Image via: BBC
In the late 90s, a movement began in West London that was to inspire a new direction in dance music.
Though this movement was never acknowledged in the mainstream music press, never had a crossover chart single, and never truly transcended its community roots, there was a unique alchemy at work – a fertile moment in UK music where a group of friends began to experiment with new cadences, rhythms and distilled influences, meticulously crafting a new genre.
Though “broken beat” was never a tagline that the producers anticipated, and one that they often publicly resisted, those two words would come to represent the scattered rhythms, rolling basslines and soaring changes that were inherent to this new music. Prior to the mid-2000s,the sum total retail outlets of this sound were one tiny divider in Soho’s Sounds of The Universe store, marked “West London”, and one primitive website, that of Goya Music Distribution. The music was heard only at a club night called Co-Op, originally based at the Velvet Rooms, and in later years at Plastic People, and like many cultures rooted in the Jamaican sound system tradition, what was heard there differed enormously from what was released – dubplates, alternative versions and beat experiments, all united in their emphasis on heavy bass, staccato drum machine rhythms and soulful feelings. Walking into Co-Op for the first time felt like experiencing a glimpse of the future – hand-held laser pens swooped over a frenetic dance-floor, illuminating clouds of collie smoke like sniper sights scouting a post-apocalyptic battlefield, while a toy dub siren rang out from the booth and IG Culture’s deep Jamaican accent punctuated the pounding rhythms: “It’s a Co-Op thing, it’s Co-Operation – if you ain’t here to dance you can go home now.”
Many of the producers who created broken beat were dance music veterans who worked hard to keep the focus on the Co-Op club, keep the music played there ever-evolving, and collectively resist any temptation to fall into a comfortable template. In this sense there was a manifesto about broken beat which was specifically informed by past experiences. A sizeable number came from an ex-Reinforced Records background º the legendarily aloof jungle and d’n’b label run by 4Hero’s Dego and Marc Mac – such as Seiji, Marc “G” Force, Domu and Colin Lindo. Others came from a house music background, like Phil Asher of Restless Soul, Orin ‘Afronaught’ Walters or Darren ‘Daz I Kue’ Benjamin. One central element of the sound was Kaidi Tatham’s keyboard playing, a virtuoso jazz-funk musician who had been part of The Herbaliser in the mid-90s.
UK soul was represented in the contributions of Demus from the Young Disciples and IG Culture, whose career arc had taken in early UK hip-hop and projects for the likes of Island Records. Mark De Clive-Lowe, Alex Phountzi and Dave ‘Zed Bias’ Jones also played major roles and the best known outfit was undoubtedly Bugz In The Attic, a cooperative production “supergroup” whose signing to V2 was about as close as broken beat ever came to cracking the mainstream. Beyond this the network extended worldwide, resonating in releases on a fledgling Rush Hour distribution in Amsterdam, the work of Italy’s Volcov, Germany’s Jazzanova and Inverse Cinematics (now known as Motor City Drum Ensemble), Japan’s Jazzy Sport records and more.
Broken beat was as diverse as its parentage would suggest – the arrangements, beats and tempos could vary drastically between releases. With this in mind it’s hardly surprising that many people couldn’t work out what broken beat actually was – or is – until the mid-2000s, when a characteristic groove eventually emerged. The mindset and the culture was eclectic from the outset – it was vibrant, afro-futuristic dance music for 21st century b-boys and girls. Its roots were in the scientific soul of the Mizell brothers, the Afrobeat rhythms of Tony Allen and Fela Kuti, the electro funk and boogie of the mid-80s, the spiritual jazz of Sun Ra and Norman Connors, the soulful techno of Juan Atkins and Derrick May. But the execution and production was grounded in MPCs, SP1200s, the hand-me-down samplers of the hip-hop and jungle golden eras which gave the drums a raw, choppy rhythmic feel – hence the “broken” tag. Though Goya Music Distribution sadly shut down in 2007, taking down many of the better labels with it, it certainly feels like some of this tradition – in particular the stripped down and syncopated drum sounds, and eclectic approach to fusing genres – continues to live on today in the sound of UK funky.
Download our recent FACT mix from broken beat hero Seiji. The majority of the tunes in this list aren’t available to listen to on the internet, but this mix by Onda Sonora includes several of them, and gives a good flavour of how the genre was back in the day.
01. Cold Mission
‘Drug Store Rude Bwoy’ (Nu-Era Remix)
(Reinforced 12″, 1996)
4hero, aka Dego and Marc Mac, have laid the foundations of so many important genres that it almost boggles the mind. Nu-Era was a 4hero alias, later known as Marc Mac’s solo pseudonym, most associated with the beautiful and rare broken techno LP Beyond Gravity. On the flipside of this Cold Mission 12”, released at the height of d’n’b’s popularity, Nu-Era take an odd left turn and slow down the driving groove, syncopating and stuttering the rhythm back to front, early and late. It may seem trivial in 2010 but this is how new directions are formed – many subsequent releases on Reinforced by the likes of Nubian Mindz and Seiji and G Force also dabbled in these same waters, setting the stage for the aesthetic of broken – an experimental, slower, more dancefloor-orientated cousin of jungle. It’s fair to say this remix was at least 10 years ahead of its time, a prototype for what was to come.
02. Misa Negra
(People 12″, 1998)
When this dropped in September 1998 it’s doubtful that many stood up and took notice. ‘Spiritual Vibes’ is a humble slice of what the B-side describes as ‘Afro Boogie House’, presumably because no better descriptive genre terms had been coined at this point. Misa Negra were Daz-I-Kue on production and Kaidi Tatham on the keys, while a remix dub by Orin “Afronaught” Walters fills up the A-side. Though by no means as sophisticated as their later work as a group, ‘Spiritual Vibes’ sets the tone for their Bugz In The Attic collaborations to come. There’s an inherent musicality about this 12” and a quirkiness in the rhythms – the Afronaught dub starts half-time and doubles over on itself. Bell trees, shells and shakers abound, reminiscent of spiritual jazz classics like Norman Connors’ Dark Of Light, whilst Kaidi’s voice echoes over the beats, whispering “Spiritual… Vibes…” It’s an off-the-wall blend but it works – deeply reflective, brooding, partly melancholic, but heavy as lead and custom built for a system. The eccentric, almost childlike approach with which influences are mixed and blended here is the very embodiment of what broken stood for in its infancy.
03. Neon Phusion
The Future Ain’t The Same (As It Used 2 B)
(Laws Of Motion LP, 1999)
Neon Phusion are Alex Phountzi, Kaidi Tatham and Orin Walters. The Future… is an early broken album with a live mood, doubtlessly the result of many blazed jam sessions. It’s a great example of the melting pot of the time, the optimism of the music, the fallout of drum and bass. You can liken the vibe to jungle at the end of its jazzy period – the feel is blissed out, heavily influenced by the space funk of the 70s but still rooted in driving percussion. ‘Timecode’ is an early take of Orin’s ‘Transcend Me’ with a Headhunters theme to it, whilst ‘Kulu Macu’ has an Afro-Brazilian touch, and raw beats come in the form of ‘Hot Ice’. Annoyingly, the dopest track – the title track ‘The Future Ain’t The Same (As It Used 2 Be)’ – is only ever found on the CD version, along with some other killer bonus material. In that form it’s a particularly quality listen a decade later.
04. Various Artists
Cooperation Vol. 1
(Cooperation Recordings 2X12″, 2000)
This is an excellent compilation of tracks from the scene at the time with a number of exclusive beats on it. What’s striking about this is how diverse it is – from soft Brazilian lullabies and fusion licks, to harder broken, house and techno, as though no manifesto has been yet been formed. Here some of the finest of the era are nicely collected, including the likes of Seiji and G Force’s ‘Chase The Ace’, Phil Asher’s ‘Phoojun’ and Neon Phusion’s ‘Timeless Motion’, one of the absolute best tracks of the genre ever, worth also tracking down on a separate Laws Of Motion 12″. Raw drum breaks, swirling synths and a quality which some would now call “wonky” abounds. There is also the sound of imagination and cooperation defying the limitations of bedroom studios.
05. Vikter Duplaix
(Groove Attack 12″, 2000)
“I want to know what you taste like / Taste like in the dark,” croons Vikter Duplaix over this classic disjointed rhythm. Though Vikter is a soul singer from Philadelphia, his work was first embraced and played to death by the West London movement, including Critical Point’s ‘Messages’ on MAW Records, ‘Sensuality’, and ‘Looking For Love’ (which had a Bugz In The Attic remix on the 12”, and became a latter day Co-Op anthem). The critic’s choice is still ‘Manhood’ though, the first single after ‘Messages’, which innovates from the first bar to the last and still gets revival plays today. It’s edgy slice of hi-tech soul production with the innate catchiness that exemplified the scene at the time. The transposed Detroit chord that cycles through the changes and the stop-and-start rhythm were often emulated but never surpassed, and the vocal, at once kinky, sexual and even a touch romantic, always got the bodies going on the floor. It’s also worth checking out the RIMA version on the follow up remix 12”, much overlooked due to the intense popularity of the original, but still compelling and fresh today.
06. Son Of Scientist
‘Theory Of Everything’ / ‘Ion Steel’
(Mainsqueeze 12″, 2001)
The Son Of Scientist is IG Culture, whose formidable and charismatic persona reigned over the proceedings at Co-Op. IG’s chops as a producer are rooted in years of experience behind the boards, which he puts to great effect on this excellent 12″. ‘Theory Of Everything’ is, as the title suggests, a holistic approach to beatmaking – all sorts of perverted clicks and distortions rise over the beats on this record, along with the rich Prophet strings of 80s electro, as though thrown together but then sculpted into place. There isn’t a satisfying way to describe what this fusion is; it has to be experienced, and it sounds even madder now than then, but it still manages to remain funky despite its harshness. Flipside ‘Ion Steel’ is also ace, with a filthy garage bassline and an awkward time signature. You can feel IG’s sense of humour in this mess, as well as his love for crafting immaculate sound system bangers.
(Bitasweet 10″, 2001)
Quietly revived by Kode 9 on a mixtape I heard somewhere last year, ‘Space’ by Kudu is nothing if not a disturbing listen. The ascending synth lines creep up the spine and many of them have a vocal quality to them, as though the circuits are trying to communicate. This was the work of Mark De Clive-Lowe, Domu and Seiji in collaboration, and is a good example of the freaky psychedelic quality that many bruk tunes have. The drums skip and stutter satisfyingly, but the funk is somehow retained, despite the artificial sound textures and machines at work.
(2000 Black 12″, 2001)
“I was 23 when it came out,” Domu says of ‘Save It’, “and I remember feeling on top of the world every time it was played.” ‘Save It’ was not Dom’s first release, but it was certainly the tune that catapulted him into successful years of international touring, remixing and producing at the height of his career. “There’s always something you’re giving away,” sings Face, “so save it,” leading us to assume the lyrics are about the popular attitude in the scene of being aloof and shutting your gob, rather like the message of Seiji’s ‘Loose Lips’. This is Domu at his most accessible – smooth Rhodes changes and a hooky ARP Odyssey bassline make this track an instant earworm inducer. One thing that is innovative about the record is the “early” clap, which gives the groove an awkward anticipatory feel, a pattern that was much imitated but rarely matched in broken’s later years.
(Apollo 12″, 2001)
If there is one broken beat anthem everyone can agree on, it’s ‘Transcend Me’ by Orin Walters. It’s a simple but effective blend – the Harvey Mason drum break from Weather Report’s classic Sweetnighter LP is sliced and diced into a million bits on an MPC3000 and re-sequenced to give the sensation that the drums are grooving in suspended animation, filled with infinite rhythmic variation. In the background, a filtered Kaidi Tatham Rhodes part swells and burbles, meowing like a cat that hasn’t been fed for days, until finally the song reaches a crescendo and Melissa Browne’s dreamy vocals glue the disparate elements together. At just under eight minutes, ‘Transcend Me’ shows that Co-Op was not about the three-minute pop song – only there could something as astral, otherworldly, disorientating and spiritual as this become a seminal party tune.
10. Da One Away
‘Trash Da Junk’
(Mainsqueeze 12″, 2001)
“We live in the funk / Trash the junk / Now what have we done?” It’s a simple hook line, but so effective in the way it works with the drum pattern. Like ‘Save It’, ‘Trash The Junk’ is all about the anticipation in the groove, the snare seemingly skipping ahead of itself in a delightful way, whilst the melody, changes and vocal sporadically interrupt the drums at the start of the bar. ‘Trash’ is odd, whimsical and experimental; hypnotic in the way in which it loops and builds, until eventually Kaidi’s jazz changes emerge to lift our spirits and the track erupts with analogue synth colours. Another masterful Dego production, it’s well worth flipping this over to indulge in the more minimal and hard-edged 808 dub on the flip, which still hits hard and fresh enough to contend with any “funky” dubplate today.
11. Mark Force
‘Gypo’ / ’40 Days’
(Bitasweet 12″, 2002)
Mark “G” Force is perhaps one of the lesser-known broken innovators. Despite a large and varied discography that includes progressive collaborations with Seiji in the Reinforced era and numerous heavy dubplates during the 00s, he is still under-repped and underrated today. ‘Gypo’ is one of those tunes that many will recognise even if they don’t know the title. It’s an odd one that stops and starts, literally 2-step in that it has two parts to the groove – half garage bounce a la Maddslinky, half boogie a la Central Line, with a bassline that’s just nasty. And that’s about it – instant rewind at Co-Op as soon as the b-line dropped, and a crowd screaming for the heavy groove. As with many of these 12”s, the critic’s choice is on the flipside – ’40 Days’ is a beautiful slice of home-made boogie that wouldn’t sound out of place on the People’s Potential label if it came out tomorrow. The force has always been strong with Mark, and this still stands the test of time, totally relevant to the post-garage, post-dubstep scene of today.
(Bitasweet, 12″, 2002)
Of all the tracks of the Goyamusic canon, ‘Loose Lips’ is perhaps the most well-known amongst casual listeners, and the one that crossed over to the widest audience. The heart of Loose Lips is a stripped down groove – a chopped drum break with Pierre Henry siren noises that echo away in the background, and not a whole lot else. The pattern in itself is noteworthy, though – this was Seiji’s innovation, a double snare that emulates a Salsoul double clap at 130 bpm, a signature pattern often used in his work that followed. What makes the track so recognisable is Lyric L and her fast, high pitched voice rhyming with ease: “Loose lips, sink ships, flip scripts drama-tics” repeated like a mantra for the length of the record. Easy to sing along with, or even shout along with, particularly if you’ve got a beer in your hand. The B-side ‘3dom’ is the real favourite though – hard to describe exactly why it’s so good, but I guess it must be the hooky five-note melody that leads it along. When Eve and Benga’s ‘Me and My’ blew up last year, it felt like ‘Loose Lips’ had set the stage for it seven years before.
13. Agent K
Feed The Cat
(Laws Of Motion LP, 2002)
Kaidi Tatham was the jazz virtuoso lynchpin in the Cooperation movement. Doubtless most of the records listed here would not have existed if it wasn’t for Tatham, whose ability to improvise on countless instruments will leave you dumbfounded if experienced in the flesh. A masterful flautist, percussionist, keyboard player and more, it’s his signature changes, based on the styles of jazz greats like Herbie Hancock and Harry Whittaker, that take all the records he plays on to another level of harmony. Despite leading on countless sessions for his numerous friends and collaborators, Kaidi only received praise in his own name for a couple of anthems, the best known of which is ‘Betcha Did’, a heavily orchestrated work that sounds like the Mizell brothers playing at double their normal speed. On Feed The Cat, Kaidi finally got to helm his own album, and the results still sound compelling today. The title track, with its classic, richly textured UK boogie feel, pre-empts Dam-Funk’s revival of the genre by almost a decade. Elsewhere Kaidi fuses spiritual jazz, Brazilian rhythms and analogue electronics with such purity of intent and richness of execution that this surely will be a collector’s item in years to come.
‘Hold It Down’ (Bugz In The Attic Remix)
(Talkin’ Loud 12″, 2002)
This gem was where it all kicked off for Bugz In The Attic, a collaborative production outfit comprising Orin ‘Afronaught’ Walters, Paul ‘Seiji’ Dolby, Kaidi Tatham, Daz-I-Kue, Alex Phountzi, Cliff Scott, Mark Force, Matt Lord and Mikey Stirton. That’s a lot of folks crowded round one computer and one MIDI keyboard, and for those interested, no, they did not all work on every track credited to that name. The ‘Hold It Down’ remix is the anthem that made them, however – as good as the 4hero original is, the remix takes the mood up a gear. It’s accessible enough to be pop, and has boogie at the very core of the beat, but the genius touch comes half way through when the chords change and the lush vocals of Lady Alma overwhelm the mix. This 12” was very sought-after at the time due to multiple pressing delays, and even though it might be too rich and saccharine for today’s dancers, it’s a testament to a production team that were on fire in the studio, and such have been the recognized successors to Loose Ends and Soul II Soul in the UK soul canon.
15. Nepa Allstar
(Surplus 12″, 2001)
Tony Nwachukwu is another fringe character in the UK soul scene who was co-opted into the Co-Op movement, and is now better known as the founder of CDR/Burntprogress. Though perhaps not as much a core member as the West London lads, Tony’s relationship with the scene dated back to his co-production of Attica Blues with Charlie Dark, and together they ran the successful Blueprint Sessions night at Plastic People around the same time as Co-Op first opened its doors. ‘The Way’ is one of those one-offs that slotted in perfectly to the mood of 2001. Tony always favoured a more techno-orientated approach to production, and this record stutters along with a heavy mesh of analogue bass and drum machines ticking away, while a chopped up sample of Brainstorm tells us, “I can show u the way”. It’s the sophisticated engineering that makes this track, with the best bit being the jokey sample of a certain classic mobile ringtone in the breakdown.
16. Cousin Cockroach
‘This Ain’t Tom N’ Jerry’/’Hands Off Da Controls’
(Bitasweet 12″, 2002)
The better broken tunes tend to fall into one of two groups – either they are richly layered, colourful, soulful, and steeped in the lush over-production language of boogie funk, or alternatively, just stripped down dubs which propel the dance through rippling sine wave bass and thudding kicks and snares. Cockroach falls firmly into the latter group, and of all the bass-heavy dubs, is probably the best. Produced by Dego, the title ‘This Ain’t Tom N’ Jerry’ pokes fun at the hardcore records he and Mark produced under that alias in the early 90s. Despite the in-joke, both sides of this sound like they were made with leftover samples from that era, a rumour which is unsubstantiated with the author. There’s nothing to dislike here, just two sides of the baddest, most ear-splitting stripped-down bass and drum you can hear this side of King Tubby played at the wrong speed. The Jammy’s vocal sample says it best: “This one a badbwoy choon!”
(Arthrob 12″, 1998)
Daz I Kue is the drum scientist behind many of the Bugz In The Attic tunes, and Dalunartiks was an early project with Alex Arnout that retained a raw hip hop feel, but at dancefloor tempo. ‘Higher’ has a b-boy quality with Apache congas and horn stabs, while the drum groove is old-school but futuristic. The lush drop that follows the build is where it gets going – smooth Detroit pads meet gospel vocals to take it, literally, ‘Higher’. Essential because it blends a dusty crate quality with garage-style vocal chops and beats, and yet Daz’s signature afro-funk is still all over it.
18. Blakai feat. Bembe Segue
(Schtum 12″, 2005)
The most recent record in this selection and one of the last of the golden era of Goyamusic. Schtum was Mark Force’s label, and here he collaborates with Bembe Segue, one of the first ladies of Co-Op, who vocalled a vast number of the genre’s records. Bembe’s style is part Ursula Dudziak, part Tina Turner, and ‘Afrospace’ is a swansong to the Co-Op feeling. Her words “something was missing from deep within, I’ll survive” empower a groove that’s reflective and fractured. The remix by BITA whizkid and technical specialist Matt Thylord finds a space between boogie and garage and hits harder. A latter-day classic.
‘Let Groove Come’ (Co-Op Mix/Co-Op Dub)
(People 12″, 2002)
‘Let Groove Come’ was produced by IG Culture and features Eska Mtungwazi, one of the finest jazz singers to emerge from the broken beat scene who today works mainly with Matthew Herbert. Eska and IG collaborated frequently on his New Sector Movements project and solidified a rapport on record that was breathtaking at times. The Co-Op mix of ‘Let Groove Come’ is one of their most accomplished, and feels like suspended animation on the dancefloor. It hits with a jerky drum pattern, rugged in the extreme, but Eska clears the air around it with her harmonies, like a breeze blowing through the speakers. The rougher Co-Op dubs of many of the tracks listed here were often never released, and only ever heard at the club, which could be frustrating when trying to track them down. Fortunately, this one made it to vinyl.
20. Kaidi Tatham & Dego
‘Got Me Puzzled’
(2000 Black 12″, 2003)
And finally, the creative peak of Dego and Kaidi, the Gamble and Huff of broken beat. This one is a certifiable anthem, played constantly and yet still not played out. From the moment the rich Juno pads open the track it’s a showstopper, a slickly engineered recording and a virtuoso performance from Kaidi Tatham, with Dego at the top of his production game. Clearly this took a while to craft, as hinted at by the inscription “Big shout to Seiji & Mashi, it’s 5Dom l A.” This is built for the Plastic People sound system. The chorus has a gospel feel, the backing track is pensive and yet optimistic, electronic but still warm, and the rhythm shuffles into infinity. This is the genre’s musical message personified.