Beats Per Month: Breaking Down Breakbeats

Music has been an integral part of my life for years and shortly after my ninth birthday I began experimenting with different instruments. The desire to create music has been with me almost my entire life and I was an avid drummer for years before I started DJing. I would spend hours on end behind a drum set every day after school and thankfully, my parents were always very tolerant of the noise. So it was that I later became enamored with the sounds of jungle and its base element: the breakbeat.

Breakbeats (or breaks) are traditionally drum sequences from old soul, funk and jazz records. Featured on records from the likes of James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner and the Meters, the breakbeat became a fundamental part of soul and funk in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the formative years of hip hop, DJs would juggle two copies of the same record to extend the break. When samplers were introduced soon after, producers began sampling these breaks as the foundation for early hiphop as well as a myriad of electronic genres. My particular tastes lie in jungle, which focuses on sampling each drum hit in a break then re-editing said break by changing everything from placement of hits and pitch shifts to reverses and time-stretching. In the early days, producers would spend hours on hardware samplers and sequencers editing, resampling and re-editing. Since then, an abundance of new technology has made it easier to edit breakbeats into new patterns, new grooves and ultimately, new music. Everyone from N.W.A. and Mantronix to DJ Shadow and Squarepusher have used breakbeats as the driving force to their music.

There are countless records out there with that ever-so-sweet few seconds when every instrument drops out to “give the drummer some.” Amen (from The Winstons’ “Amen, Brother”), Think (from James Brown’s “Think (About It)”), Funky Drummer (also James Brown) and Tighten Up (from Archie Bell & the Drells) are just a few of the more well-known breaks that have been used over the years but there are so many others to be had. This wide variety of different drum samples has inspired people to search for more drum patterns and ultimately to something I’ve mentioned numerous times before: crate digging. There is a constituency of people out there who have an inherent need to seek out the rarest breaks. These diggers will go to great lengths to find the record that no one has, sometimes traveling to the most obscure record stores in the farthest reaches of the galaxy to do so. There also tends to be a bit of friendly competition between DJs as they normally shroud their findings in secrecy. There was a time when some DJs would go as far as ripping the labels off their vinyl to prevent others from having the same records. This may seem extreme, but these breaks have become the soundtrack for innumerable parties for more than 30 years now.

So why all the obsessive behavior over what is essentially a few seconds of drums? From a production standpoint, I think it’s the ability to manipulate subtle elements of each different break. Some breaks have nice rolls, others have nice rides and still others have just the right amount of funk. Splicing these bits of nuance into something completely new and different is probably my favorite aspect. In my own music, I usually switch between a few different breaks several times throughout the duration of a song in a call and response fashion. In a sense, it’s almost as if there are multiple drummers in the same room playing off of each other. Apart from that, I think there is something to be said for the drum itself. As the world’s oldest instrument, it still retains a primal quality that many people can’t resist. Personally, I can’t help but get down when I hear a drummer kick into a dope beat and I’d imagine there are more than a few of you that would agree. At the end of the day, it’s all about the kick and the snare and the hats and the cymbals. It just doesn’t get any better.