Voluminous Arts

A study on breaks, loops, and DJ tools.

by Barbie Bertisch
September 20th 2021

To celebrate the release of Black Meteoric Star’s NYC Beat Boxx , an album that, “draws inspiration from vinyl ‘beat collections’, which heavily circulated in New York during the 80’s”, Love Injection Fanzine co-founder, DJ, writer and musical artist Barbie Bertisch delves deeply into the lineage of these remarkable recordings.

Barbie Bertisch

Prelude: A Personal Note

IT'S DIFFICULT to tell a linear story that covers the full breadth of breaks, their origins and early applications, their adaptations and usage as DJ tools, and modern iterations. This essay is an attempt at connecting the dots between DJing, breaks, tools, and understanding how new sounds and technology altered the discipline.

While breaks appear to first get repurposed in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, their late 80s incarnation could not exist perhaps without freestyle, also hailing from New York, and acid house, most commonly associated with Chicago DJs and producers Phuture, Ron Hardy, Adonis, and the Trax Records legacy. Finally, Detroit’s techno, soundtracked by radio DJ Electrifying Mojo found its roots as a mix of the Motown sound, funk, rock, and the metallic sounds of Kraftwerk. Once acid house and techno reached Europe, a back and forth of tossing reinterpretations across the Atlantic ensued. There are far more capable students and writers that focus on the origins of electronic music, which this piece does not focus on, but rather touches upon. Some important names, lectures, and platforms include:

For more writings on Black music history that is actually told from a Black perspective, visit Dweller Blog, started by Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson as a content platform inspired by her New York festival. Additionally, DeForrest Brown, Jr. , author and musician behind Make Techno Black Again and Speaker Music, continues to inspire a new generation of studying, dissecting, and better understanding and appreciating electronic music and its origins.

With that said, here’s where I landed:

Disco, DJ Technology & New York City

It’s 2021 and everyone’s a DJ, but the modern art form has only been in development over the past eighty years, adapting and responding to music trends, needs, response, and the introduction of new technologies. Though much has changed, DJing remains, more or less, the same concept: one or two sources (generally a turntable, laptop, or CDJs), a mixer, sometimes an MC or radio host, and the piecing together of a narrative over the course of a session. Outside of the traditional radio format, DJing to a dancing audience became a concept around the late 1940s, with the first discotheque opening in 1947 in Paris. The concept of the nightclub, DJ, crowd, and sound system all started to develop in unison as a growing ecosystem in the following twenty years.

It wasn’t until 1973 that the word ‘disco’ was written about in reference to music intended for dancing, an abbreviation of the French discotheque. Disco swept the music market by storm as nightclubs grew in popularity across global metropolitan cities, and New York City became the western epicenter of this burgeoning culture. It is vital to mention that the genre was rooted in funk, rock, soul, latin and african sounds, a musical coming together that reflected the social demographics of 1970s New York. DJs played a key role in the advent of disco and some went on to become remixers, producers, and impresarios themselves. Disco, of course, was the precursor to house music. But that’s another story.

Some of the early breakthroughs that took place around this time include:

  • The introduction of the 12 inch single, technically executed by José Rodriguez and described by pioneer remixer Tom Moulton as a happy accident, permitted songs to continue beyond the preexisting 4 minute cap of 45 rpm singles. This resulted in extended mixes with more complex orchestration as these records were being made to be played in a nightclub context. A new type of spatially conscious music was emerging that sought to bring dancers into a frenzied climax.
  • Early DJ mixer prototypes, such as the one pioneered by American audio engineer Alex Rosner and later Rudy Bozak, also came around this time. Shortly after, Bronx-raised DJ and hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash is credited with developing the headphone cue by hand-wiring a "single pole double throw switch" purchased at Radio Shack, as well as the “wafer” which was an early version of the modern day slipmat. He also pioneered the foundational ‘quick-mix’ technique.
  • The tweeter array, credited to David Mancuso on the idea and Alex Rosner for its execution, was also a result of the boom of the early 1970s era of nightclubbing.
The Break: Inception

While nightclubbing became a lucrative business thanks to the pop culture embrace of Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever, it was in the Bronx that a new, homegrown sound was brewing with 18 year old Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc at the controls. Armed with an arsenal of funk records, he masterfully isolated ‘the break’ and, noticing their short-lived nature, would often double up and play the same break back to back. While Herc is commonly credited, Brooklyn’s own Grandmaster Flowers, the first ever ‘Grandmaster’ where Flash got his name from, was also identifying and recontextualizing breaks in his own borough.

The break is defined as the part of a song that indicates a change, often with a stripped down arrangement that solely features percussion. A break is a driving and often exhilarating part of a record, it is propulsive and at the same time a bridge, connecting one song to the next.

Iconic, foundational breaks:

  • Babe Ruth, “The Mexican”
  • Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache”
  • James Brown, “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose”

Looping breaks developed into the more official “Merry-Go-Round”, the blueprint of hip hop and the soundtrack to the borough’s park jams circa 1972, and it created a tapestry of percussion that made room for MCing (rapping), which followed the Jamaican tradition of toasting. The driving, energetic nature of the break was perfect for b-boys and b-girls to battle, improvise, and express themselves. Breakdancing or breaking, more specifically, was a vital kinetic counterpart to DJing and, in turn, it influenced DJs to nurture the synergistic relationship that kept breakers exploring new horizons in their artform. With Herc paving the way, and fellow pioneer Grand Wizard Theodore developing scratching, the road was being paved for DJ/producer dynamos like Grandmaster Flash, Jazzy Jay, and Afrika Bambaataa to quickly take the discipline to new heights.

Soon, labels like Sugar Hill Records, arguably the first of its kind, provided an avenue for DJs to evolve into producers and rappers in their own right. By the end of the decade, funk, soul, and disco influenced hip hop was all the rage. While there was some resistance at first, particularly from radio jocks, other labels like Profile and Sugarscoop emerged to support this new music coming out of the boroughs.

Diggers Delight

Following the legacy of famous breaks that left a mark in his childhood, New York dancer, DJ, and later producer Louis Flores aka Breakbeat Lou became the figure behind the popular Ultimate Breaks & Beats compilation series. First released in 1986 on Street Beat Records, the 25 part compilation series encompassed music with iconic breaks from 1966 through 1984 and it became hugely influential for emerging hip hop and pop producers.

Breakbeat Lou started DJing in ‘74 in his bedroom, but says he only stepped outside four years later: “...back then, I don’t know if it’s the same now, but back then there was something called “paying your dues” (Red Bull Music Academy). His paying dues included carrying elders’ crates, which exposed him to the music, culture, and its key players at an early age. Observing other compilations in the market that failed to sound good enough to his ears, he released Octopus Breakbeats, a series of bootleg records from 1980 to 1984. Wanting to provide further context and reinforce the roots of hip hop, him and his collaborator Lenny Roberts “... decided we’d give [DJs and producers] the materials for the records that played in the jams, that ended up being the first nine volumes [of Ultimate Breaks and Beats], so they’d at least have the songs that really started the culture” (Red Bull Music Academy).

UBBs can still be found in second hand record shops, an important relic from a time when the internet hadn’t yet democratized access to music. The series were and remain formative to any music aficionado with a hunger for history.

Immortalizing these breaks was a way to empower young producers, but Breakbeat Lou never expected the series to reach beyond the DJ/producer landscape. To his surprise, the breaks featured in UBB found their way into mainstream pop music, like Hanson’s MMMbop (using the break in Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution”), Janet Jackson’s That’s The Way Love Goes” (using Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President”) and countless more. During his Red Bull Music Academy lecture, he says that they made such an impact that “...in 1995, in the Billboard top 100 singles chart, of the 52 weeks in the year, for 37 weeks there were records [charted] that sampled something from Street Beat Records.”

New Frontiers: Machines

Personally, I consider the introduction of the Direct Drive turntable as an inflection point, a step closer towards what DJing looks like in its present day iteration. Turntables until 1969 were belt driven, its somewhat unreliable technology resulting in a slow start and a belt that wore down easily. Using belt drive turntables, DJs would interlace records mostly by blending, overlapping them sometimes masterfully given the limiting circumstances, such as Tony Humphries at New Jersey’s Zanzibar. It wasn’t until 1972 that the game-changing Technics 1200 was introduced, with its reliable motor and pitch control, allowing DJs greater reliability, startup speed, and precision. Not all clubs featured DD turntables at first, but eventually the Technics 1200 became the standard across the globe—that is, until CDs came along. It is important to study these emerging technologies to understand DJing and music production during their inception, and how they evolved to their present form. It feels especially important to highlight mixing capabilities considering music was mostly human-performed, which meant a natural sway in tempo to keep the pocket. Mixing unquantized music on a belt drive turntable seems like a daunting task even for some of the most skilled DJs.

During the 70s, hip hop production utilized basslines from disco records as the rhythm tracks, such as Chic’s “Good Times” becoming the root of “Rapper’s Delight”. This reinforces the impact of Jamaican studio production and riddims, dubs, and instrumental versions of side A cuts. But towards the end of the decade, disco had become a commercial product, a result of an exploitative entertainment industry that capitalized and white washed its soulful side. A lot of records at this time became about fast tempos, formulaic arpeggios, overly orchestral arrangements and Saturday Night Fever.

Drum machines, and eventually sampling technology, became instrumental as more producers emerged out of this explosive period. Some say that hip hop and Washington DC’s go-go were a response to the commercialized disco sound, once music with a message and later the sound of Disco Duck. A more rhythm-based sound was born as the remnants of funk and the birth of hip hop when they both met the new-to-market Roland TR-808. Introduced in 1980 and at first a commercial failure credited to threatened session drummers, the iconic drum machine gained a cult following as it was affordable and malleable, allowing users without formal musical training to program their own drum patterns. Seminal records like Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet Rock” (produced by Arthur Baker and using the TR-808) and Warp 9’s “Nunk” became staples of a new era that bridged early hip hop and electronics, which was largely referred to as electro-funk. Labels like Tommy Boy and Prism became homes for new school hip hop, influenced by drum machines, rock, and the landscape of New York.

Other genres besides electro would soon emerge in the 80s: house, techno, Miami bass, freestyle, and breakbeat. They all grew into powerful forces driven by the booming bass drum of the Roland Rhythm Composers.

Rhythm Tracks

In 1982, the first Jive Rhythm Trax was released, and it featured eight stripped-down rhythm covers of everything from Dazz Band to Soft Cell, to the mammoth “Planet Rock”. The series was credited to Willesden Dodgers, a trio of studio producers and engineers that seem to have little to no other credits, with the exception of Richard Jon Smith. The first edition in this series, last reissued in 1989, made a splash within various DJ circles. A followup, More Jive Rhythm Trax, was issued that same year and in 1983, Jive Scratch Trax expanded to twelve reimagined versions of funk, soul, and rock hits from recent years, such as “Billie Jean” and“Rock The Boat”. Jive Scratch Trax were all made primarily with the Linn LM-1 drum machine.

The compilation series did not include track names, though it was based on covers, but rather BPM numbers. The numbers were meant for DJs to be able to easily place each cut within their sets. Breaks were evolving with the introduction of new technology, and these new developments, in turn, influenced DJs as well. On a musical level, the bare bones nature of rhythm tracks allow for the DJ to use them as a bridge when moving across genres. Since there’s little other than a beat, the rhythm track provides a breather from the melodic elements of the outgoing record, and acts as a palate cleanser for the one that is being cued up. Breaks had been used by the pioneers, who feverishly collected them from existing recordings of artists like The Monkees and James Brown. While it was a groundbreaking way to interact with these records, writing new music for the purpose of transitioning or looping while DJing marked a new era in itself.

In the years after its release, Jive Rhythm Trax also became somewhat of a phenomenon within the turntablist circles, another manifestation of DJing and an evolution from hip hop DJs. Turntablism requires incredible precision and skill, and I consider it to be a highly technical branch of the arform; it even has its own worldwide competition, the DMC (Disco Mix Club) Championships, which began in 1985. Bay Area turntablist DJ Shortkut is seen on this YouTube clip by user Michael Shum, tearing through “BPM 122”. The footage was recorded at a DMC US hotel session in 1996 and since then, Shortkut has made a name for himself as a DJ, creative force, and DMC Championship judge. Most recently, Japanese powerhouse turntablist DJ Koco can be seen cutting between two 45rpm pressings of “BPM 122” during one of his routines.

Without a doubt, the emergence of drum machines in the 80s brought about substantial innovations in music production which supported DJs adapting to new sounds developing seemingly at hyper speed. From hip hop to acid house and techno, some of those same tools remain in use today.

Acid & A New Rave

Before diving into 90s breaks, the influence of UK raves and the introduction of ecstasy in New York, it is crucial to state that Chicago’s acid house was the spark that set European crowds ablaze. Raving as part of youth language had emerged in the 50s and 60s within garage and psych rock circles, going out of style during the mod and hippie years, and resurfacing into the lingo allegedly during the 80s, likely due to Jamaican influence (Helen Evans, 1992).

Chicago acid house artists gained some notoriety overseas, as Trax releases sold thousands upon thousands of copies in Europe. The wonky basslines became the go-to in warehouses across Manchester and later, London. The late 80s saw the word “raving” reentering the public consciousness as a result of the introduction of acid house, which influenced the modern UK rave which was, in turn, an eye opening experience for a young New York DJ who was about to toss it back across the Atlantic.

Bonesbreaks, UK Rave, and the transatlantic exchange

Growing up in New York in the 80s, Frankie Mitchell and his younger brother, Adam, threw themselves into the pastimes of the era: breakdancing, graffiti, roller skating. Hip hop was the sound of the city and very much on the foreground, playing an active role in shaping them as they became Frankie Bones and Adam X, two foundational figures in the story of New York raves.

Having parents who already favored clubbing and growing up with records around the house allowed the brothers to absorb music from all ends, turning to DJing before they came of age. Still in his teens, Frankie struck up a friendship with producer and DJ Omar Santana, which led to his first production. Freestyle had become part of the sonic fabric of the city through DJs such as John “Jellybean” Benitez, who held a highly influential residency at The Fun House and the latin contingent that was also into hip hop. Frankie’s first record came out in 1987, a classic freestyle 12 inch single with female vocalist ​​Suzy Swan called “Can't Take These Lies.” The genre expanded under the formula of producer-meets-vocalist while using “Planet Rock” as a rhythmic foundation. A short year after that, the initial Bonesbreaks was released. In his words, and as told to Red Bull Music Academy:

“Bonesbreaks started off as just a bunch of loops from the hip hop era. It was just everything; we threw it in a pot and started to stir it around. It was freestyle, it was house, it was breaks, it was hip hop. It was everything that… That thing was taking things that didn’t belong together, like taking a hip hop song and putting it over a house beat, or putting a breakbeat over a straight house beat.”

The inaugural Bonesbreaks in 1988 landed just at the right time, when a musical and cultural juncture was happening overseas. Breaks records did exist up until this point, but they were usually compilations featuring the original tracks, harkening back to the early hip hop era. It wasn’t until the late 80s and Bonesbreaks that the sound of New York was synthesized and packaged by DJs for DJs, capturing a ferocious, raw sound that still ripples across the electronic music landscape to this day. In Frankie’s words, again: “We were making mashups, mashing whatever it is together, throwing it on something and selling it. And it worked.” (Red Bull Music Academy)

Exploring Frankie Bones’ discography on Discogs, one comes to see the impact of his Bonesbreaks series. A comment from four years ago by user BillyJohnston reads “Most vinyl DJ's in the know with time under their belt have Bones records in their bag. Tracks, edits, & RMX's with his name that get the dance floor moving.” Another comment, this one by Mister_Dia-Tribe_73 reads: “Is this the first real breakbeat that the UK heard and influenced them to start the sound of hardcore....?” Seeking some answers, I reached out to Adam X who explained: “My early productions were influenced not only by NY at the time but by the UK, Belgian and Detroit techno. It was the combination of all these countries and cities with unique styles which I made a mesh of styles from.”

But where and how did this European influence come from? As I previously described, acid house had traveled from Chicago across the Atlantic, resulting in a new cultural movement. Detroit had begun to make its mark in Germany as well, thanks to The Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson) and Berlin’s “Hard Wax” record shop, owned by Mark Ernestus. A new era of communal dancing was commencing, and when Frankie Bones was invited to DJ in London in the summer of 1989 to a crowd of 25,000 ravers at the party called Energy, it blew his mind. And while acid house and Deroit techno were already being culturally exchanged in parallel, he was immediately inspired to bring this movement back to the US and the legendary Storm Raves were born, which some credit as the introduction of raving in America.

Some argue that “The golden age of breakbeat was the early 1990s” ( Discogs), which was when the Mitchell brothers unleashed their breaks series Bonesbreaks, Drumdrops on Underworld and its parent label, Apexton Records. As NY raves grew in popularity, releases followed by Lenny Dee, Joey Beltram, Ralphie Dee, Tommy Musto. The cultural legacy of the NY rave scene was immortalized by countless fanzines , such as DJ Heather Heart’s “Under One Sky” to which Adam X frequently contributed, and it also occupied a physical space in the daytime, as Heather and the two brothers opened up a record shop called Sonic Groove.

Digital Loops

Technology is perhaps the biggest catalyst for change in the artform of DJing. In 1993, the Denon’s DN-200f became the first ever widely embraced CD player for DJs. It was a two-piece rack mount CD player, dual deck with the first-ever pitch bend, jog wheel and cue button. It gained some fans as nightclubs slowly adopted the rack mount CD player as part of their tech riders. Other models like Numark’s CDN-22 or Technics SL-P1200 (1986) and brands like Gemini, Stanton, and Vestax entered the DJ-oriented CD player market.

As the music industry shifted from vinyl to CD, and later to digital music and streaming, these companies focused on offering reliable, creative tools for DJs to reproduce music in innovative ways. Looping is, perhaps, one of the most useful capabilities of digital CD players. The Denon ​​DN-M2300R shows early looping capabilities, but it is the Pioneer CDJ, its first model launched in 1998 and now an industry standard, that offers an unprecedented amount of flexibility.

I’ve personally never used Serato products, but Scratch Live, launched in the 2000s, saw a huge number of converts moving away from vinyl and onto their portable solution. In their words, “DJs could now access and perform with their entire digital music collection using specially designed control records, control CDs, or MIDI controllers. Scratch Live went on to revolutionize the DJ industry.” (Serato) Being able to manipulate digital music files and creating loops on the fly became even easier than it once was with rack mounted CD DJ players.

Adam X, who came of age in the age of vinyl but became a supporter of new technology, enthusiastically weighed in: “You can even do more now with the tightness of looping on CDJs. It’s up to the DJ to be creative. I find myself way more creative with technology now then back in the day.” When I started this piece, I held my own biases about how I’d end up thinking of DJ tools, breaks, and loops in the era of digital DJ CD players. I realized now that digital looping does not replace what I traditionally refer to as loops, tools, or breaks but rather offers an almost postmodern method of manipulation. Capturing the immediacy and rawness of an acid break is quite the challenge. The technical prowess needed to cut between two records is not something everyone possesses. The tech tools are just there to help provide malleable, adaptive solutions to the person creating the soundtrack.

I consider myself lucky to have learned the craft of DJing through other jocks with undying respect for its lineage. They passed on important knowledge that became crucial the second I started wanting to mix together classic New York disco records from labels such as Salsoul, West End, Prelude, and others. My teachers were patient and generous with their knowledge and I never felt like something was being kept from me. I believe that experience is not the norm, sadly, so it is my duty to share as much as was shared with me. And, so, I pass it on. Personally spending the first two years of my young DJ journey as a vinyl-only, I realized it came with equal amounts of joy and limitations. Starting to use CDJs in the era of the Nexus 1000s meant I could create my own makeshift disco edits with loops, extended intros and outros, and even overcoming the technical challenges that come with mixing unquantized music. I now believe that, just like any other artform, knowing and mastering your tools (whatever those may be) is at the root of developing your own style and new technologies can be used creatively to astounding results. It is up to us to push their boundaries and make them work for us.

Congratulations to Gavilán Rayna Russom on encapsulating this raw, immediate feeling, the sounds of New York and the metallic chugging of train tracks, texture, through the sonic lens of Black Meteoric Star. When I hear NYC Beat Boxx I hear decades of study, experience, learning and deconstruction coming together as the early hours of the morning arrive. It takes place after the party. Most folks haven’t gotten up to go to work yet and the city is still wet on the surface, a shimmery glare on the traffic lights, and an almost sinister stillness before the machine grinds back on.