"These Are the Breaks" -- The History of the Breakbeat
The music you hear as a kid is what shapes you. Whether your earliest musical memories are of The Beatles professing that they love you yeah yeah yeah, your grammar school classmates singing along with Thriller, or Jay Z rapping about his hard knock life, the tunes you hear in your formative years pave the way for what’s to come.
So it is with hip-hop. The musical backbone of rap’s most influential era -- the so-called Golden Age of the late 1980s to early 90s -- has its roots in the childhood memories of its creators. Songs heard in parents’ dens or at dances got chopped up, dissected, and scientifically rearranged.
A few seconds of solo drums in the middle of a song would become the basis for a whole new creation. A guitar stab, grunt, or horn riff took on new life as the canvas for an emcee or group to paint on. And anything was fair game. Cheesy pop songs, novelties, movie soundtracks -- as long as it was funky, it made the cut. It was all about the breaks.
At the very beginning of hip-hop culture, there was the break. A DJ named Clyde Campbell working parties in the Bronx in the early 1970s discovered that people loved the moments in songs where everything would drop out except the drums, or occasionally the drums and bass. But these instrumental sections were almost always short -- a few seconds or a minute. How to keep the party going?
Campbell, who was dj’ing under the name “Kool Herc,” invented a technique he called “the Merry-Go-Round.” It involved finding those key moments in each record, and going right from one to the other. He’d start with James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose,” a favorite among b-boys to this day (it’s the one old-schoolers call “Clap your hands, stomp your feet,” after Brown’s exhortation at the beginning of the break). Then he’d transition into “Bongo Rock” from the Incredible Bongo Band, and go right into Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican.” Or, even better, he’d take two copies of the same record and switch back and forth, extending a single break into infinity. The dancers loved it -- all of their favorite moments that they’d previously had to wait for, now happening one after another, in an endless wave of funky drums.
By the time rap music made it to record in 1979, the concept of extending a single breakbeat was transferred onto the new genre. The early records featured popular songs of the era either sampled or replayed, with grooves that had once rocked the dance floor now expected to rock the pockets of record buyers.
Familiarity may breed contempt, but to early hip hop record makers, it also bred success. Chic’s monster hit “Good Times,” released that very year, formed the basis for dozens of early rap songs, including the biggest one of all, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to be Real” from the previous year was another one whose groove was used over and over.
But the breaks used at the earliest parties showed up as well. As the genre grew and more records started being made, the tunes that folks remembered from the parties they had attended as kids ten or so years prior began showing up in their raps. By the mid-1980s, records like The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach the President,” or any number of James Brown cuts began appearing in earnest as the backing to rap records.
And then 1986 hit, and nothing was the same. Two enigmatic figures known as “Breakbeat Lou” and “Breakbeat Lenny” put out the first volume of an anthology that would shake up the world and change the sound of rap forever. Louie Flores and Lenny Roberts released the first of what would become 25 volumes of a series called Ultimate Breaks and Beats.
These were wide-ranging, extremely illegal compilations that included songs favored by DJs for their breaks. The first volume contained tunes ranging from The Monkees’ “Mary Mary” to Rufus Thomas’ novelty “Do the Funky Penguin.” But it was the third song, “Amen Brother” by The Winstons, that would push the project over the edge. The drum solo in that tune became so popular that it eventually got its own name -- the “‘Amen’ break.” It showed up in NWA (“Straight Outta Compton”), Salt-N-Pepa (“I Desire”), the Ultramagnetic MCs (“Critical Beatdown”), and countless other dope late-80s tracks. It also took on a second life in the 90s, as it appeared in sped-up form in nearly every drum-n-bass song of the era.
More than any individual tune, though, it was the idea of having all of the hottest breaks in one easy-to-find place that made the series take off. Until the series stopped in 1991, the tunes on UBB became the backbone of the genre. The songs on the 25 volumes ranged from 1966 to 1984, with the vast majority unsurprisingly dating from the 70s, the same era as the parties where breakbeats first ruled. Every producer of the era, whether they copped to it or not, used breaks found somewhere on the compilations. They defined the sound of the era.
The series ceased right around the time sampling laws tightened up, and using breaks became considerably more expensive. The classic breaks are now far too identifiable, so current producers engage in a cat-and-mouse game of finding more and more obscure breaks, or trying to alter them enough to be unrecognizable.
Luckily for the inquisitive listener of today, UBB was reissued (still illegally!) a few years ago as a set of 2 CDs containing all 25 volumes on MP3, so it’s possible to find if you look hard enough.
What Makes a Break?
“I’m ripping emcees from ‘Funky Drummer’ to ‘Big Beat’”
-- LL Cool J, “Murdergram”
So why have some breaks been used over and over? What makes a good break beat? First off, from a producer’s perspective, ease of use is important. Having only the drums playing makes a breakbeat easy to sample and loop -- there are no difficult decisions on how to cut out the vocals or other instruments.
It is this simple qualification that many of rap’s most sampled breaks have in common. In 2010, the website Who Sampled put together a list of the most-sampled breaks of all time. The vast majority of them -- eight out of ten -- were from between 1969 and 1973, with just one outlier on each end of that time period. In almost all of them, there were between two and eight bars of solo drums.
What does that mean to you as a listener? First off, certain popular breaks have become a part of the language and meaning of rap songs. When a contemporary song uses “Apache” from the Incredible Bongo Band (from 1973, #6 on the list), it’s used not only because it’s a dope break. The sample’s existence is itself a reference to its popularity in early park jams, and also to the hundreds of times the beat has been sampled since 1981. Jay Z and Kanye West used these associations astutely on the 2011 track “That’s My Bitch.” The song foregrounded an “Apache” sample, but also included an homage to Public Enemy and a lyrical shoutout to Golden Age rapper Monie Love. All of these things worked in tandem to add an intended subtext of, as Digital Underground put it, “a tribute to the early days.”
In fact, as early as 1987, “Apache” was used to signify those same early days. A sample of the song was used on Kool Moe Dee’s “Way Way Back,” on which he used a self-consciously dated style to pay tribute to his roots. Likewise, Busy Bee used the “Apache” break on his 1988 song “Old School.” Immediately after the break plays, his first words are, “Oh man, that’s that old school.” Without the knowledge of the break’s history, that ad-lib would fall on deaf ears, and in fact the whole concept of the song would be nonsensical.
That same sample could also serve as a canvas for innovation. Kool G. Rap used it for his 1989 tune “Men At Work,” whose polysyllabic rhymes left a lifelong impression on a whole generation of emcees (to this day, Black Thought of The Roots can still rap the tune perfectly word-for-word). The tune had all the more impact for including advanced lyricism against a familiar template, where listeners were used to hearing the simplistic end-line rhymes of The Sugarhill Gang or the schoolyard chants of Busy Bee.
In truth, a solid knowledge of the soul and funk of the late 1960s and 1970s is essential to really understanding hip-hop. Being able to identify the bells on Bob James’ classic “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (1974) or the drums of Kool & the Gang’s “Chocolate Buttermilk” (1969) will add layers upon layers to your enjoyment of rap songs.
Can’t Stop the Rock: Rock & Roll and Other Outliers
“I’m the King of Rock, there is none higher/Sucker emcees should call me ‘Sire’”
-- Run-DMC, “King of Rock”
One of the oddities on Who Sampled’s list provides another important clue to unlocking the mysteries of the break beat. Number nine on the list is “The Big Beat,” a 1980 track by hard rocker Billy Squier. The song didn’t chart, and would have been forgotten, despite its charming stop-motion-filled video , if not for rap. Its opening drum break was immediately adopted by rappers -- by 1981, it was already a staple of many artists’ live performances.
So what does this mean? That rappers were anxiously awaiting Billy Squier’s first solo album? Of course not. The break was adopted because it had open drums, was right at the beginning of the song, and sounded great. That it was on a hard-rock record mattered not a bit.
This catholic approach to sampling has been true of hip-hop from the beginning, and continues to be so today. Popular Golden Age breaks came from funk and soul records, to be sure. But they also came from jazz, hard rock, and even The Monkees, the only-on-television 1960s “band” whose “Mary Mary” was adopted by De La Soul, Run-DMC, J.J. Fad, and 2 Live Crew proteges Anquette. If something sounded good, the source didn’t matter.
This approach, of reshaping good bits no matter where they’re from, goes back very far in hip-hop’s DNA. Afrika Bambaataa, one of the genre’s foremost pioneers, was famous for it. During hip-hop’s early years, he would throw parties where he would play everything -- electronic music, video game soundtracks, calypso -- with an unerring ear for what would both surprise people and keep the party moving. His record collection, which is now preserved at Cornell University, grew to over 40,000 strong, and he became known as the “Master of Records.” That same adventurousness is preserved even in today’s big stars -- Jay Z’s sample of Gonjasufi, Kanye West taking from 1970s Hungarian rockers Omega, and more.
The Godfather: James Brown and the Break Beat
“Tell the truth, James Brown was old/’Til Eric and Ra came out with ‘I Got Soul’”
-- Stetsasonic, ‘Talkin All That Jazz’
No discussion of break beats is complete without an examination of James Brown. Tracks that he either performed on or produced have been sampled well over 5,000 times, making him by far the most-sampled artist of all time.
Why is that? As with so many things in hip-hop, and in history generally, there is no one monolithic answer. Brown’s cultural impact was unparalleled during the 1960s and 70s -- remember that showing a concert of his on television in the wake of MLK’s death was pretty much the only thing that kept the city of Boston from rioting. His call to “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” and his self-reliant cry that “I don’t want nobody to get me nothing/Open up the door, I’ll get it myself” had a huge impact on black people (and also cost him a lot of his white audience).
Musically, Brown more or less single-handedly invented the hard-edged funk that would come to dominate the 1970s. He took the traditions of rhythm and blues music and stripped them down to almost nothing -- a few words (often made up on the spot), a groove, and often just a single chord.
Somehow, the force of his personality -- and an unerring nose for finding great musicians -- made it all work, and songs like “Super Bad” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” created what we now think of as funk.
James’ influence extended far beyond his own tunes. The songs he co-wrote and produced for other members of his camp became classics as well. Lyn Collins (“Think (About It)”) and Bobby Byrd (“I Know You Got Soul”) used Brown’s band The J.B.’s to produce great records in the vein of the master. And The J.B.’s themselves released a ton of instrumentals in the 1970s that stand alongside Brown’s greatest work. Even former members of Brown’s band got in on the act. The sibling team of William “Bootsy” Collins on bass and Phelps “Catfish” Collins on guitar, who played with Brown briefly in 1970-1, became key members of the legendary Parliament-Funkadelic collective after leaving the group.
What does this all have to do with breaks? First off, James’ early funk songs were repetitive grooves. While played straight through by the musicians, their circular nature connects them to the four- and eight-bar loops of early rap. Also, the extended length of many of the tunes meant that there were lots of moments without vocals for burgeoning producers to sample. And then there were the drum breaks.
“Funky Drummer,” number two on Who Sampled’s list, is a prime example. The song itself is a seven-minute mellow bit of funk that consists almost entirely of a one-bar vamp. Brown emotes and plays some organ on top of the groove.
Then, almost five minutes in, Brown starts giving the band instructions for an upcoming drum break. “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother. Just keep what you got!” he tells drummer Clyde Stubblefield. And 45 seconds later, Stubblefield does just that. Everyone drops out, and perhaps the most famous eight bars in the history of funk begins.
The beat -- a barrage of ghost notes, hi-hat openings and closings, and a tricky syncopated kick drum pattern -- would echo down through the decades. Starting in the mid-1980s, the beat became a staple in hip-hop. Other Brown songs would soon follow, creating renewed interest in the master’s work. While all eras of his career would be fair game for samplers, his “hard funk” period that began with 1967’s “Cold Sweat” and continued through 1976 makes up the vast majority of the sampled tunes.
The funk and soul of the late 1960s and 1970s, Brown especially, is the DNA of hip-hop. It worked its way into the genre’s sound, its emcees rhythms, and even its lyrical preoccupations. From Biggie’s “funk flow to make your drawers drop slow” to “Redman on the funk train,” the sound, feel, attitude, and cool of the funk pioneers has been a guiding light in the rap world.
In addition to Brown, his proteges in the Parliament-Funkadelic collective had a huge influence on the sound of West Coast rap in particular. Dr. Dre’s breakthrough 1992 solo album The Chronic, a record that came to define the so-called “G-funk” sound, featured ten different samples from either Parliament, Funkadelic, or the collective’s leader George Clinton, where no other artist was sampled more than once.
Kool & the Gang, before having smash success with crossover hits like “Hollywood Swingin’,” released funky instrumental tracks that would later be raided by producers. Their 1969 debut record would be used by pioneers like Eric B and Rakim, Stetsasonic, X-Clan, NWA, Special Ed, A Tribe Called Quest, and more.
While breakbeats were originally used to keep the party going, they came to be much more than that. They were a way for producers to use the music that was most familiar to them in order to create something exciting and new. And later, they began to signify themselves -- that is, to represent all of the other times that particular break has been used. That, ultimately, is the magic of breaks, and their ever-shifting meaning over time is as hip-hop as anything else about them.
Edit song description to add:
- Historical context: what album the song's on, how popular it was
- An explanation of the song's overall story (example: "In this song, Eminem corresponds with a crazed fan who ends up...")
- The sample used for the beat — use WhoSampled.com and wikipedia as references