THE BREAKS (15th Anniversary Edition): Anthropology You Can Listen To

One of the greatest subgenres to develop in the world of soul music compilations is the breakbeat-oriented collection.  The popularity of sampling in hip-hop created new interest in a host of vintage recordings that would otherwise not get the time of day from younger music fans.  Thus, this created room in the marketplace for compilations of the recording these samples come from, particularly those oriented around the “breakbeats” – the snippet of hard-driving rhythm section grooves that often form the backbone of a hip-hop track.

A popular franchise in this style is The Breaks series, a string of compilations from Harmless Records that collected the sources of the breakbeats from many a hip-hop classic.  Harmless saw fit to make it part of the 15th Anniversary “Crystal Edition” series and the result is a new two-disc set, simply entitled The Breaks.  It’s subtitle reads Original B-Boy Street Funk & Block Party Classics and it lives up that description: as Dean Rudland’s concise yet info-packed notes explain, the songs included here provided samples for tracks by a lot of key hip-hop artists.

As you might imagine, there is a hefty sampling of classic funk between the two discs.  Funkadelic’s “Good Ole Music” is a swampy psych-funk jam with a breakdown that includes a monstrous drum break and Brick’s reliable warhorse “Dazz” remains a potent dancefloor tune with a metronomic groove that just keeps rolling like the Energizer bunny.  Cymande gets the nod twice over with “Bra” and “The Message,” both tracks that bring the kind of in-the-pocket worldbeat take on funk that this British outfit was known for.

However, there are more flavors of R&B beyond funk to be explored on The Breaks.  The sweeter side of soul is represented with a few choice Philly cuts: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” is a mellow midtempo groover that floats along on plush strings and pillow-talk vocals while The O’Jays’ “Cry Together” is a majestic slow-jam that builds from a hushed spoken-word intro into some potent gospel-tinged harmonies.

Southern soul also gets the nod a few times, with the highlights being two Al Green tracks – “Love & Happiness” and “I’m So Glad You’re Mine” – where the lazy-lidded mood is kept on its feet by subtle but insistent drumming.  And of course, there is a nice infusion of disco here: highlights in that area include Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” perhaps the ultimate example of a slow-burn disco track, and “Sing Sing” by Gaz, a jazzy dance epic with a taut groove props up an array of swinging horn flourishes.

Between the classic soul and disco stylings, there are a few wild-card tracks that add an extra bit of spice.  Your Humble Reviewer’s favorite examples in this catch-all category include “The Champ” by the Mohawks, a potent, organ-driven bit of lounge music that grooves as intensely as any of the funk tracks, and Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern,” a post-punk classic whose quirky groove provided the basis for the immortal “White Lines” by Melle Mel.

In short, the 15th anniversary edition of The Breaks is a breakbeat tracks compilation that truly has something for everyone.  It’s the kind of set that makes it fun to be a pop-cultural anthropologist and a fun listen for hip-hop scholars or anyone with Catholic tastes in old-school music.

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