That the very essence and root of hip-hop resides in one of the subtlest forms of musical reconstitution the break, that elusive combination of a drum pattern's sudden switch and a freshly dropped bass line belies any arguments for the genre's simplicity.
From "Funky Drummer" to "Cissy Strut," the break is that magical elixir of funk music that makes a bridge more than a bridge, a segue more than a segue: it propels a song, it defines its rhythmic challenge. Breakestra, a collective of Los Angeles beat junkies headed by producer/multi-instrumentalist Miles Tackett (a.k.a. That Kid Miles), knows this so deeply, they've taken the art of sampling breaks and made it their foundation.
"To borrow a term from KRS-One, it's edutainment," Tackett said, referring to the rapper's classic 1990 album with Boogie Down Productions. "In the early days of hip-hop, before there were drum machines and live bands backing up rappers ... the original, block-party hip-hop DJs like Kool Herc and Jazzy Jay were playing old funk records. And that's what we're paying homage to."
Unlike their deconstructionist cousins the turntablists, Tackett and Breakestra literally rebuild breaks as a live band. Culling breaks both familiar and obscure from scratchy vinyl sides and putting them in their rightful place as living, breathing musical explorations, Breakestra are a live DJ session without the wax, as their latest album, Live Mix Tape Part Two, lays plain.
Tackett's work with the band Inclined, a defunct "progressive pop-jazz-funk" group that disbanded in the mid-'90s, exposed him early on to blurring genres, while his more recent work in L.A. he co-produced T-Love's splendid Return of the B-Girl EP and co-wrote two songs on Macy Gray's On How Life Is and playing in sessions with everyone from Blind Melon to B.B. King have connected him with some of the best in the biz.
However, it was the vibe at Peace Pipe, an L.A. club night in '91 and '92 where live bands and DJs such as Ozomatli, Cut Chemist, Mixmaster Wolf and DJ Organic were all part of the action, that a few years ago inspired Tackett to start organizing "The Breaks," a night at a local coffeehouse for listening to what he called "source music."
"After a couple of weeks, I thought it would be good to get some musicians in there and organize a little jam to alternate with the DJ," he recalled. "But in the back of my mind, I was thinking about organizing the jam around these funky breaks, all these breaks that I had always loved."
The sessions, led by Tackett, soon began to incorporate regular band members, with Breakestra eventually forming around the MC talents of Mixmaster Wolf, the double-funk assault of Tackett's bass and Josh Cohen's drums, the old-school strength-in-numbers approach of Geoff Gallegos, Todd Simon, Paul Vargas, Dan Osterman, Calos Guaico, Davy Chegwidden and Dan Ubick, and the occasional appearance of Soulsister Demya on vocals.
Utilizing Tackett's "live looping" approach, Breakestra became a full-fledged enterprise, releasing a single, "Getcho Soul Togetha" (an original cut that was featured on The Funky Precedent compilation from 1999), and the underground pass-around Live Mix Tape Part One. Now, with the release of Part Two on Bay Area producer Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw Records, it's possible to hear what happens when old-school funk collides with new-school attention spans.
Covering everyone from Sly Stone and James Brown to Eddie Bo and Charles Wright just the juicy parts, mind you Breakestra jam through 27 songs in less than 40 minutes, but just like any good mix tape, it feels neither rushed nor cobbled together. However, according to Tackett, the power of the album lies in its deceptive simplicity.
"It's all played live, but I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I went back and tightened up some of the edits and made it flow as tightly and cleanly as possible," he said, pausing to laugh. "The funniest thing is, a friend of mine said that it sounded good but that one of the edits was pretty glaring. Only thing is, the place where he said there was an edit, there wasn't. It was just the band switching gears."