I’ve been obsessed with breakbeats recently.
It’s partly down to my borrowed nostalgia for something I wasn’t at all party to – the outbreak of hardcore and jungle in the early-mid 90s. I was a way too young to be cognizant of what was going on; being around eight years of age and living in pre-internet suburban Yorkshire, I didn’t know what the underground dance music was, let alone have access to it; and even if I did I wouldn’t have had a clue what to make of it. Though the idea of an eight-year-old junglist is a cute one, I think my cassette copy of Bon Jovi’s Crossroad was all I cared about back then.
For the next fifteen or so years, I never really got my head around jungle, or more accurately never really tried to. When I moved to Bristol as a student around 2002, it seemed natural to take against drum ‘n bass, which along with (ugh) “breaks” was the dominant sound in the city’s clubs. I didn’t know much about drum ‘n bass at this point, but I knew its period of future-rushing innovation was over; it was no longer an idiom that attracted genuinely imaginative and experimental artists. At all. Metallic tech-step was the order of the day; you didn’t need to be a jungle aficionado to sense that all funk and rollage had dissipated from the dance. It felt stale. Dubstep was just around the corner, and it wouldn’t be too long before our present era of funky and second-generation garage would set in. To be sure, UK soundsystem culture was evolving, but expressly away from drum ‘n bass.
Drum ‘n bass was no longer an idiom that attracted genuinely imaginative and experimental artists.
In the past six months or so, I’ve thought about little but early jungle, and the breakbeat science at its heart. I’m not sure why – perhaps it has to do with my over-immersion in 2-step and 4/4 forms. Funky did much to re-activate my interest in straight house, but of late there haven’t been enough surprises; if I was being ultra-cynical, I’d say that I can already feel a leaning towards the crisp tech-house orthodoxy towards which all 4/4 sub-scenes ultimately tend (see: electro-house, minimal, post-Innervisions deep house). But it is only February, with new releases still thin on the ground, and probably not a good time to make sweeping state-of-dance-music generalisations. Ahem. Either way, mild disillusionment with the new is always a good excuse to steep oneself in the old: hence my recent gorging on DJextreme’s mixtapes, the unmissable Rufige Cru Early Plates compilation, various early Moving Shadow and Reinforced 12″s, the first three or four Jungle Tekno compilations, the later Amen spectralism of Source Direct.
I’d really like to imagine that we’re on the cusp of a new jungle-techno revolution – the timing feels so wrong, it must be right – but it’s probably just wishful thinking (and this doesn’t fill me with much hope). All the same, it seems to me that breakbeats are beginning to crop up more and more in the context of techno, house and dubstep, and in fact are giving rise to these genres’ most memorable moments. Let’s look at some examples.
You know how much I, probably like you, love Shed‘s work – at times this column can read like a rolling tribute to the man – and I have doff my cap yet again and say that he’s been one of the boldest and most ahead-of-the-curve producers in terms of reappropriating the breakbeat, making it work in a 21st century techno style.
Breakbeats are beginning to crop up more and more in the context of techno, house and dubstep.
There are a couple of examples on his 2008 Shedding The Past LP, but one, ‘Estrange’ particularly stands out – with its loose drums and sweeping, sighing synths, this is breakbeat techno cut from the same cloth as Carl Craig’s ‘Desire’ (Craig was an avid advocate and evolver of the breakbeat, lest we forget – among other instances – ‘Bug In A Bassbin’) but shot through with real, frost-bitten late noughties ennui. The B-side cut of Shed’s second “anonymous” Equalized 12″ (2009) ploughs a similar furrow, and is even more affecting, its shuffling rhythm sounding clotted and cluttered, serotonin-depleted and unsure of itself. In an era where scrubbed-clean, streamlined 4/4 pulsation has become Continental techno’s default setting, Shed’s use of the breakbeat sounds provocatively gawky, radically awkward.
It’s interesting to note that neither ‘Estrange’ or ‘EQD002B’ are particularly danceable; in these instances, breakbeats provide the buttressing for disquisitions on melancholy; their pace, compared to the going rate in conventional jungle, is almost funereal. This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, for all jungle’s virtues, its rhythmic velocity can be precisely what holds it back – when I interviewed Martyn recently, he said that one of the reasons that he’d begun to produce dubstep-oriented tracks in the mid-2000s was because drum ‘n bass’s 160-80bpm imperative was preventing him from exploring the kind of melodies and narratives that he wanted to. But Martyn himself has proved that breaks can force dancefloor movement even at reduced speed: his remix of Shed’s ‘Another Wedged Chicken’ does the job marvellously, though to be fair the syncopation is more reminiscent of broken beat, more Seiji than Kaotic Chemistry.
Shed has been exploring unusual breakbeat angles for a long time now – check ‘Masque Hidden’ (2006) and the title track of his phenomenal Citylicker EP (2005) for evidence. A more recent convert is Redshape. His 2009 album The Dance Paradox featured a magnificent track called ‘Man Out of Time’ – boasting a live-sounding break at not much greater than hip-hop tempo, indeed, not a million miles away from the 90s cine-hop of DJ Shadow et al. Still, the way he processed and iterates this rhythm is determinedly techno, really exploiting it for maximum crunch and kinesis, and placing it within a grand canopy of churchy, tension-wracked synths. Back in 2007 Redshape brought us ‘Dog Day’ – a low-slung house bruck-out of garish rave stabs and heavy sampled breakbeats that is still, for my money, the most impressive and innovative production in his oeuvre.
Breakbeats played a large part in the birth of dubstep, what with the whole breakbeat garage thing, but they’ve fallen by the way-side as producers have come to favour more sinuous, minimal rhythms. Everything sounds so bloody crisp and sleek these days, there’s an international shortage of grit. It was a wonderful surprise, then, to hear the “king of swing”, Sully – a producer much-lauded for the gamine garage skip he brings to his tracks – delivering a properly rough, funky-drummer breakdown on his recent single, ‘In Some Pattern’. This off-hand flourish from the Norwich producer showed the malleability and versatility of the hardcore-style break, and its power if used judiciously.
‘In Some Pattern’ reminded me of the not massively well-known Groove Chronicles track ‘Blakjack’ – featured in this recent Deadboy mix – in its elegant, show-and-tell affirmation of garage’s hardcore lineage. Delving further into the past, Punch Drunk’s Unearthed reissue imprint has already re-pressed some all-time breakbeat classics that feel particularly pertinent to now; both, inevitably, have Rob Smith at the helm. One is Smith’s solo track ‘Living In Unity’, a thunderous roots-rave track for which the overused phrase “Bristol soundsystem classic” is made, and especially Smith & Mighty’s ‘Bass Is Maternal’ and ‘U Dub’ – thunderous hardcore breaks fed through the skunk-sticky dub grinder.
I don’t want to write yet another of my love-letters to T++, but no discussion of the contemporary breakbeat would be complete without some mention of his intimidatingly impressive work. Along with Robert Henke, whose Monolake project he’s a floating participant in, Torsten Pröfrock has been exploring the inner-workings of post-jungle rhythm for many years. His tracks balance extraordinarily brittle, rimshot-oriented top-end with canyon-deep bass; if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the B-side to his 2009 Apple Pips release, ‘Audio1995#8_2’ – a masterful slice of 140bpm drumfunk, it’s his most explicitly breakbeat-derived work. Meanwhile the more recent ‘Test#10Seed_Bit’, from Monolake’s ‘Atlas’ remix 12″, betrays a debt to the classic d’n’b minimalism of Krust’s Genetic Manipulation. Look out for his forthcoming EP for Honest Jon’s, another bold step forward for a producer who’s never looked back.
Manchester’s Modern Love crew have been doing more than their fair share to revive the breakbeat – way back in 2005, prior to their more streamlined dub-techno tackle, Pendle Coven were on a definite jungle-techno tip with the brilliant ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T.’. Lately Pendle’s Miles Whittaker has been teaming up with Andy Stott for the Millie & Andrea / Daphne releases, which occasionally venture into breakbeat territory – see ‘Temper Tantrum’/’Vigilance’ and particularly the recent ‘Ever Since You Came Down’ which teams tough, cut-up hardcore drums with helium vocal clips, but adds a textural depth and definition we’ve come to associate more with dubstep. Then, of course, there’s the HATE series – founded especially to showcase hardcore and early jungle sounds, and appearing to take 2 Bad Mice’s ‘Waremouse’ as their gospel and starting-point. They’re all brilliant, if sometimes a little too intense and claustrophobic for their own good; pay special heed to 001, ‘Darkcore’/’Injustice’, and 004, ‘Triple Bypass’/’Submariner’.
There’s definitely an appetite for breakbeats on 2010’s forward-thinking dancefloors, i.e. away from zones of d’n’b populism and solipsism – listen to any Jackmaster DJ set, for example, and you’ll hear ’em all over the shop, albeit usually cuts from B-more and UK rave’s yesteryear rather than the modern-day. The number of contemporary producers making innovative breakbeat-based tracks is, alas, still small, but I suspect that number will increase. Whether from the “fashionable” Euro-techno axis – Mike Dehnert, TVO, Ben Klock and Horizontal Ground all hint at breakbeats on their recent productions – or the more fluid and open-minded domain of post-dubstep Britain, a change is definitely going to come. It’s time to renovate and radicalise the breakbeat once more. Don’t fear the funky drummer, but for god’s sake be sure to employ him wisely.
DON’T FEAR THE BREAKBEAT: 10 PERSIES FROM DAYS GONE BY
1. Rufige Cru – Believe (Reinforced, 1992)
Piano chords jacked from ‘Strings of Life’, chipmunk vocals and the best swung beat-drop ever, and it’s on the flipside of the mighty ‘Darkrider’. Had something to do with that bloke off Maestro.
2. La Funk Mob – Motorbass Gets Phunked Up (Richie Hawtin Electrofunk Remix)
(from Casse Les Frontieres, Four Les Tetes En L’Air EP, Mo’Wax, 1994)
Remember when Richie Hawtin was a god?
3. Krust – Genetic Manipulation EP (Full Cycle, 1997)
Epic Full Cycle rollage from (relatively) late in the day. A Peverelist favourite.
4. Source Direct – The Crane (Source Direct, 1996)
Intense Amen-based outing from the days when d’n’b was future-facing.
5. 2 Bad Mice – Waremouse (Moving Shadow, 1991)
Ultra-minimal, bad-ass junglist hardcore – unbeatable.
6. Smith & Mighty – Bass Is Maternal (More Rockers, 1995)
And the gear in Bristol is very strong.
7. 69 – Desire (Planet, 1995)
The greatest techno track of all time? Breakbeat romanticism writ large.
8. A Guy Called Gerald – 28 Gun Bad Boy (Columbia, 1991)
Similar drum sounds to ‘Waremouse’, but with a Manc ragga vibe all its own. Arguably less essential than Black Secret Technology, but more front.
9. Liquid – Sweet Harmony (XL, 1992)
Bright pink rave bubblegum – if you don’t like this, you’re not human.
10. The Black Dog – Vir2L (Black Dog Productions, 1989)
Classic from the very early days, when reflective, mellow breakbeat techno seemed totally fresh and totally sustainable. Then someone breathed the words: ‘Eye. Dee. Em.’.
Thanks to Benedict Bull, Serge and Chris Farrell