Break and break and break again

Tracks from Skee Mask, Ross From Friends and Virtual Self breathe life into classic drum breaks.

Illustration by Ben Kothe. (Thanks, Ben!)

By Miguel Otárola

On occasion, small sounds travel through time and space to become something bigger than themselves. Most of the time they are accidental — an error, an improvisation, a result of live performance. Today you will likely hear them as producer tags or newly discovered samples, such as a woman coyly saying “Uh huh, honey” in Kanye West’s “Bound 2.”

Two of these sounds come from a 1972 single by Lyn Collins, a funk and soul singer born in Dime Box, Texas, and a close collaborator with James Brown, well-known for his own signature sounds. This single, “Think (About It),” was produced by Brown and printed on his label. It features not one, but two distinct drum breaks. You probably know the first one, the “Yeah! Woo!” sample in Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s song “It Takes Two.”

Another, more subtle break happens 13 seconds later and lasts exactly two seconds. It isn’t made up of many parts: just drums and a tambourine, anchored by a man’s grunt. Though he doesn’t say anything intelligible — “dah duh — his ad-lib is an integral part of dance music. To me, it’s the perfect loop.

While doing research for this, I found a video of someone breaking down this second sample, drawing special attention to the man’s yelp. “It’s kind of fun how that little chant has become so familiar as part of liquid drum ‘n’ bass,” the video’s narrator tells us, although we know its use goes beyond that genre. It’s been sped up, slowed down, chopped up and rearranged thousands of times. Here is a particularly generous example.

Though they have been sampled into oblivion, three electronic producers this year have breathed new life into the “Think” breaks. Each approaches it from a different angle and each shows the limitless possibilities you have with these sounds, making something minuscule have a major impact.

The first instance occurs in “Soundboy Ext.”, a standout from Skee Mask’s spectacular album Compro. While the German producer messes around with breakbeats for much of the record, it is here where he truly showcases his talents, taking the second “Think” break out for a spin. As synths drift around like the air on a muggy day, he stabs the man’s voice onto a thumping bass kick, although it isn’t a man’s voice so much as a child’s, sped up to the song’s breakneck speed. He teases it (and us) in and out as chopped drums swirl around like scissors in a washing machine. It isn’t until the halfway point that those drums finally appear in clear view and the voice lands on something tangible, if only for a little while.

The second occurs in the opening track to Family Portrait, the debut album from lo-fi house producer Ross From Friends. “Happy Birthday Nick” is a palate cleanser, briefly introducing sounds we’ll likely hear for the rest of the record. One of those is the “Yeah! Woo!” screams, not sped up but stretched and echoed, zooming across the channels. The sample’s appearance is blunt and startling, conveying the iconic place it has held in electronic music throughout the decades.

Lastly, the third example takes place inside “ANGEL VOICES,” the latest single from Porter Robinson’s über-nostalgic Virtual Self project. A 166 bpm sugar rush, “ANGEL VOICES” sets out to cover as much of trance and rave history as possible in six minutes and 30 seconds. This includes three different uses of the second “Think” break. The first introduces a pounding drum blowout, the “dah duh” high-pitched and metallic, caught up in the impending drop. The second happens in between the second blowout, the drums once again clearing away for the voice and tambourine. The third transitions the song into its outro, which is, that’s right, more thumping drums.

Electronic music is often made with the mindset of progressing the genre, of pushing it into uncharted areas. That doesn’t mean producers can’t or shouldn’t look backwards, or ground their work in familiar sounds. If it ain’t broke, you can break it and break it and break it again.

RIYL

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Resident Advisor selected Ascetic House, a microlabel birthed in Tempe, Ariz. as its “Label of the Month.” Matt McDermott’s feature goes deep on the label’s aggressive, twisted path across a variety of genres, including noise, punk, ambient and techno. Some of the best nights I ever had in Phoenix were spent inside dark warehouses for Threshold shows, surrounding a pair of CDJs while Jock Club and whatever producer they managed to book spun techno and demented Young Thug remixes.

As previously stated, Ross From Friends’ debut album, Family Portrait, is out now on Brainfeeder. This record stands out from the other lo-fi releases of recent past, with plenty of variety and some touching, ethereal moments (hear: “Pale Blue Dot”). Though the mixing is poor at times and some of the samples are questionable, I’m still finding plenty to come back to here.

What are you listening to or reading? Can I be doing better? Let me know at m_otarola@yahoo.com, or even better, tweet at me @motarola123.

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