Breakbeats have been synonymous with dance music since its inception. Regarded as a minor scene now, breaks were, for many clubbers, the pinnacle of the dance floor explosion of the 90s. The Waveform Transmitter’s Simon Huxtable outlines a little of the scenes illustrious history.
For as long as there’s been dance music there’s been a Breaks Scene. In fact, had it not been for The Winstons writing ‘Amen Brother’, a little known B side track back in 1969, Drum n Bass would have sounded a lot different, if invented at all.
From the acorns that the UK rave scene spawned, the breaks scene that followed splintered into many forms. Some became successful, some less so, but paramount to all its incarnations, breaks music has always been the punk with the spiky hair – the rule breaker and louder cousin of House music – something seldom seen in today’s homogenised, radio-friendly unit-shifter culture.
Tracing the history of any dance music scene is largely down to dogged investigation, especially when that scene is all but a memory in the minds of a generation now more inclined to spend their Saturday nights watching TV or playing Bridge with the Anderson’s at Number Four. Landmark moments and anecdotal evidence act as the cornerstones of the genre and go some way towards understanding its cultural significance.
So let’s give you some context…
From the 1970s, when Hip Hop DJs learned you could string instrumental parts of records together, the ‘breakbeat’ become a source of huge creativity. So, by the time the early 90s dance music producers came along, there was a powerful underground movement ready to go. As a precursor to the Nu Skool breaks of the 2000s, which saw the scene at large fade from popular opinion, the beginning of the decade was defined by UK Hardcore.
It was faster, harder and most interestingly breakbeat-led: The primary antithesis to Acid and the American-led disco-fuelled sounds coming from Chicago and New York. Very quickly this quintessentially British movement made its way onto the airways and into the mass consciousness of Rave Britannia.
The Prodigy, SL2, Altern-8 and The KLF became household names delivering a wonky futuristic vision of dystopian design. Record label execs, keen to impress their bosses with this new wave of electronic music, soon swooped in to homogenise and reap the (financial) rewards ultimately killing the creativity and passion for the music along the way.
As the rave scene began to fracture, desperate to once more be an underground, non-commercial movement, UK Hardcore became ‘happy’ ditching its breakbeat roots and becoming something of a caricature of itself with chipmunk vocals, stabby piano riffs and 180 bpm four-to-the-floor drum patterns – it soon fizzled out.
Rather more successfully, Jungle and Drum n Bass took breaks bigger, faster and darker than before spearheading a whole separate dance music fan base pioneered by Shy FX, DJ Hype, Andy C and others at nights like Rage, Swerve, Metalheadz and Speed which fed into the Jamaican cultures’ penchant of sound systems. “There just weren’t any rules,” John Morrow from Foul Play remembers, “and this resulted in the creation of some truly groundbreaking music.”
All over the country sub-genres sprang into life like trip-hop and big beat. More and more nights sprang up to cater for every type of music the 90s rave explosion could imagine. The problem with many of these styles was that their growth and widespread appeal was finite. Ultimately, they became ultra specialised, which, in the case of Big Beat, was ironically completely opposite to the sentiment of the genre – a one-stop shop of music where you could hear hip hop mixed with indie rock and jungle all on the same night: the best student party you ever went to but curated by The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.
A little later, pioneered by a new generation of DJs, Nu Skool Breaks saw an amalgamation of all that had come before marrying a crisp production style and no-holds barred soundscape which appealed to a surprisingly wide audience. Artists such as Rennie Pilgrim, Klaus ‘Heavyweight’ Hill and Adam Freeland took breakbeat into the stratosphere for a brief period around the Millennium (1998 – 2002) just as the Dutch Trance sound died off and everyone looked for that next bandwagon.
Breaks were everywhere and everyone wanted a slice of the pie. Legions of clubbers were skanking to the warm, rubbery Timo Maas woomp woomp of ‘Doom’s Night’ one minute and the icy sharp fatalism of PMT’s ‘Gyromancer’ the next. The groundwork that Big Beat had done earlier in the decade was finally being realised by this all-inclusive sound which took elements of House, Techno and Breaks and mushed them all up into one super funky musical experience.
The first Nu Skool Breaks night of note was initially started by Adam Freeland, Tayo and Rennie Pilgrim at Bar Rumba in London (Friction). Their sound and pioneering spirit became the catalyst for nights all over the country including Chew the Fat! in Brixton, Technique in Leeds, Spectrum in Nottingham, Tangled in Manchester, Frequency in Coventry and Supercharged in Brighton.
Essential mixes, festival appearances and live shows followed and Breaks DJs such as Plump DJs, Krafty Kuts and Evil Nine were in demand all over clubland headlining breaks only nights at Fabric in London as frequently as main billing at Renaissance and Bedrock. Even progressive house DJs, notably, Sasha and James Zabiela began to play sets entirely made up of breaks. “The great thing about breaks was the crowd were always up for anything, so you had people who had a broad taste of music getting down and not worrying about who the designer of the shirt they had on was, or how much their high heels cost. It was just a big party. Just the way it should be.” – Jonny Mac (Frequency DJ/Promoter)
The good times were rolling, but as with everything, the rot set in unobserved. Much in the same way that Northern Soul in the 70s suffered from elitism and narrow-mindedness, so Nu Skool followed the blueprint some 20 years later. “[Nu skool’s] name isn’t what narrowed down the eclecticism; it was people’s attitudes,” Tayo explains in a 2015 Red Bull article, “I remember [people] moaning about me or other DJs playing – shock horror – house music and 4/4 stuff in our sets.”
Championed by a select band of DJs including Meat Katie, Lee Coombes and Dylan Rhymes this offshoot of the Nu Skool dynamic – Techfunk – curried much favour with the more traditional 4/4 crowds as an easy segue to the sounds they were more familiar with. But other offshoots were less successful. Prog breaks lived and died in a year (it seemed at the time), it really came to prominence in Australia with Melbourne-based DJs Phil K and Luke Chable leading the way. Equally, Acid Breaks took the best qualities of Acid House, the seminal Amen Break and Kevin Saunderson’s genre-defining Reese bass line but ultimately ran out of steam. As much as Fatboy Slim lamented about the 303, there is only so many ways to present the same sound.
With breaks falling out of favour in the music media and clubbing community around 2002 other bass-heavy musical genres were coming to the fore. Dubstep, in its purest form, was an exciting offshoot from UK Garage pioneered by a tight-knit South London collective spearheaded by Skream and Benga which took on the world (as well as our expectations) to become a fresh new pop culture phenomena all of its own. Equally, Grime took the gangster rap aesthetic and span it in a uniquely British way.
Urban subculture was finally finding a new energy and voice to fight back against ‘The Man’. Indeed, as with the prog house sounds of the late 90s, DJs who spiced up their sets with breakbeats ushered in a new vibe to the standard 4/4 House and Techno sets, and artists as diverse as Bicep, Four Tet, DJ Tennis and even the legendary Dave Clarke are all using breaks in unique ways to punctuate their mixes; all adding to the overall storytelling experience, opposing the narrative Tayo found as the Nu Skool scene broke down.
“What’s fascinating right now is you have a scene really finding its feet and laying down the foundations for something to be as big as drum’n’bass is today.” said Echo Knight in a 2018 Red Bull interview. Breaks can hype a party like nothing else, and even though some of the new breaks tracks barely hint at the kick and snare foundations that Nu Skool was built on, they capture the imagination unlike any Ibiza classic anthem can. Even the new Chemical Brothers album shows that in spite of its general decline from mass consumerism, Breaks are just as important to dance music fans as they ever were. And exciting new artists like Special Request, Left/Right, and Figures of Eighty are showing there’s life left in the old dog yet.
Music is cyclic. Genres will rotate in and out of fashion every few years and it’s the hope of every breaks aficionado that breaks gets its turn again soon.
Watch your bass bins, I’m telling ya!