The Roots may be the best known proponents of hip-hop played by real live instruments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve cornered the market. The Los Angeles-based Breakestra is a case in point; the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist hip-hop fan Miles Tackett — incidentally, the son of Little Feat’s Freddie Tackett — the group personifies its name with a breakbeat-friendly large ensemble sound that blends the vintage soul grooves of the JB’s and the Meters with an old-school hip-hop aesthetic born out of Tackett’s admiration for trailblazing artists like De La Soul and Ultramagnetic MCs. Hit the Floor, the Breakestra’s first new release since 2001’s The Live Mix, Pt. 2, finds the band making great strides forward, especially in terms of setting itself apart from the growing pack of like-minded throwback ensembles.
Where The Live Mix, Pt. 2 had the band playing in a largely tributary mode, offering funked-up extensions of old-school hip-hop breaks, Hit the Floor consists of 100 percent original material. It’s a move that suits the group well, allowing Tackett and Mixmaster Wolf’s emotive vocals to guide the band into territories far beyond the sum of its collective influences. As a unit, the Breakestra functions refreshingly free of ego — each member of the group receives ample opportunity to step forward throughout the course of the disc, but the obvious ease with which collective interplay occurs only makes the occasional solo spot that much more enjoyable. Even so, special mention must be made in the case of drummer Pete McNeil, whose seemingly effortless and inventive breakbeat variations stimulate even the few tracks that veer into cookie-cutter funk.
Although funk jams of both the vocal and instrumental varieties dominate the track list, a handful of stylistic departures add greater depth to the band’s concept and ultimately ensure the disc’s overall success. “Hiding” and “Recognize” hint that Tackett may very well be as gifted a pop songwriter as he is a funk revivalist, combining the best of both worlds in catchy, soulful tunes reminiscent of Sly & the Family Stone circa “Underdog” or “I Cannot Make It”. Elsewhere, the disc maintains a firm grasp on the Breakestra’s roots via guest vocals from members of Jurassic 5 and People Under the Stairs on the undeniably old-school first single “Family Rap”.
Further extending the inspirational palette at its disposal, the group also exhibits a solid understanding of some jazzier directions in its all-encompassing definition of funk. “Burgundy Blues”, for example, captures the early ’70s California Blue Note vibe in a flute-driven piece that could easily be mistaken for the work of Jeremy Steig, but rather extends the talents of Breakestra reedman James “The Penguin” King. And in a completely different shade of jazz-funk, the disc’s longest track “How Do You Really Feel?” sounds like the band’s take on Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, with spacious guitar chords stretching the ensemble sound to auspicious new heights.
To be fair, beyond the standout cuts, a few do tend toward the interchangeable; and at 65 minutes, the disc is a tad overlong, but these are minor points of contention. Miles Tackett and his collaborators form an ambitious crew — and are obviously talented enough to continue pushing the boundaries of the Breakestra’s potential. If they take full advantage, Hit the Floor will stand as just the first of many growth patterns in the band’s career.