To examine the history and usage of breakbeats in electronic music is to examine the history of digital sampling itself.
Sampling, or the practice of re-purposing recorded audio began in early hiphop production. When samplers first came on to the market, they were standalone hardware units (as opposed to a piece of software, which you would be much more likely to find today). In theory, their operation was very simple; record any audio into the unit via a tape deck, record player or other source of audio, save it to the digital memory internal to the sampler, and then trigger the ‘sampled’ audio using buttons found on the sampler. As technology progressed, the memory capacity of samplers increased and features that allowed users to manipulate or edit the original audio were introduced. Now, over 30 years later, this same process is still in use, with the ability to layer, manipulate and modulate being constantly expanded upon. The possibilities of sampling are endless, and the practice itself has enabled a new generation of songwriters and producers by making the process of creating music much more accessible, especially to those with no formal musical training or knowledge.
The vast majority of drums (and many other sounds) on classic hiphop beats were created from producers sampling individual drum hits (kick, snare, hi hats, etc.) from old funk and soul recordings. This captured the organic sound of the drum and allowed producers to then tap out a new beat to a rhythm of their choosing. Drum samples were often captured during the ‘break’ part of the source song. A break is a small section of music, commonly found in 60’s & 70’s funk and soul songs, in which the entire bands stops playing for 4-16 bars while the drums play a solo, hence the term break-beat; a beat played by a drummer in the break section of a song. These sections were usually a spot to highlight the drummers skills and allow them some space for variation, often adding accents or additional rhythms to the foundation of their beat. These sections were chosen to sample from for the obvious reason that the drums were the only instrument playing and it was easy to capture a clean hit without any other instruments interfering.
Check out this list of the Top 10 Most Samples Drum Breaks Of All Time from whosampled.com
Currently, the practice of sampling, manipulating and re-purposing audio is at the heart of most digital music production. Not only for its ease and simplicity, but also for the creative freedom is allows for. In the past, musicians were limited, in a physical sense, as to what they could play on their instrument. A trumpet player can only sustain a note for as long as their lungs will allow them to exhale, and a drummer can only play as fast as their limbs are capable of moving. Sampling takes away many of these limitations, allowing for beautifully unnatural sounds and rhythms to be created through processes of manipulation and reprogramming, respectively.
A few classic jungle/breakbeat tracks:
At some point, producers started sampling and speeding up entire drum phrases (for example, 2 bars of drumming looped to play continuously, rather than just a single hit), bringing a hiphop swing to faster drum and bass style tracks. This was the first step towards creating the ‘breakbeat’ sound in modern dance music that is most synonymous with jungle, and is found in many other subgenres related to drum and bass music. Breakbeat music, which is not so much a genre as it is a classification of music that utilizes this particular sound or style (kind of like 808s with trap and rap), generally features fast paced beats, usually using a drum and bass rhythm pattern, with plenty of groove or slightly off-time hits to give the song a more lifelike feel than is found in other similar genres.
By utilizing samples taken from actual drummers instead of programming drum hits on a time-locked grid, the imperfect, ‘human’ element of performance is infused into the sound. Audio is considerably sped up or ‘timestretched’ (a process that allows for audio to be played at a higher speed without the pitch changing), and heavily edited and re-sequenced, creating a beautiful imperfection in the fast-paced rhythms that simply could not be programmed into a machine. Eventually, the sampling, looping and editing of drum phrases was replaced by sampling each individual beat within the phrase. This allows each sample to be reordered and triggered whenever the person programming the beat desires, lending itself to creating extremely dense, heavily engineered beats that would make any drummer blush. English writer Kodwo Eshun once described jungle and breakbeat music as “rhythmic psychedelia”.
A few modern examples of impressive breakbeat sequencing to follow…
One of the most popular and widely sampled drum breaks of all time is from a song called ‘Amen, Brother’ by The Winstons, with honourable mentions going to James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ and The Honey Drippers ‘Impeach The President’. The drums and break in ‘Amen, Brother’ have been sampled almost 2000 times according to whosampled.com, making it the most widely sampled break ever, with no compensation having been offered to its creators until very recently. Due to a statute of limitations of only three years for copyright infringement in the US, The Winstons had no recourse when almost 30 years later, they found out their song had been repeatedly sampled. While I am usually one to side with technological progress and creative freedom when it comes to issues of sampling and copyright infringement, this is one case where I believe some recognition and compensation is rightfully deserved. The members of The Winstons are far from rich, having disbanded years ago, and their (albeit unintentional) contribution to music has helped spawn entire genres and subgenres of extremely progressive and creative music. Though they may not have a legal right to financially benefit from their music being used in this way, its widespread and repeated use has touched enough people that it inspired two British DJ’s to do something about it.
In November of 2015, The Winstons frontman Richard Spencer was awarded £24,000 thanks to a GoFundMe campaign started by Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald. The campaign, which relied solely on donations from individuals far exceeded its goal of just £1000, and was received with much gratitude by Spencer who has spent some of his years since The Winstons attending University and working in the Washington Transit System. Upon receiving the money he stated, “The young man who played that drumbeat, Gregory Coleman, died homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia,” highlighting the importance of this offering. The campaign to compensate the band has since been reopened after word spread and further interest was expressed in donating to this cause. You can find the campaign’s Facebook page HERE.
Like many other stories of creative contribution, the importance of the Amen Break took the passing of time and right perspective to show all that it had to offer to the art of music. Who could have known in 1969 that a 10 second drum loop would later inspire a new era of producers and creators to invent entirely new genres of music? No one. No one at the time could have known how music technology would develop, and how it would be utilized to further push creativity and enable the possibilities of performance past the limitations of a human player.
The marriage of technology and music is certainly a good thing, and like anything else that technology affects (which is essentially everything), there is no sense in fighting its progress. This unfortunately means that some will be left out while others reap the rewards of the communal artistic effort. Such is life. It is important to remember however that true creative contributions are not easily forgotten. Though The Winstons as a group never got to enjoy the success of their contribution in a traditional sense, they are now cemented in their rightful and unique place in the history of the development of music. They are honoured on a regular basis at drum and bass shows around the world, and any artist should be extremely proud to reach this level of artistic achievement. It is unfortunate that this achievement does not bring with it any financial benefit, however I believe it to be a sign of the strong importance of art in peoples lives that individuals would band together to raise awareness and money to prove to these creators, who have certainly suffered for their art, that their journey was important, impactful and amounted to be something far bigger than they could have ever imagined.
For more, check out this comprehensive video about the Amen Break.