A collection of breakbeats UK-style often means simply a collection of updated big beat tracks. You remember big beat, don’t you? Dance music for people that didn’t like dance music. That ended in Fatboy Slim. There is a greater variety and considerably more subtlety to breakbeats post-millennium, but the whole scene still generates the suspicion that, though it borrows heavily from ‘70s funk and early ‘90s hip-hop, it puts the results into a form that will appeal to people who deep down really hate black music.
Certainly that’s how the harder sounds of people like Lee Coombs or the more retro grooves of the rising outfit, Plump DJs, strike me. When matters are less hectic there is plenty of passable fare but nothing that couldn’t be safely left to would-be cool students, who make up a worrying percentage of breakbeat aficionados. The shining exception has been Mr. Scruff who follows a genuine rare groove/hip-hop aesthetic and (along with fellow Mancunians Rae and Christian and Only Child) keeps heart and soul in the mix.
Mr. Scruff and the Plump DJs both feature on Breakscape and neither do anything to change my opinion of them. However, by the time the album arrives at the bang-whoosh rumblings that characterises the worst of the genre, you could be forgiven for giving up on any tentative definition of what the music collected herein shares generically. This is not the album I was expecting, after looking at the names on the cover. It is a much more interesting one, moving as it does from chill-out ambience, through nu-jazz beats before getting funky and only then finally losing the plot. I am aware that most listeners will think it simply takes an age to get where it should be going but that’s their privilege.
Whether all this eclecticism counts as Breaks is for someone else to judge. The label’s compromise choice of a title suggests some doubts and clumsy though the neologism is, it catches the actual feel of the collection reasonably well. Landscapes and “soundscapes” always signify atmospheric somnolence and trip-hoppiness, and define the early phases of a project, which only gradually becomes beatier and more obviously structured around breaks and samples. A musical journey is a much abused phrase but Breakscape has a doggedly linear and logical development through a number of moods and tempos.
For my money the opening and middle sections are by far the strongest. The earlier tracks are excellent even though we have had something of a chill-out overdose in the past year. The opener, by Compost act Native Force, and the lovely, in all but name, “The Plug” (by Brighton crew Bonolo) are gentle, jazzy and persuasive. The much vaunted Bent and the highly competent Kinobe (with the Cymande-sampling “Skyscraper”) have been a little too ever present recently, but do deliver their respective goods. The first four outings, then, are more than acceptable and would grace any Ruby Trainer or even an Om lounge set.
If they plough a rather over-worked furrow they still seem fresher than the other end of the set, where Plump DJs and Soto (who precede them) are just a little too mechanical to retain the hip-hop/techno sensibility for which they apparently strive. There is real punch to those cuts but they retain some of the heavy-handedness of the BB explosion and cling too closely to rock’s predilection for the bombastic and merely noisy.
The meat of the album is provided by J-Walk, Beber, Mr. Scruff, Blackgrass, Funk De Jojo and Not Just Gigolos. Jazz, hip-hop and breakbeat swirl around all of these cuts which, though sometimes too derivative, are always lively and with that little touch of something to make you sit up and take notice. Eccentric too; the magnificent J-Walk use, to great effect, a ‘60s-sounding harpsichord riff (which I’m told is from Andrew Loog Oldham but reminds me of one of those soundtrack lounge things popular a couple of years back). Elsewhere big band jazz, dub, film scores, electro and cheesy mambo all play a part in enriching the general palette. Heady, if sometimes messy stuff.
The reliance on samples is of course part of the charm and of course it is the cut and paste sample that defines breakbeat, not the simple borrowing of a rhythm or even a whole tune. Mr. Scruff excels at such wizardry and leads the movement by some way. His outrageously uplifting “Get a Move On” is close to jazz-pastiche but really swings, albeit in a rather lopsided dope-and-cidery sort of way. Beber’s “Chief Rocka” has the most authentic left-field hip-hop feel while the outstanding number is possibly the guitar and keyboards led “Goodbye to All That” by Black Grass. A new name to me, they deliver a disturbed slice of post-modern jazz-funk that has bite without sacrificing subtlety.
Although impressive if you don’t know the original, I can’t actually determine what Funk de Jojo have added to Larry Young’s ‘70s classic “Turn Off the Lights”. Late arrivals will find it nicely twisted and quirky but it always was the oddest of Rare Groove floor favourites. At times like this the pointlessness of much of the genre can become an issue. Fortunately ,it is here an isolated incident.
For the most part the snippets and stolen licks work sweetly. Old gits like me can puzzle over what has been nicked from where and the rest of you can indulge in some serious head-nodding and shoe-shuffling. It may not be the best intro to what is really happening on the UK breaks scene, but that is perhaps, musically at least, a plus. What it does demonstrate is the vast repertoire of sounds that can be heard in the burgeoning non-4/4 side of club culture. If some of those sounds are a little dissonant or misplaced, they mostly make sense and, at their best, form an inviting and often cheekily imaginative aural collage. Well worth investigating.
// Notes from the Road
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