Urban Breakbeat Culture
By Norman Mayers for www.urban-breakbeat.com
Most listeners of hip hop or drum and bass are aware that Breakbeats are the basis of these musical forms. Unlike the steady kick drums found in house music, Breakbeats are interrupted, choppy drum beats mostly pioneered by the likes of James Brown and others. But what is Urban Breakbeat? The term was coined by the infamous Metalheadz crew to describe a number of musical genres that have emerged since hip-hop. If hip-hop were a daddy, Urban Breakbeat would be his illegitimate children running around in various parts of the world. Urban Breakbeat culture is instantly recognizable as the offspring of hip-hop culture, yet it pushes into territories and ideas that hip-hop has not ventured. The genres of drum and bass, trip-hop, breaks and even the modern day sub-genres in hip-hop are transformed versions of that original sound that emerged in the South Bronx in the 70s. By examining the origins of these genres, hopefully, their significance can be fully understood.
To completely grasp the concept of Urban Breakbeat, a bit of a history lesson is necessary. Black music has come in many forms throughout the decades, in each instance grabbing hold of the public imagination with a forceful grip. The Blues grew out of African spirituals and worksongs to become the recorded interpretation of the African-American's inner pain and heartache. Jazz was the sound of the 1920s and 30s, the very sonic representation of those crazy times where sex, violence and alcohol seemed to go hand in hand. The 60s saw the emergence of Soul and R&B (a blending of gospel vocals with the sexuality of the blues), which later brought about the more aggressive style of funk. These were the seeds of hip-hop. Out of the decaying urban environment of New York City, a youth culture sprung up using turntables and old records as instruments. Hip-hop has always been about reinvigorating the past, cutting and pasting classics into new experiments in sound.
But to be fair, hip-hop did not evolve without some help. Sociologist and author, Paul Gilroy developed the concept of the Black Atlantic, citing a flow of cultural ideas among people of African descent throughout the US, the UK and the Caribbean. The emergence of Urban Breakbeat culture is a testament to Gilroy’s work. As noted by David Hesmondhalgh and Caspar Melville in their essay Urban Breakbeat Culture: “U.S. hip-hop is itself the product of the physical and cultural traffic between Jamaica and New York, an influence embodied in the figure of Clive “Kool DJ Herc” Campbell from Kingston, one of hip-hop’s founding fathers. Rapping, while clearly based to some degree in African American oral tradition, borrows heavily from the development of the Caribbean’s myriad creolized languages. Reggae, meanwhile, was heavily informed by U.S. R&B. Twenty years later hip-hop had a profound effect on Jamaican music, influencing the development of a harder style of reggae rapping known as ragga (or dancehall), which became popular among Caribbean audiences in the United Kingdom.”
There is clearly an exchange of musical ideas that has been going on for decades across the Atlantic Ocean that has only hastened since the advent of hip-hop. In the UK, there is a large segment of the population with roots in the former British Caribbean, namely Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and other islands. Sound System culture is an important part of the Black British experience. The culture, originating in Jamaica, involves a large sound system operating as a small business taken from venue to venue. This concept, although commonplace in Britain, is completely foreign to most Americans. Once hip-hop began to truly make waves in the mid-1980s, it began to influence British youth culture in a variety of ways. There was an initial movement for a British hip-hop which was essentially the same music with British accents but despite many promising artists, this ultimately failed. Hesmondhalgh and Melville contend that, “Hip-hop, however, exerted a huge influence on UK music making primarily in relation to DJing (scratching and mixing) and production techniques. In particular, that period saw the rise of the Breakbeat phenomenon: the development of a subculture based around searching for rare breaks on soul and funk records and sampling and reconstructing beats using Roland 808 drum machines. This began to lay roots that would come to fruition in the early 1990s.”
Rave began to take hold in the late 80s and early 90s in the UK. The direct result of hip-hop and black offshoots of disco, in particular house and techno, rave in England was seen as mostly a “white” thing. But with the injection of Breakbeats and the reggae influence that persisted in the UK, things changed quickly. Once the BPMs were sped up jungle was born.
The frenetic beats of jungle/drum and bass added much needed edge into the happy go-lucky UK rave scene of the early 90s. Jungle has a lot in common with hip-hop sonically, thematically as well as culturally. In terms of the music, jungle uses many of the same production techniques pioneered by hip-hop DJs and producers. The use of samplers and sequencers along with the high value placed upon the beat are inherited from hip-hop. There is a darker sensibility that underscores most drum and bass that links it to the nihilistic attitudes seen in most gangsta rap. Gunshots, sirens, and the like were common in early jungle. There has always been a fascination within drum and bass of technology, weaponry, science fiction and horror. But jungle also has strong ties to Caribbean music so it was common to hear drum and bass versions of popular reggae and dancehall tunes. The names of drum and bass artists are obviously influenced by American MCs and West Indian Pride with titles like DJ Hype, DJ Die, Shy FX, Reprazent, Ed Rush, and Ganja Kru.
In terms of drum and bass culture, the connections are even more obvious. The producer and DJ became the icons with the dubplate (or test press) becoming a much sought after item. Hip-hop began with the DJ as the central figure before the MC took center stage while in Jamaica, the dubplate is the way dancehall tracks are often circulated to DJs. Drum and bass continues many traditions set up through hip-hop and soundsystem culture most recognizably the use of the MC as a hype man and not the central focus; the use of rewinds, when the DJ starts a track over; and references to lighters and weed. But what makes drum and bass a more evolved version of hip-hop is that it all but eradicates much of the sexism and ethnocentricity found in that genre. There is a certain multi-national all-inclusiveness that presides over drum and bass as a culture that has allowed artists from all over the world to partake in its existence in ways that hip-hop artists from outside of the US have never been able to.
Trip-hop goes in the opposite direction of drum and bass, moving to slower bpms translating hip-hop through the prism of dub, dancehall and soul into an entirely different art form. Mostly emerging from the city of Bristol in southwest England, bands like Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead and Smith & Mighty took hip-hop production techniques like looping and sampling but filtered them through their unique multi-racial experience and exposure to “white” art forms such as alternative rock and punk. Where drum and bass was hard and dark like a scary movie, trip-hop was more somber like an art house flick. Trip-hop culture is loose-knit community compared to that of drum and bass (with most of the bands involved denying the existence of the genre itself) so the music itself acts as the only link to its origins in hip-hop.
American breaks, most often characterized by the funky breaks sound of Florida, has a direct link to hip-hop as its evolution was purely home grown. When Afrika Bambataa sampled the German electronic oddity Kraftwerk and released “Planet Rock” a new sound in hip-hop emerged known as electro. This style has always been tied to break dancers, poppers and lockers throughout its many evolutions. Electro eventually found a regional stronghold in the South, in particular Miami and other cities like Atlanta and Jacksonville. This allowed the music to branch off into two distinct styles: techno bass which emphasized the electronic elements of the music through artists like Dynamix II and Bass, which focused on raunchy lyrical content and stayed rooted in hip-hop culture and traditions. Where Bass laid the seeds for today’s crunk and Southern styles of hip-hop, techno bass paved the way for Florida breaks, a hyped up blending of hip-hop samples, scratching techniques, and 808 bass with house and rave vibe that was grabbing hold of Florida in the mid-90s. The sound was pioneered by Orlando’s DJ Icey yet is largely influenced by the nostalgic vibe of early hip-hop and 70s funk. The culture itself has remained about the dancing and the DJ, never straying from the simple pleasure of dancing to some thick 808s. In recent years funky breaks brought about the emergence of Nu-skool or UK breaks. Where funky breaks uses samples and a retro feel, UK breaks is more forward thinking, pushing the technology into new territories often using many of the techniques pioneered by drum and bass producers such as layered basslines, distortion, overdrive and stabs.
So by now it should be pretty clear that hip-hop music has influenced decades of musical hybrids that can be considered as Urban Breakbeat. Interestingly enough, as hip-hop itself seemed to be running out of creative steam, it began to re-interpret Breakbeat culture in order to revive itself. The producer has re-emerged as an icon in hip-hop, most famously through the work of Timbaland and the Neptunes. Timbaland began introducing drum and bass style production through popular artists such as Aaliyah and Missy Elliott creating a signature style that transformed the rules of hip-hop production. Meanwhile, the Neptunes use simple Breakbeats and electro inspired synths to get their point across. These two producers are proof that Gilroy’s Black Atlantic theory is still in effect today.
David Hesmondhalgh and Caspar Melville conclude that “Urban Breakbeat culture… builds on technologies and attitudes of hip-hop but transforms them according to particular national diasporic conditions.” Translated this simply means that Urban Breakbeat is the natural evolution of hip-hop culture as interpreted through the eyes of different cultures, whether it is rave culture in Florida or Black culture in the UK. But there is a common bond that exists in all the forms that are expressed as Urban Breakbeat: the love of the beat. Whether drum and bass, trip-hop or breaks, the love and reverence of the Breakbeat is what connects us all.
Hesmondhalgh, David + Melville, Caspar. Global Noise: Rap and HipHop Outside the USA. 2001. Wesleyan University Press
All Music Guide/www.allmusicguide.com
Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness
DeRogatis, Jim. 1996. Kaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Music From the 1960s to the 1990s