Time for another hip-hop history lesson. Today, our lesson is about: BREAKS.
A break is a musical segment in a song where the singer pipes down for a moment (literally takes a break) and lets the band shine on, often focusing on instrumental solos and a lot of percussion.
In the earliest days of the youth culture emerging in the blight-stricken borough of the Bronx (before it was called hip-hop), the break was a crucial element. It was energetic, spirited, powerful. It was the part of the song that liberated listeners. That moment where you could get loose, go crazy, and show off what you got on the dance floor. For the clubs and block parties the break was a desirable thing to have, often more treasured than the rest of the song, and DJs sought any recording that had them. Countless soul, funk, and R&B recordings from the ’60s and ’70s became famous for their breaks, and were added to party playlists. Performers who featured them prominently, like James Brown, were revered. Soon, DJs began to isolate these breaks and loop them for the audience, taking a smashing minute of raucous energy and extending it into several minutes of pure bliss. Dancers took to it like wildfire, the most fanatical and talented ones being dubbed ‘break-boys’ and ‘break-girls’…B-boys and B-girls. ‘Breaking’ would soon become a major element of hip-hop, and still remains a large part of the culture today.
As hip-hop music developed in the ’80s, bringing rap into the mix, the breaks would be a cornerstone of the production. Every DJ and producer worth their salt would mine old records to find the best breaks to utilize in their songs, something that would get the crowd moving. Records that were hot in the ’70s as b-boy classics were relevant again for a rapper’s backdrop in the ’80s and ’90s. Some records would reach critical mass, being sampled hundreds of times over. Two songs best known for this are The JB’s “Funky Drummer” from 1969 (which you can listen to and see a VERY partial list of songs that have used it in some way right here) and The Winstons‘ “Amen Brother,” also from ’69, which contains a 5.2-second long drum break that not only helped to build hip-hop music, but practically created several electronic genres, such as drum-n-bass and jungle music (Listen to it on Wiki and, if you got 20 minutes to kill, this video will tell you everything you need to know about it and the astounding effect it’s had on popular music).
So, breaks are good, yeah? Well, aside from the issue of giving credit where credit is due (which, a lot of artists, uhhh, “forgot” to do in order to escape paying royalties), yeah, they’re pretty good, and they’ve had a huge influence on hip-hop music and popular culture.
Now, what does this all have to do with the song I just posted? Well, Jimmy Castor’s hit, “It’s Just Begun” quickly became a B-boy anthem and DJ staple on release in 1972. Though Castor had roots in doo-wop and did mostly soul and R&B music in his career, on this particular track he seemed to be acutely aware of the youth culture percolating in New York City at the dawn of the ’70s. “It’s Just Begun” is essentially a nearly-4-minute long break made for the hip-hop generation, a track with a beating heart. Endlessly funky, youthful, and exuberant, “It’s Just Begun” was the perfect score for Bronx teens, surviving and expressing themselves. Those celebratory opening trumpets heralded the arrival of something big, and the declarations of peace, unity, and hope for the lost inhabitants of New York City seemed to be just within reach. The segment that begins at 2:40, where the percussion and hi-hats really kick in, along with the distant warbling and airy sounds, and Castor repeating “it’s just begun” over and over seems to stretch out into eternity, promising to you that whatever this new, powerful force may be, it’s here to stay.
Originally posted on my old Tumblr, Emaciated Wildebeest, on July 19, 2010.
(Man, I really wrote 700 words about the history around breaks 10 years ago. Good job, 23 year old me.)