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Jonathan Wall: A lesson in history

As a pretty much die-hard house fan, and regular to Sublime back in the old day of Pitt St, I’d spend many a Saturday night grooving my own little spot into the wooden floor in front of the decks when Jonathan Wall would play. So it surprised me to learn that Senor Wall has compiled and released ‘The History of Breaks’ – a fantastic journey from the early beginnings of Funk through to the most recent incarnation of the Beat – Nu-Skool Breaks.

Jonathan gave me a call one afternoon to have a bit of a chat about where the idea for this all came from, and how it’s come about.

“I was into Breaks before House ever existed and I’ve always liked a variety of music, it’s just when I was at Sublime, at various stages I was playing House on Saturdays for Cargo and Breaks on Thursdays. When we changed venues from Pitt St. to Home I was mostly playing Breaks, then House – taking two boxes of records and playing two different sets”.

“It was quite funny at Home. Breaks people would see me and say “hi”, friends, fans whatever. It would be the same people each week in the Breaks room. Then I’d walk upstairs and play at 4am to a whole different bunch of people – the same people each week. Then I started to see one or two familiar Breaks faces in the House room or vice versa and they’d be like “Shit. What are you doing here? Do you play House?” or “Do you play Breaks too?” A lot of people get surprised by this”

“I don’t like sticking to one thing – like movies. One day I’ll go see the latest explosion blockbuster then next week go and see something arty or whatever. Lots of DJs whom I respect who play the one style for years… it does my head in! I don’t know how they do it!”

Trust me kids, this man certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to what he loves most – Music.

“Most of it was stuff that I knew I didn’t have to do any research expect for a couple of tracks where I didn’t know what in which year they were released, like, the Theme from Shaft. I knew it came out in ‘70 something, so we just did a little bit of Internet research. It’s all mostly music that I’ve grown up with so it was really fun for me”.

“It started, well, when I was 10 I had a friend who had this Aunty who was a real disco fan and had lots of records. He’d borrow her records – we’d put them on and try to teach ourselves to dance. The first song I tried to dance to was ‘Machine Gun’ by the commodores. That and ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer. Something about those two songs has shaped me ever since. They just sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard, and still do. The Kraftwerk etc electronic style also had a huge influence”.

“The Commodores was an example of, I wouldn’t say hard but really good 70s Funk. The album its on might have ‘Sanctified’ as well – it was really great music. I’ve always had an interest in different styles and a lot of the music on this album was stuff I danced to when I started going out clubbing. They bring back great memories, like I went to a club in ‘84 and this song comes on and I went “Wow – that’s great!”

It’s been said that “Sydney is the Breakbeat capital of the world”, and certainly the likes of Adam Freeland would agree. Detroit Hip Hop Fiend Dabrye recently said at Sound Summit that “Australians really seem to have a huge amount of talent when it comes to making Breakbeat music”, so I of course put the question to Jonathan – “Why is this do you think?”

“I think um…it’s a couple of things. We are crap at House (completely). We’ve never really nailed it. You’d think the San Francisco sound would be ideally suited to Australia. With breaks I think it’s got a lot to do with that Breaks are doing so well and that, still to some degree, Breaks can be considered underground. Even though Breaks DJs are playing Field Day which isn’t essentially a Breaks event. Breaks wouldn’t be considered the main kind of music. You’ll hear house music if you bar hopped 20 bars and clubs in Sydney. So Breaks is still quite ‘Underground’ in that fashion”.

“A lot of people who are at the stage of being a Bedroom Producer – they want to be underground. Everyone wants to be underground for a few years then he or she can sellout and go hang with P. Diddy”.

“I think the other thing is that because if you’re looking to be a Producer, there’s a couple of reasons why you want to do it. You love it. You want to make music. The reason to believe it’s going to see the light of day. 99% of people would like to have their music heard and have some relevance. Either mainstream or played in the clubs they want to go to. With breaks it seems to be a lot more attainable. By that I mean there are local labels who want to push it like Sound Not Seen, Creative Vibes to an extent and Vicious Vinyl – there are people who see how many people get into breaks so there’s a point to putting it out and DJs are going to play it”

“Financial is the other reason. There’s a real possibility for an aspiring Breaks Producer to make some money. A few bucks for equipment, or to go out and listen to their favourite Breaks DJ. I guess the main thing, which always held back Dance Production is that no one really thought they could make a living off it, so it always remained a bit of a hobby. For style of music to work – people need to make money from it.”

“It’s no accident that good music comes out of places where people don’t have a hope of getting another job. There are a lot of places in the USA where it’s really hard to make a living. We’ve got it easy here in comparison. We’re seeing all the Breaks DJs come and play which is great. With Production though, particularly Nu School Breaks, it’s a style with successful tracks purely made on a computer with no live instruments. If people can make something on a pc and it’s relevantly easier than hiring a studio and hiring a Diva for the day to come in and lay down some vocals”.

So, with all of this accumulated knowledge, has Jonathan Wall ever tried his hand at Producing some Breaks tunes for himself?

“I’ve been too busy laughs… I was DJ’ing and thinking to do something extra. The
2 most logical were Production and Promoting, but Promoting took off and took over. And it’s still the case”.

“Definitely in terms of parties, there are some pretty big Breaks events here ala Field Day which is not essentially a Breaks event, but it’s about 50/50 House and Breaks. House was huge and Breaks was tiny and we thought Breaks deserved a bit more attention in the mid ‘90s when there were a lot of good Breaks coming out. Only the occasional hits ala Fat Boy Slim. Breaks just didn’t make the main room. You’d go to a House night where they’d throw in the one Fat Boy song. There was lot’s of other House stuff around at the time, so we started Thursdays at Sublime – Beat Fix. It took a little bit of consolidation before we could afford to do this. You could say that House supported the Breaks efforts for a long time. Beat fix was paid for by Voodoo on Friday. The back room paid for us to play Breaks. Breaks fans hate Trance and those that are into it but without knowing it, one helped the other. Sublime funded the Fuzzy parties, which were great fun, and we stuck at it and stuck at it… ”.

“It took from ‘96 to a year and a half ago before we managed to make it viable. It’s been fun”.

With such a vast background and a wealth of knowledge in the field, it was interesting to discover where Jonathan hopes to see Breaks progress over the next year or two…

“I’m hoping that all the people who are producing decent Nu School Breaks on their Pc’s will expand. It’s not the easiest thing to do but you don’t have to spend a lot of money getting other people involved. I’d like to see them explore different avenues. Maybe use live instruments etc”.

“There hasn’t been as big an industry for Breaks as House and the best thing that could happen is for a local Community to start developing, because I think it helps if there’s a group of people with expertise who can help each other and feed off each other. To be influenced by other people in the same area. It’s really obvious how having a particular vibe and sound was good for French House in making people sit up and take notice, particularly Daft Punks album doing so well. So to make a distinguishable Australian Breaks vibe it’s like, it’s not like we can put a Didgeridoo in every track. If I were producing, what’d be good would be if people came up with a distinctive sound. I think it’s starting to happen. But not really so much just yet”

“I’m really championing the likes of Poxy Music, Infusion, Nu Breed – they all stand out as people who’ve actually put stuff out that’s successful and good. There’s getting to be a pool of talent. I’m getting a lot of demos on CDs from Bedroom Producers and it’s great how many people are sending in demos. I’ve played some of these demos. I do Radio every Friday on FBI. 2 hours of new music each week and every kind of dance music, local, foreign etc. so I play a lot of things there. When I’m playing it, if I think it’ll work I’ll play it out in a set”.
So if Senor Wall has such a long and delightful association with Breaks, what was the first ‘Breaks’ record he bought?

“It’s hard to say… The first record I bought that I know for sure definitely was Breaks was in 1984. It was DJ Mix album called ‘Heavy Duty Breaks’. So that’s the first time I specifically remember something being called ‘Breaks’. There was definitely Break Dancing and B-Boys and Girls and a Break in a track was an old term – around the early ‘80s. The first single track which was definitely Breaks – probably, I mean ‘Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ ‘cos he was playing the Breaks. It wasn’t called Breaks, it’s Hip Hop – but he was definitely playing the Breaks. I know that in the mid ‘80s like. ‘86ish there were lots of tunes by people like ‘The Break Goes On’ by 4th Floor Allstars”.

“When I go record shopping I always trying to avoid records from just the one section. I think labels of any sort serve to simplify the world a bit. To make it easier to find stuff and understand what general style they are, so they’re useful in that sense but they can become a problem. In ‘The History of Breaks’ album, half the stuff on there whomever made it probably doesn’t call it Breaks. Prince for example, he’d probably say, “No way am I a Breaks Artist!” It’s important to remember that whilst you’ve got a name for a style of music you don’t want to use that to overly restrict yourself.”

“In many ways, in my opinion, a lot of the current Breaks and House could justifiably be called Techno – ‘Tour de France’ by Kraftwerk is considered Breaks but Kraftwerk are very definitely Techno. Like, Nu School Breaks is Techno as far as I’m concerned. It sounds very technological to me. I have a tendency to call everything either Techno or Funk. I tend to go record shopping and people will tell me “I just wanna check out the Breaks tracks”, and I’m like “No! – There may be some really good House or Electro which might fit in” – like UR (Detroit Electro/House outfit), where they do cross boundaries from time to time. It’s healthy to put things in the wrong place in the record shops from times to time. People might think they only like Techno but they’ll buy a Breaks record they really like and play it. All styles all have so much in common”.

With Breaks still quite frequently using the James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ beats, doesn’t a DJ get a little tired of hearing the same thing on so many records?

“I guess I still like a lot of House with the same old beat, but if it’s a sample of the original James Browns ‘Funky Drummer’ it does get a bit boring, but plenty has derived where the beat helps define the music but its not the whole story. You look for the inspiration. I’ve heard some really inspired Country and Western, but I wouldn’t necessarily dance to it. There’s probably some extremely intelligent heavy metal as far as I know.”

The Breaks DJ’s I’d pay good money to see would be… um… actually, kind of all of them just about. For different reasons Plump DJ’s and Krafty Kuts where I KNOW I’ll have a good time… and all the Breaks DJ’s I’ve never heard”.

Jonathan Wall is bringing The History of Breaks to a club near you soon. So why not get yourself along and truly feel what the Man means when he says, “Music is one of the reasons to be alive”.

History of Breaks is out now through Central Station Records.