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A brief history of breakbeat

What is breakbeat?

A style of music with funny irregular beats? A genre with blurred boundaries? An excuse to cut sick on the floor with strange 80s inspired dance moves?

For those who love it it’s all those things – and a whole lot more.

Breakbeat as an electronic genre has roots that stretch back as far as the late 1960s, primarily sprouting from areas such as the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem areas of New York. Talk to purveyors and fans of the genre alike and the most common element you’ll find that hooks them all in is ‘tha funk’. What most music historians will also agree on is that James Brown could be considered the godfather of modern funk.

It follows then, that James Brown’s funk track Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine could in essence be considered the first real ‘breakbeat’ tune. As funk’s popularity spread, so too did its commercial viability – acts like Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament challenging pre-conceived notions of popular music, while at the same time staying true to the funk. Their work was to inspire DJs like the legendary Cool Herc.

Cut to the early 70s and DJs like Herc begin playing drum solos from two funk records back to back on two decks, creating a ‘breakdown’ in the music. This breakdown, or ‘break in the beat’, was gradually shorted to become referred to as ‘break’ – and the genre of music ‘breakbeat’ born. Herc’s work was to inspire luminaries like Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash, often cited as the father of modern DJing due to his invention of a cross fader, which allowed DJs to easily switch from one record to another.

Around this time Flash was to team up with Kid Creole, Melle Mel, Mr Ness, Cowboy and Raheim to form The Furious Five – generally regarded as the fathers of hip hop. While hip hop’s history is too extensive to cover in a mere paragraph, its contribution to the evolution of breaks came from a few unlikely sources. Afrika Bambaata released a stack of early releases on the Tommy Boy label, but he’s best known for a seminal track called Planet Rock. With an electro sample which owes more to Kraftwerk than James Brown (it samples their track Trans Europe Express) the track was responsible for introducing a new hip hop/electro hybrid to a European market.

Credit should also be given to producer Herbie Hancock for his track Rockit – which took electro hip hop to a more ‘mainstream’ market via then cool sources like MTV. As testament to their influence, both tracks are still played, sampled and reworked today.

During the early 1990s many house and techno producers started to use ‘breakbeats’ in their tracks to add an extra ‘polyrhythmic’ feel to their work, or simply because it was easier to sample and loop ‘real’ drums, than use a drum machine. Out of these experiments early UK hardcore was born, a mash up of former B-Boys-cum-ravers, breaks samples and techno. At around 130-140 bpm, early hardcore bears a striking resemblance to contemporary breakbeat music.

From here we saw breakbeat music sped up and an influx of black kids lured by the breakbeat, forming the basis of the UK’s jungle scene. Elsewhere DJs like America’s Dan and Icey were producing electro-acid-fuelled-breakbeat on America’s west coast, and a thriving scene born.

While much of the early to mid nineties was the era of house, one breakbeat sub-genre in particular – big beat – was able to make a recognisable impact on more mainstream consciousness. At a dancefloor ‘safe’ 130 bpm (similar to most house music) the style – most notably championed by producers such as Fatboy Slim and DJs like The Bassbin Twins – owed a lot of its success to a heavy reliance on recognisable track samples. The style was a look back to the funk and hip hop which originally inspired breakbeat.

However it was this reliance on ‘old is new’ ideas that eventually saw the sub-genre become overly commercial, and fall out of favour with the dance community.

The late nineties saw the rise of breakbeat music which relied less on samples and more on production techniques. Early influential producers such as Rennie Pilgrem and Danny McMillan labelled their sub-genre ‘nu skool’ breaks, as a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that they were re-educating us with their futurism, looking forward rather than back to the past.

Currently we see breakbeat at a pivotal point in time, an ever-evolving, rapidly expanding genre – which draws on the past while pushing forward to the future. Breaks as a style of music means many things to many people. For some fans it’s all about the showy production techniques, while others love its floor rockin’ funk jams, mind blowing basslines or quirky samples. What they’ll probably all agree on though, is that you never really know exactly what to expect from a breaks track.

Technical notes:

Breakbeat is often mistakenly categorised as music which is not in 4/4 measure. However the most common criteria for breakbeats are clear drums and percussion in a 4/4 measure. The snare usually plays on 2 and 4: so . 2 . 4. There may also be other snare hits in the measure. Nearly all breakbeats descend from the breaks on James Brown records, where he goes HUEENNNNGG and the band stops. Basically, a breakbeat is the beat in that break. James Brown’s drummers have historically created syncopated beats (i.e. off the measure), very often, around the third beat. In Primer notation: 1 2 33 4.

‘Breaks’ defines any breakbeat-based electronic music that hovers around the 130 bpm mark. In essence, however, breakbeat based music can hover anywhere from the 80 bpms of hip hop to the 160 bpms of drum and bass.