Breakbeat is a broad style of electronic or dance-oriented music which utilizes breaks, often sampled from earlier recordings in funk, jazz, and R&B, for the main rhythm. Breakbeats have been used in styles such as hip hop, jungle, drum and bass, hardcore, UK garage (including 2-step, breakstep and dubstep), and even pop and rock.
The most likely origin of the word "breakbeat" is the fact that the drum loops that were sampled occurred during a "break" in the music, as in the Amen break which is a drum solo from "Amen, Brother" by The Winstons. However, it is a common thought that the name derives from the beat being "broken" and unpredictable compared to other percussive styles, something which is also reflected in the name of the related genre broken beat. Whether this was part of the original meaning of the word or is purely a folksonomy remains unclear, but it is safe to say that the term has evolved to encompass both sentiments.
Beginning in 1973 and continuing through the late 1970s and early 1980s, hip hop turntablists, such as DJ Kool Herc, began using several funk breaks in a row, using irregular drum patterns from songs such as James Brown's "Funky Drummer" and The Winstons' "Amen Brother", to form the rhythmic base for hip hop songs. DJ Kool Herc's breakbeat style involved playing the same record on two turntables and playing the break repeatedly, alternating between the two records. This style was copied and improved upon by early hip hop DJs Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Wizard Theodore. This style was extremely popular in clubs and dancehalls because the extended breakbeat provided breakers with more opportunities to showcase their skills.
In the early 1990s, acid house artists and producers started using breakbeat samples in their music to create breakbeat hardcore. The hardcore scene then diverged into subgenres like jungle and drum and bass, which generally had a darker sound and focused more on complex sampled drum patterns. An example of this is Goldie's album Timeless.
Josh Lawford of Ravescene prophesied that breakbeat was "the death-knell of rave" because the ever-changing drumbeat patterns of breakbeat music didn't allow for the same zoned out, trance-like state that the standard, steady 4/4 beats of house enabled. In 1994, the influential techno act Autechre released the Anti EP in response to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 using advanced algorithmic programming to generate non-repetitive breakbeats for the full duration of the tracks to subvert the legal definitions within that legislation.
In the late-1980s, breakbeat became an essential feature of many genres of breaks music which became popular within the global dance music scene, including big beat, nu skool breaks, acid breaks, electro-funk, and Miami bass. Incorporating many components of those genres, the Florida breaks subgenre followed during the early-to-mid 1990s and had a unique sound that was soon internationally popular among producers, DJs, and club-goers.
DJs from a variety of genres work breaks tracks into their sets. This may occur because the tempo of breaks tracks (ranging from 110 to 150 beats per minute) means they can be readily mixed with these genres. Breakbeats are used in many hip hop, jungle and hardcore songs, and can also be heard in other music, from popular music to background music in car and jean commercials on the radio or TV.
Some artists well known for breakbeat include Afrika Bambaataa, Whodini, Davy DMX, Deekline, Dynamix II, 2 Live Crew, Cybotron, Nubreed, Hybrid, Phil K, Dirty Harry, NAPT, DJ Icey, Stanton Warriors, FreQ Nasty, Krafty Kuts, Freestylers, K-Swing, Soul Of Man, DJ Sharaz, Annie Nightingale and performance troupe Lucent Dossier Experience.
With the advent of digital sampling and music editing on the computer, breakbeats have become much easier to create and use. Now, instead of cutting and splicing tape sections or constantly backspinning two records at the same time, a computer program can be used to cut, paste, and loop breakbeats endlessly. Digital effects like filters, reverb, reversing, time stretching and pitch shifting can be added to the beat, and even to individual sounds by themselves. Individual instruments from within a breakbeat can be sampled and combined with others, thereby creating wholly new breakbeat patterns.
The "Amen break"
The Amen break, a drum break from The Winstons' song "Amen, Brother" is widely regarded as one of the most widely used and sampled breaks among music using breakbeats. This break was first used on "King of the Beats" by Mantronix, and has since been used in thousands of songs. Other popular breaks are from James Brown's Funky Drummer (1970) and Give it Up or Turnit a Loose, The Incredible Bongo Band's 1973 cover of The Shadows' "Apache", and Lyn Collins' 1972 song "Think (About It)". The Winstons have not received royalties for third-party use of samples of the break recorded on their original music release.
With the rise in popularity of breakbeat music and the advent of digital audio samplers, companies started selling "breakbeat packages" for the express purpose of helping artists create breakbeats. A breakbeat kit CD would contain many breakbeat samples from different songs and artists, often without the artist's permission or even knowledge.
Big beat is a term employed since the mid-1990s by the British music press to describe much of the music by artists such as The Prodigy, Cut La Roc, Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method and Propellerheads typically driven by heavy breakbeats and synthesizer-generated loops and patterns in common with established forms of electronic dance music such as techno and acid house.
Also sometimes known as atmospheric breaks, progressive breaks (or "prog breaks") is a subgenre of breaks that is essentially a fusion of breakbeat and progressive house. Much like progressive house, this subgenre is characterized by its "trancey" sound. Its defining traits include extended synthesizer pads and washes, melodic synth leads, heavy reverberation, and electronic breakbeats. However, unlike progressive house, very few progressive breaks tracks have vocals, with most tracks being entirely instrumental or using only electronically-altered snippets of vocal samples for sonic effect. Typical progressive breaks tracks will often have a long build-up section that leads to a breakdown and a climax, often having numerous sonic elements being added or subtracted from the track at various intervals in order to increase its intensity. Progressive breaks artists include Hybrid, BT, Way Out West, Digital Witchcraft, Momu, Wrecked Angle, Burufunk, Under This and Fretwell.
In electronic music, "acid breaks" is a fusion between breakbeat, acid house and other forms of dance music. Its drum line usually mimics most breakbeat music, lacking the distinctive kick drum of other forms of dance music. One of the earliest synthesizers to be employed in acid music was the Roland TB-303, which makes use of a resonant low-pass filter to emphasize the harmonics of the sound.
Notable breakbeat artists
- 2 Live Crew
- Afrika Bambaataa
- Annie Nightingale
- Armand Van Helden
- C2C (group)
- Davy DMX
- Dirty Harry
- DJ Icey
- DJ Sharaz
- Fatboy Slim
- Freq Nasty
- The Future Sound of London
- Krafty Kuts
- Lucent Dossier Experience
- Plump DJs
- Rennie Pilgrem
- Stanton Warriors
- Soul Of Man
- The Sables
- Tokyo Machine