The Breaks and the Bronx:
It’s all about the break.
If you hope to understand the art of the hip-hop DJ—and even the very origins of hip-hop—you must understand the break. And to understand the break, you can hardly do better than to begin with James Brown. Though he’s best known as the “Godfather of Soul,” his music is also one of the crucial building blocks of hip-hop; Grandmaster Flash speaks the truth when he says, “no James Brown, no hip-hop.”1 So listen to Brown’s 1970 opus, “Funky Drummer.”2 About four-and-a-half minutes in, Brown calls out to his band of nine: “I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got here. When I count to four I want everyone to lay out and let the drummer go. And when I count to four I want you to come back in.” The groove continues for thirteen bars before Brown counts off, calling out to drummer Clyde Stubblefleld to “Hit it!” The clouds part, and a ray of pure funk shines down, a simple but slightly off-kilter call and response between the bass and snare drums, the hi-hat keeping time in sixteenth notes. Brown can only keep quiet for two bars before he starts testifying, exclaiming, “Good God!” and “Ain’t it funky!” All too soon, he counts the rest of the group back in, and the moment slips away.
That moment was the break. A break is a brief percussion solo, typically found toward the end of a funk song, though it may show up anywhere in a song, and really, anywhere in music. The power of the break is in the way it moves people, literally, compelling them to “get on the good foot” as James Brown commands us in his song of the same name. And this power is only heightened by its contrast with its surroundings. It lays bare a short stretch of unadulterated rhythm as the singer and other instrumentalists abruptly drop