Monday, August 21, 2006


A History of UK Breakbeat. A catalogue of the most exciting twists away from the Amen Break/Funky Drummer/etc template, aligned to the boldest sonic strokes elsewhere in the instrumentation. No such compilation exists, but it’s an exciting prospect for any bold record label.

Any narrative would need liner note clarification. Generically, it would take in the earliest signs that a simple break could be more than just an endless James Brown loop – ie, late 80s hip-hop when it used to be urgent, the sound of Hijack or Silver Bullet, say, as well as the first signs of the influence on rave of NYC men like Todd Terry, Tommy Musto, Frankie Bones and early Masters at Work/Nervous. Then it’s into the fantasy world of hardcore, the strange mutation into jungle and the freeform hyperdub of d&b. As that went too techy from ’96 onwards, strapping itself to the dirge of the grid again, only the most standout cuts would count – different time signatures such as Zinc’s 138 or the dementia of drill ‘n bass – as our narrative would concentrate on the first wave of (speed) garage, which despite its housey stomp, was syncopated enough to work as breakbeat music, ie to make the dancer flex against the beat rather than simply bounce to it (touched on with more erudition here). Thereafter, garage’s successors, early Tempa, Ghost, El-B, would figure, before the final tunes looked at movements on the outer limits; the likes of Zed Bias and some broken beat connections could make the cut, for example.

The mongy ‘breakbeat’ beloved of Rennie Pilgrem and co, where minimal syncopation makes it end up like reprogrammed house, isn’t really part of this history. Neither are the ‘breaks’ (these terms are interchangeable for both scenes) of the backpacker boys. The spirit here is not home counties jazzy freestyle, more urban blues jam. Yet there may be space for signature tunes in any of these related areas, in turn creating space for one or two of the more inventive trip hop tunes, in turn allowing the Bristol trinity a look-in, as well as the older Smith & Mighty/More Rockers sound.

Such a comp would showcase a combination of the science of the seminal underground hit with well-known classics. The ragga vibes of Shut Up and Dance might sit shoulder to shoulder with later Rebel MC, Zero B next to Four Hero and 2 Bad Mice, Prodge’s Charley next to Goldie’s Terminator, Omni Trio to Original Nutta.

It could join the canon of great compilations. Idiot’s Guide recently posted on the joys of compilations, and a Dalston man has been delighting the virtual crowds with his diggin in charity shop crates. I can only agree that comps have been a major part of my musical life, and a good overview, usually released as a scene is in its major creative development, can be a precious artifact, and one, for all technoheads looking for the latest frequencies, that makes much more sense than whatever is in the top 100 best albums of all-time this week…

Then there’s the issue of territory – this could be essentially a London thing given the predominance of the area’s contribution, but that would ignore the role of Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol and the more esoteric contributions from the placeless techno scene. It would also ignore the role of suburban bassheads, and maybe those early Nu Yorican vibes are too important to ignore?

Then who would get the task of compiling? Who would be able to combine a deep knowledge of 15 years of rave-based culture, divest enough pride and prejudice not to draw heavily on their own belle époque? Maybe the bloggers can do the work.

There are other stumbling blocks. The major one is that the loops and fills of breakbeat never completely vanquished the ravey techno/house sound of drum machines. The second wave of garage and then grime, with its usage of cheap computer game technology, saw a return to a defunked, desampled digital rhythm of electroid claps and hissing snares, though that’s not to say the more inventive could not programme beguiling breakbeatesque patterns.

Today the breakbeat is in a fallow period: European techno is again calling the shots – apart from the Belgians’ early experiments this means a re-emphasis of the pure output of the machine; low-end dubsteppers, if they are to use a break at all, use it only as a sped-down part of a much wider meshwork of quasi-industrial timbres, going against the dance-now imperative of its precedents. But having widened the possibility of rhythm, revitalised rock drumming and contributed to the continued explosion of dance music culture, now might be a good time for a retrospective of its most creative exponents.

The tune below ended up arguably being too much like the bad breakbeat I mention, and that screech isn’t a guitar. But I like the momentum. Compare and contrast with other Djekyll output on the sidebar….
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