Music

Breaks: How Dance’s Uncoolest Genre Bounced Back

Once a dirty word in the club scene, a new wave of ravers is turning to 90s breaks for inspiration
Written by Joe Roberts
6 min readPublished on
Eats Everything: bringing breaks back?
Eats Everything: bringing breaks back?
Dance music genres come and go like the tide, riding high on credibility one minute and sinking beneath the surface the next. Breaks in particular has seemingly disappeared into club history’s murky waters. It set sail in the mid-90s, made it all the way to Space in Ibiza, and charged into the charts. But suddenly there was nothing left except the least valuable record collections on Discogs.
Breaks became deeply uncool, more commonly associated with dreadlocked ravers, wraparound shades, Junglist Movement t-shirts and spliff anthems like I Don’t Smoke Da Reefa than a forward-thinking, boundary-trashing musical movement. Yet with producers constantly looking for new corners of clubland to unearth, a new influx of beat-manglers are rescuing it from its deathbed and recapturing what made it so exciting to start with.

IN THE BEGINNING… THERE WAS BREAKBEAT

In the 1990s, breaks came smashing into clubland as a youthful alternative to house music. It was a 130-something bpm amalgamation of big basslines and breakbeats, often lifted from the drum sections of old records, then sped up for maximum dancefloor damage. Hackney duo Shut Up and Dance's hardcore roots were mashed up with Bassbin Twins' hip-hop influenced cut-and-paste collages and the result spanned anything from robotic electro grooves to rude garage hybrids.
It sounds like a genre headfuck, but essentially what this meant was that bearded techno heads united with newly minted Prodigy fans on the dancefloor. It was futuristic and, like most genres in the beginning, eclectic – just check the technoid 2-step of Tim Wright's Searcher, the Stanton Warriors' hip-hop flavoured Da Virus or PMT's Gyromancer'sspacey stomp. Even Ibiza spent the summer of 1999 rocking to the unmistakable womp-womp of Timo Mass's crossover remix of Azzido Da Bass’s Doom's Night.
THE UK SCENE BLOWS UP
The breaks scene can be traced back to the club night Friction in 1997, which was at St Moritz in London’s Soho before moving to Bar Rumba on a Friday. Friction’s residents Tayo, Adam Freeland and Rennie Pilgrem labelled their sound 'nu skool breaks' to distinguish it from the poppier, chart-bound big beat of Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers that was massive at the time. Freeland’s 1996 Coastal Breaks compilation provided a blueprint for nu skool, where the tribal incantations of Future Sound of London classic Papua New Guinea rubbed shoulders with the mentalism of Squarepusher's junglistic Male Pill 5. Freeland’s mix also featured a track called Air Drums From Outer Bongolia by Jedi Knights. Really, it’s a wonder that anyone took the genre seriously.
Jedi Knights - New School Science
Jedi Knights - New School Science
Still, these nights boasted a musical open-mindedness comparable to the flowering days of post-dubstep. “We had people like Andrew Weatherall, Keith Tenniswood, Bushwacka and Tipper down to play [at Friction],” recalls Tayo on other the artists who helped shape and influence the sound, “as well as the new people emerging on our scene like Plump DJs, Deekline, Stanton Warriors and Freq Nasty.” Even Carl Cox made the pilgrimage to play Friction, leading to queues back to Piccadilly Circus.
Other parties soon sprung up across the UK: Chew the Fat! in Brixton, Technique in Leeds, Spectrum in Nottingham, Tangled in Manchester and Supercharged in Brighton were just some of the parties where breaks ruled the roost from the late ’90s until the mid-2000s. London's Fabric hosted breaks DJs every Friday, while labels such as Freeland’s Marine Parade, Botchit & Scarper, Fuel, Boom Box, TCR and Mob Records helped to define the direction of breaks further. House DJs like Tyrant (aka Craig Richards and Lee Burridge) were also pushing proggy or more groove-orientated tracks, such as Makesome Breaksome's ‎ Nightshift, on the dancefloors of Bedrock and other popular clubs at the time.

THE BREAKS SCENE BREAKS UP

Soon, though, the break scene’s initial rush of creativity began to falter. Or maybe they were just running out of silly names to give themselves. DJ Deekline's 1999 Marcus Brigstocke-sampling I Don't Smoke was one of the high points for breaks, reaching No 11 in the charts, but it also signalled the start of novelty samples and bootlegs that ultimately undermined the genre. Many of the heads began to mix up breaks chart house hits in order to bolster their sets and nu skool breaks quickly became a dirty word.
Many of the scene’s linchpins, however, began to grow weary at purists. “[Nu skool’s] name isn't what narrowed down the eclecticism; it was people’s attitudes,” says Tayo. He recalls a myopic desire by some DJs to maintain the breaks sound by not mixing it with other genres. “I remember [people] moaning about me or other DJs playing – shock horror – house music and 4/4 stuff in our sets.”
Listen to Tayo's BBC Essential Mix from 2007 and you can see the future that he envisaged instead: breaks artists mixed in with Ed Banger-era electro, Baltimore club and early dubstep. Eventually this sort of selection gained the catchall genre of ‘bass music’ and by 2010, breaks had all but been absorbed under this umbrella, mixed in with these more open-minded selections.

A NEW DAWN ARRIVES

Today, things are a-changing, and that future vision feels closer than ever. You can hear the early sounds of breakbeat emerging everywhere from Berlin’s Berghain – thanks to Shed's ravey output as Head High – to east London, where deep house dancefloors rock to Sidney Charles's Disco Nap.
Its watershed moment was underground house hero Paul Woolford’s Special Request project last year – “it was a game changer,” pinpoints Sean O’Keefe of '90s hardcore heroes 2 Bad Mice, themselves back in the spotlight after they remixed house producer Breach’s single The Key in December 2014. Special Request saw Woolford throw off his techno hat and tap the undying nostalgia for rave music that fuelled breaks in the first place, introducing a new generation to its kinetic energy.
Since then, a number of well-known club names have gotten onboard. Rinse FM legend Zinc's two Structures EPs feature new tracks in the vein of his classic 138 Trek. Bristol bad boy Eats Everything included Gyromancer on his Fries with That? compilation, which came out in January on the Hypercolour label.
For another taster of Friction’s legacy, check a resurgent Keith Tenniswood, under his Radioactive Man moniker, who dropped the 808 machine-funk of White Light Monochrome on new label Reinhardt last month.
Luca Lozano and DJ Fett Burger's Hands of Doom, which brought breakbeats to Sex Tags UFO, one of the coolest labels around, is another rave-fuelled project of note. Lozano explains what makes breaks such a great fit for today’s club scene.“I personally enjoy playing breaky stuff in my sets, as it's extremely rhythmical, good for dancing and provides respite from the monotonous thud of the 4/4 kick,” he reckons.
As house music continues to dominate the dancefloor with Godzilla-like strength, it’s only a matter of time before this once-forgotten genre breaks loose for good.
Joe Roberts has an intimidatingly vast knowledge of all things that blip and bleep. He's on Twitter @joerobots
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