remixes and who is someone I think about to this day when I make music and I miss him. 

LF:
If it wasn’t for him we would have never had met, and you helped cultivate my sonic ear.