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Breakbeat music was arguably introduced to the Bronx massive (a collection of people, usually friends) by Kool Herc in 1969, a DJ who arrived there from Kingston, Jamaica, with a skill known as 'cutting breaks'. It was Grandmaster Flash, the legendary Hip Hop pioneer, though, who first utilised 'breaks', who created Breakbeat music, and who started a revolutionary new form of music production.
Breaks are often the moments when a drummer gets to shine. The key features of a break, therefore, are that they generally feature percussion only and are usually a little bit 'flash'.
In any musical track that employs drums and a drummer to keep to a particular tempo and add rhythm (irrelevant of the genre/period), there usually exists a standard drum pattern1. This standard rhythm will continue for a section of several bars - the exact number depending on:
- The time signature that the track is written in
- The style/nature of the track itself
- How flash the drummer is feeling at the time
In the last bar of the section, the standard rhythm (or beat) is broken up by a bar that is a little different. The aim of this bar is to break up the monotony, create a sub-rhythm and lead the musicians into the first beat of the next section. This bar is called the break.
By using two record decks and a mixer2 the DJ uses two records to:
- Play a break from record A
- Quickly change the source on the mixer to record B
- Play a break from record B while simultaneously re-cuing the break on record A
- Quickly change the source on the mixer back to record A
This process (cutting) is then cycled, creating a new rhythm entirely made from breaks. Skilled DJs can quickly locate different breaks on the record/different records and create a whole new backing track over which MCs (or rappers) can wax lyrical.
With the advance of technology it is now possible to sample music, chop out the breaks and re-combine them without needing the proficiency of the DJ who can do this on the fly. This is clearly an art in itself but differs somewhat to the 'old school' DJs who were essentially using their record decks as a live musical instrument and humanising the recycled beats. Some 'new school breaks' sound more electronic due to this lack of human quality but the relative merits of each 'school' can be, and are, argued elsewhere (furiously!).