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What is Breakbeat?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Breakbeat is a term used to describe two different musical stylings. Breakbeat may refer to a collection of genres of electronic music. It may also be used to refer to sampling of certain beats in rap and hip-hop music.

In the 1970s, some inspired DJs began using two copies of the same record in order to juggle back and forth between a beat, creating a new, longer, break. The break in soul songs was often the part of the song that was most danceable, or at least most wildly danceable, and DJs began to notice that when the break would come, people would truly cut loose on the floor.

This inspired DJ Kool Herc to put on two copies of the same record and move seamlessly between them at the break, to prolong the break and give dancers more time to go wild on the floor. It’s likely that other DJs were coming up with something similar at around the same time, and within a few years DJs everywhere were making use of the breakbeat technique to create a new form of dance music. DJ Kool Herc’s original breakbeat style was expanded on by DJs such as Grand Wizard Theodore and Afrika Bambaataa.

The wild, rhythmic dancing that took place during the break expanded with the elongated breaks, and eventually became its own form of dancing. It was, reasonably enough, called simply breakdancing, and its popularity in turn furthered the popularity of breakbeat. It’s generally accepted that the most used break ever is from “Amen, Brother”, by The Winston. It has appeared in many thousands of songs, and is immediately recognizable by most listeners of hip-hop.

In the 1990s, as electronic music began experimenting with a wide range of different techniques, some producers started playing around with samples of breakbeat. These samples would be looped to create high-impact music, often referred to as breakbeat hardcore or rave music. This led to a proliferation of more specific styles, most notably drum and bass, which went deeply into the complexities of sampled drums, and jungle, which had a darker, more primal feel.

Breakbeat in electronic music is best characterized by its departure from the familiar 4/4 time of most electronic music. This broken meter didn’t lend itself to the trance state electronic music had become famous for, and many people predicted that as breakbeat became more and more funky it would eventually collapse in on itself and die as a genre. In fact, though, breakbeat has continued to grow in popularity, and has become a mainstay of electronic music in the modern age.

With modern sampling techniques and computers, introducing breakbeat into songs has become much easier, and there has been a proliferation of breakbeat. The fine-tuning allowed by computers lets composers reach incredibly complexity with their breakbeat, essentially creating new beats from the bottom up.

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