Some of Los Angeles' funkiest reunite for another strong set of sample-inspired music from the belly of the Root Down.
Among the many kinds of entertainment for which Los Angeles is well known are the various forms of clubs throughout the city. When it comes to the hip-hop and dance clubs in particular, the city is notable for the many celebrity DJs that occupy the city, from Madlib to the late DJ AM, and show up to play sets throughout the year. One of Los Angeles' favorite local talents, DJ Dusk, had made quite a name for himself with a unique brand of funk-inflected toasting and boasting throughout his DJ sets, which made him a standard attraction at the Root Down. In the late 1990s this club was also home to a large collection of alternative hip-hop groups such as Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples, as well as bands like Crown City Rockers and Breakestra.
Breakestra, releasing Dusk Till Dawn after a four-year hiatus from recording, have dedicated this record to the memory of DJ Dusk, who recently passed away as the victim of a drunk driving accident after playing a set in Los Angeles. Along with Jurassic 5's Cut Chemist, his style of sampling and performance was a major influence on the direction Miles "Music Man" Tackett wanted to take Breakestra, considered by many the city's finest funk band.
What makes Breakestra unique is that they don't play entirely original tunes, or entirely covers. Instead, as the hip-hop influence implies, they essentially weave classic breaks in and out of their sound, in effect "sampling" records with their instruments, rather than a turntable and sampler. I can't do a great job pointing out exactly where those breaks are. But I can tell you that the sound of this band brings to mind at various times the Blackbyrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Meters, perhaps Earth, Wind & Fire. And the influence of sampling is evident on tracks like "No Matter Where You Go", which features stabbing horns in the background that immediately recall some more uptempo West Coast hip-hop. But the best track is certainly "Posed to Be", featuring DJ Dusk and Jurassic 5's Chali 2na going back and forth on the microphone in a very traditional, early-'80s block party fashion. It is a consistently funky, good-times vibe, which translates to an album that would have to struggle very hard to frustrate or annoy listeners. The band plays very tightly, and also features members of DJ Z-Trip and Macy Gray's touring bands.
If one were going to find problems in Dusk Till Dawn, most likely they would probably owe themselves in some way to the length of the record. The CD-stuffing 74 minutes offer more than enough funk here for the funky souls among us, but casual explorers may be thrown off by the length and walk away from the last third of the album less interested than they were during the first third. Overstuffed albums have long been a trait of the compact disc era, however, so it's more par for the course than anything.
The one other problem with the group is that they rarely inject any variety into their set. While some songs start with unique sounds, like "Show You the Way" with its wall of noise, they eventually fall back into the same groovy funk. It's never disappointing, but it's going to be tough for some people to sit through the whole album if funk isn't in their lifeblood. I really like this album, and I'm sure seeing this set performed live would be an awesome experience -- judging by the infrequency of the band's releases, they are probably more accurately described as advertisements for their jams at Root Down than a truly definitive experience -- but on record they could use an editor and/or a bit more experimentation. The guest vocalists and cello (used excellently on "Me & Michelle") are a good start, and again I'm sure the live show expands on these sorts of dangling treats.
This release is a must-hear for funk diehards, a should-listen for hip-hop heads trying to develop their ear for breaks, and a could-try for everyone else. While it sounds like many of the other cuts, "No Matter Where You Go" gives the listener a highly enjoyable, educational tour through the sound of one of the United States' best current funk bands. Many people might have forgotten this breed of musician existed in any useful capacity, but groups like Breakestra and the many offshoots of the Dap-Kings -- not to mention hip-hoppers like Dudley Perkins and Georgia Anne Muldrow -- continue to remind us that funk is just as relevant as ever.