Words: Mr Beatnick
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 bass-lines and soaring changes that were inherent to this new music. Prior to the mid-2000s, only one tiny divider in Soho’s Sounds of The Universe store, marked “West London”, and one primitive website, that of Goya Music Distribution, were the sum total retail outlets of this sound. 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 soundsystem tradition, what was heard there differed enormously from what was released – dub-plates, alternative versions, 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, whilst 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 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 – the legendarily aloof jungle and d’n’b label run by 4Hero’s Dego and Marc Mac (pictured above) – 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 doubtlessly Bugz In The Attic, a cooperative production “super group”, 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 afro beat 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.
Be sure to 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 dnb’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 have been coined at this point in time. Misa Negra were Daz-I-Kue on production, and Kaidi Tatham on the keys, whilst a remix dub by Orin “Afronaught” Walters fills up the A-side. Whilst 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 fall out 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.