Break (Music)

Breaks, or breakbeats, beats, b-beats, percussive, often instrumental, songs or parts of songs conducive to dancing.

Etymology and Definition

The terms beat and break derive from "drum beat" and "drum break." Within jazz, a "break" is a solo1 or, "a passage of a few bars during which an instrumentalist plays unaccompanied" , appearing in print in the 1920s. By the 1970s, at least in the Bronx, both "beat" and "break" were used to refer to drum solo-like parts of songs. Frane notes that the break need not consist of "a 'drum solo' per se, but in which a drum pattern is played without other instrumentation" , while qualifying that additional instrumentation may be present in some cases. With the advent of DJing, the definition extended to include repeated or otherwise-modified break passages, sometimes called break mixes. It is in this sense that "break" appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica: "The term break refers to the particular rhythms and sounds produced by deejays by mixing sounds from records to produce a continuous dancing beat" . Later, the definition came to include any music composed to function as a break. The term b-beat was in use in 1978 , remaining popular into the early 1980s . Herc estimates that the term breakbeats gained currency in the 1980s .

There are no strict criteria that define a break. George's pioneering 1978 article offers, "'breaks' in records, sections that deviate from the melody to showcase energetic Latin percussion work" . Hager, writing in 1984, describes, "the hottest segment of the song, which was often just a 30-second 'break' section—when the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar stripped the beat to it's barest essence" . Schloss gives a similar definition, "the part of a song where all instruments except the rhythm section fall silent and the groove is distilled to its most fundamental elements" . Pete DJ Jones offers a more functional (and perhaps more accurate) definition, "the best part of the record is the breakdown...what guys started calling the break or breakbeat. That was the part that got people dancing" . Melle Mel similarly includes the role of dancers, describing, "the part of any record that had a breakdown, where all the music dropped out and it was just the beat. And these beats were so hype and so frantic that when the music dropped out, it was just the beat and everybody would go off" , while for Theodore, the "break part" is "the get-down part, which is the best part of the record, where the drummer get busy" . Flash contrasts the break against the rest of the song (e.g. ), as in this passage from a 1998 interview: "I would listen to records and I would notice something: wow the breaks on these records are really short. Like, either they were short or they were at the end of the song. Or it was a problem where the best part is really great, but it would go into a wack passage after. I could never allow myself to go into a wack passage or go off" .

Terminology was not unified as hip hop first began receiving media coverage. The earliest articles seem to prefer "b-beat," though, as noted earlier, George's 1978 article discusses the "breaks" . Banes' 1981 article speculates on the origin of "break" as it appears in b-boy, writing, "for the current generation of B Boys, it doesn't really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a competitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist's improvised bridge between melodies" , but of the music says only, "as the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style" . Holman in 1982 defines, "B-beats: consistant medium-to-slow funk beats which are the backbone of hip hop music" . In the same January 1982 article, Afrika Bambaataa uses both the phrases "b-beats" and "hip hop rock," suggesting that the widespread adoption of the term hip hop was still underway—Hager's article "Afrika Bambaataa's Hip Hop" would be published in September of that year . Hager's 1984 glossary contains, "b-beat or b-bop—funky music suitable as an instrumental track for rapping. B-bop is often used derogatorily, as in 'I don't want to hear that b-bop music'" .


Cf. DJing

Some percussionists with multiple break credits.2 Clockwise from top left: John "Jabo" Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, King Errisson, Bobbye Hall, Ralph MacDonald .

DJ Kool Herc's selection of music, and decision to repeat particular parts of records, informed the original formulation of breaks and what would become known as hip hop music. According to Afrika Bambaataa, "Herc was the first to push it in the culture, but breakbeats had been around since disco, since James Brown, all the little breaks between records" . George heard in the breaks played in 1978 "Latin percussion work" , though Katz observes that greater diversity can be heard even in a short list of breaks . Katz instead identifies a unifying "funkiness" in the breaks, embedded in their rhythm, texture, and timbre . Frane quantifies a swing rhythm present in several breaks . An analysis of the source music will not be attempted here.

Herc recognized the desire of party-goers to hear break records. Hager quotes Herc in 1984 saying, "I played songs like 'Give It Up Or Turn It Loose.' People would walk for miles just to hear that record—because nobody could find it" . Herc has expanded, "I was just the guy who played straight-up music that the radio don't play, that they should be playin', and people was havin' fun. Those records, people walk from miles around to get 'em 'cause they couldn't get 'em, they wasn't out there no more. 'Just Begun,' Rare Earth, James Brown, the Isley Brothers—they just love it" . One consequence was that Herc allegedly, "guarded the names of the more obscure break records, even to the point of soaking them in his bathtub to remove the labels" .

In describing his motivation to repeat breaks at his parties, Herc usually alludes to the breakers in attendance :

"Different people come there and dance to different types of music. I'm catering to each and every set of people there. Well the break thing happened because I was seeing everybody on the sidelines waiting for particular breaks in the records [...] I said let me put a couple of these records together, that got breaks in them. I did it. boom bom-bom-bom. I try to make it sound like a record. Place went berserk. Loved it."

There were also other reasons for DJs to repeat breaks. For Pete DJ Jones, in addition to the dancers' response to the breaks, "there weren't that many songs out, so if I had to DJ a party that lasted 3 hours, I had to extend those breakdowns" . Flash adds that he would repeat breaks not only for breakers, but for "the two stepper" and "that Latin dance, the hustle" . It should be noted that DJs had repeated dance beats earlier, such as Jones .

List of tracks whose breaks appear on the 1978 tape, "Furious Four and Grandmaster Flash at Audubon Ballroom and Jackson Projects" :
At Audubon Ballroom
  1. The Fatback Band - "Fatbackin'" (1973)
  2. Brooklyn Dreams - "Music, Harmony and Rhythm" (1977)
  3. Gaz - "Sing Sing" (1978)
  4. Manzel - "Space Funk" (1977)
  5. Dynamic Corvettes - "Funky Music Is the Thing" (1975)
  6. Duke Williams and the Extremes - "Chinese Chicken" (1973)
  7. All Dyrections - "On Top of It" (1973)
  8. Pleasure - "Let's Dance" (1976)
  9. John Davis & the Monster Orchestra - "I Can't Stop" (1976)
  10. David Matthews - "Main Theme from Star Wars" (1977)
  11. The Blackbyrds - "Blackbyrds' Theme" (1974)
At Jackson Projects
  1. Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band - "Apache" (1973)
  2. 20th Century Steel Band - "Heaven & Hell Is On Earth" (1975)
  3. Makonde - "Manzara" (1977)
  4. Booker T. & The M.G.'s - "Grab Bag" (1977)
  5. King Errisson - "Well, Have A Nice Day" (1977)

Among the earliest breaks Herc mixed, according to Clark Kent, were Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache" and Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band's "Scorpio" . "Apache" is often considered to be of particular importance (e.g. ). Over time, more records with suitable breaks were discovered. Certain breaks are sometimes described as classic breaks or as making up a canon. Interviewed in 1998, Herc lists some of his "big records" :

  • James Brown - "Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose" (1970)
  • Babe Ruth - "The Mexican" (1972)
  • Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band - "Bongo Rock" (1973)
  • The Jimmy Castor Bunch - "It's Just Begun" (1972)

Other early records Herc used were the Dynamic Corvettes' "Funky Music Is The Thing," The Isley Brothers' "Get Into Something," and Cymande's "Bra." Herc would play some records at different speeds, e.g. a "Jeannie Reynolds record at 45 rather than the 33⅓ at which it was recorded" .

The DJs who would follow Herc's style of playing just the breaks back-to-back would also expand the corpus of break records. Among the earliest and most influential of these were Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. Toop summarizes, "Bambaataa mixed up calypso, European and Japanese electronic music, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and rock groups like Mountain; Kool DJ Herc spun The Doobie Brothers back-to-back with the Isley Brothers; Grandmaster Flash overlayed speech records and sound effects with The Last Poets" .

Herc appears to have initially looped breaks in an approximate way, in a segment of his performance he called the "Merry-Go-Round" . Both Herc and Jones used the fact that breaks are visibly distinguishable in vinyl records as dark grooves . Flash's introduction of "pre-cueing" (learned from Jones) and later his "clock theory" improved the consistency of looping breaks, and allowed shorter samples to be interposed on beat . Breaks were further augmented with innovations including Flash's sampled-based "punch phrasing" and "beat box," as well as Grandwizard Theodore's "scratching" . Some forms of mixing and sampling were also employed in contexts outside of hip hop, as by DJs such as Terry Noel, Francis Grasso, or Walter Gibbons .

In the early-to-mid 1970s, back-to-back breaks or break mixes were heard almost exclusively where a DJ was performing. An exception arose in the mixtape, a casette tape where a break mix was recorded. Turntablism and MCing arose as components of break mixes, and naturally remained common. While recordings of MCing, i.e. rap or hip hop music, have likely become the dominant mode of transmission for breaks, break mixes with more focus on the breaks themselves also exist. Important early examples include Flash's The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1981) and Breakbeat Lou's Ultimate Breaks and Beats (1986) while modern, breaking-oriented mixtapes such as DJ Leacy's B-Boy B-Girl Funk (1996) continue to be important resources for breakers. Flash demonstrated the creation of a break mix on an MTV program in 1983 . Fab 5 Freddy's compositions for Wildstyle, such as "Down By Law" , are significant for being the first original breaks created for use by hip hop DJs . Breaks are now routinely composed for DJing, MCing, and breaking.

The endurance of the break in hip hop music is predicted by Afrika Bambaataa in 1982:

"The music will change but the beat will remain. Rap lyrics will have to evolve to be more meaningful. More effects will be added too."

Short List of Breaks (Before 1980)

Title Artist Year Sample Comments
AfricanoEarth, Wind, and Fire1975
ApacheMichael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band1973
Bustin' LooseChuck Brown & The Soul Searchers1979
The ChampThe Mohawks1968
CorazonCreative Source1974
Dance to the Drummer's BeatHerman Kelly & Life1978
Funky DrummerJames Brown1970
Funky Music Is the ThingDynamic Corvettes1974
Get Into SomethingThe Isley Brothers1970
Get on the Good FootJames Brown1972
Give It Up or Turnit a LooseJames Brown1970 the 1986 remix is also common
Good TimesChic1979 perhaps more important for MCing
I Can't StopJohn Davis & The Monster Orchestra1976
It's Just BegunThe Jimmy Castor Bunch1972
Jam on the GrooveRalph MacDonald1976
Listen To MeBaby Huey & The Babysitters1971
The LovomaniacsBoobie Knight & The Universal Lady1974 a.k.a. "Sex"
Mambo No. 5Samba Soul1977
The MexicanBabe Ruth1972
On Top of ItAll Dyrections1973
The PantherManu Dibangu1972
ScorpioDennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band1971
Scratchin'The Magic Disco Machine1975
Take Me to the Mardi GrasBob James1975 a.k.a. "Bells"
Tango HustleKay-Gees1978
Think (About It)Lyn Collins1972
Well, Have A Nice DayKing Errisson1977
Yellow SunshineYellow Sunshine1973


  1. From The Language of Jazz (1997):
    "break Although a break is 'any phrase played without the accompaniment of the rhythm section' (PanassiƩ, 38), many players and listeners used the word to mean simply a very short solo: thus, a pair of front line players swapping phrases of a bar or two are said to be 'trading breaks'.
    breakdown Originally, a square dance (Stearns, 140); hence, used in the titles of numbers such as Ellington's 'Birmingham Breakdown' (Vocalion, 1926) and Morton's 'Chicago Breakdown', which was recorded by Armstrong (Okeh, 1927)."
  2. Jabo, in addition to James Brown classics like "Get on the Good Foot," played on Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)." Clyde's most significant drum contributions include "Funky Drummer" and the 1970 "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose." Errisson is the conguerro (and possibly bongoist) on "Apache," also releasing "Well, Have A Nice Day." Hall's percussion credits include "Bongo Rock" and "Corazon." In addition to his own albums, MacDonald provided percussion on Bob James' "Take Me to the Mardi Gras."