The 10 greatest drum breaks of all time and where to hear them

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(Image: © PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images)

The drum break - an intro or interlude in a song where there is no other instrumentation playing apart from the drums and/or percussion - is one of the greatest gifts to DJs and producers. From the moment DJ Kool Herc flipped between two copies of the same record - or back and forth between two different breaks - keeping the short breaks going for as long as the dancefloor could take it for his ‘merry-go-round’, people have dug through crates to find more and more original breaks on which to base new tracks.

Here, we’ve rounded up some of the most used, most recognisable and most influential breakbeats in hip-hop history. Some were played by legendary studio musicians, others were recorded by unknown and uncredited players, but all of them have one thing in common: they’re massive grooves.

1. The Winstons - Amen, Brother

When The Winstons recorded Amen, Brother - the B-side to 1969’s Color Him Father - there was no way of foreseeing the impact six seconds of drumming in the middle of tune would go on to have on popular culture. As well as providing the foundation for an entire genre, Gregory Sylvester Coleman’s beat has been used across a diverse list of thousands of songs from Oasis to Slipknot.

But while drum ‘n’ bass/jungle claimed the Amen break as its own by speeding it up, chopping it up and rearranging it ad infinitum, N.W.A took things in the opposite direction by slowing it down. The result sees the distinctive snap of the snare transformed into a fat and punchy thing, with Coleman’s bouncing groove still intact. It’s the most sampled drum beat of all time, and for good reason.

Hear it on: N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton

2. James Brown - Funky Drummer

“You don’t have to do no soloin’ brother, just keep with what you’ve got. Don’t turn it loose, ‘cause it’s a mother!”

That’s how James Brown instructs Clyde Stubblefield on Funky Drummer. What follows 40 seconds later is one of the most popular drum beats in hip-hop history. Deceptively tricky, Clyde’s groove is made up of constant 16th-note hi-hats combined with some subtly ghosted snare notes.

To play it is to wonder how it’s done. The answer: with the utmost subtlety, dynamics and groove, which is why LL Cool J, Run-DMC, N.W.A. and countless others utilised the break on their tracks. However, Public Enemy were perhaps the biggest fans, lifting the loop for Fight The Power (where it even gets namechecked), Calm Like A Bomb, Bring The Noise, Rebel Without A Pause and many more.

Hear it on: Public Enemy - Fight The Power 

3. Billy Squier - The Big Beat

The simplicity of The Big Beat is at the heart of its popularity. Uncluttered, with no hi-hats, the dotted-quaver rhythm of the bass drum and flammed snare hits are pure rock staples. 

The beat was recorded by drummer Bobby Chouinard and forms the intro to stadium rocker (and former Derek And The Dominos member) Billy Squier’s debut solo album The Tale Of The Tape. Run-DMC crafted the drums for Here We Go from it, and The Big Beat’s

popularity returned in the noughties with uses by Alicia Keys (Girl On Fire), Dizzee Rascal (Fix Up, Look Sharp) and Jay Z (99 Problems).  

Hear it on: Jay Z - 99 Problems 

4. The Incredible Bongo Band - Apache

Long before it became a hip-hop staple, Apache already lived twice as a twangy surf guitar instrumental. Bert Weedon and The Shadows both recorded versions of Jerry Lorden’s composition, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the tune found its groove when industry executive Michael Viner assembled a crack team of studio musicians to record their take on the tune.  

The combined drum/bongo break from The Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache has played a huge part in the sound of hip-hop and beyond. The likes of Nas, Kanye West and Grandmaster Flash used it, and The Sugarhill Gang produced their own cover.

While King Errisson provided the distinctive percussion part, as noted in documentary Sample This, confusion still surrounds exactly who played drums on the original. Viner actually held two separate sessions to track parts for Apache. LA session musician Kat Hendrikse recorded his parts in Vancouver, while Jim Gordon tracked his version in LA. It is unclear as to whether Hendriks, Gordon, or a comp of the two parts was used for the final mix.

What is undeniable, though, is that The Incredible Bongo Band’s version of Apache is a hip-hop staple, with some proclaiming it as the ‘national anthem’ of the genre. And it’s all thanks to the break.

Hear it on: Nas - Made You Look 

5. Led Zeppelin - When The Levee Breaks

John Bonham made rock ‘n’ roll groove like nobody else, and so it figures that when technology allowed, Bonzo would be on the list of drummers to sample. 

When The Levee Breaks is unique for multiple reasons - it was played by the greatest rock drummer of all time, but just as distinctive are the sonics of the track. The original was famously recorded at Headley Grange, with Bonham’s kit set up at the bottom of the house’s stairwell and mic’d from the floors above. Engineer Andy Johns ran the huge roomy sound through Binson Echorec delays to add further slap, and the legendary swampy groove was complete.

It has since re-appeared on Beastie Boys Rhymin & Stealin, Dr. Dre’s Lyrical Gangbang, and Eminem’s Kim, to name but a few.  

Hear it on: Beastie Boys - Rhymin & Stealin 

6. The Honeydrippers - Impeach The President

The opening bar of Impeach The President remains one of the most widely recycled beats in hip-hop history, yet very little is actually known about the musicians who played on the track. 

Songwriter/producer Roy Charles Hammond (Roy C) enlisted a group of students from Jamaica High School, Queens, to record 1973’s Impeach The President, complete with the boom-bap staples of skipping bass drums, open hi-hats and snappy snare drums. It’s loose, with the hi-hats following the syncopation of the bass drum, and despite it being sampled hundreds of times, Roy C struggled with the unknown drummer’s takes; “I worked hard with the drummer, because he wasn’t as good a drummer as I would have liked to have,” he told Wax Poetics

That didn’t stop Marley Marl rearranging it for Eric B. & Rakim’s Eric B. Is President, or Notorious B.I.G using it twice on debut album, Ready To Die, keeping the break intact during the chorus for the title track, and chopping it for Unbelievable. It’s appeared on tracks from the likes of De La Soul, Nas, The Cool Kids and Joey Bada$$. Even backwards-attired Kriss Kross used it on Jump. 

Hear it on: The Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die 

7. Melvin Bliss - Synthetic Substitution

As with many formerly rare grooves, Synthetic Substitution started life as a B-side, in this case for the  Melvin Bliss song Reward, with both tunes written by Herb Rooney.

The drummer on Synthetic Substitution is none other than Bernard Purdie, the rightfully self-named Hitmaker whose discography runs to thousands of records, with a list of legends such as Nina Simone, Steely Dan, BB King, Miles Davis, and many, many more on his CV. 

While most people are familiar with The Purdie Shuffle, Synthetic Substitution is a kick-heavy workout of bouncing 16-notes. The hi-hats tick away; they keep the time with eighth-notes and feature Purdie’s signature ‘air’, lifting on the third off-beat of the bar, while the snare has that classic ‘70s breakbeat dirt.

Synthetic Substitution found its way onto cuts from Public Enemy (Miuzi Weighs A Ton), The Pharcyde (Ya Mama) and Ultramagnetic MCs (Ego Trippin), while walking groove encyclopedia Questlove paid tribute to the beat in part on The Roots’ Mellow My Man. But Wu Tang Clan are arguably the biggest fans, sampling the groove on Bring Da Ruckus and Clan In Da Front, as well as solo tracks from Method Man and Ghostface Killah.

Hear it on: Wu Tang Clan - Bring Da Ruckus

8. Skull Snaps - It’s A New Day

Formerly known as The Diplomats, the Skull Snaps changed their name in 1970, releasing the album Skull Snaps before disappearing for 25 years.

From the thick-sounding hi-hats, punchy, round bass drum and cracky snare sound, It’s A New Day has all the right ingredients: heavy groove, distinctive sounds and at least a bar of clean, uninterrupted playing. Drummer George Bragg leaves plenty of space in his kick drum pattern, interspersing the gaps with funky, slightly swung 16ths.

The Skull Snaps were reunited in 2005, shortly before Bragg’s death in 2007. Bragg’s beat has been sampled hundreds of times, the first being Stezo’s beefed-up version on It’s My Turn, and it’s also found its way into hip-hop-inspired electronic music via The Prodigy’s Poison and Rob Dougan’s Clubbed To Death (The Matrix).  

Hear it on: The Prodigy - Poison

9. James Brown - Funky President

James Brown’s drummers are no strangers to being sampled, and Funky President ranks highly among Brown’s most sampled tracks thanks to not just its drums, but also its vocal parts being lifted.

The track kicks off with session drummer Allan Schwarzberg. It’s a tight, simple fill between the snare and rack tom and has been used in tracks such as Eric B. feat. Rakim’s Eric B. Is President, De La Soul’s Ghetto Thang, and perhaps most recognisably Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince.

But as well as the fill, Funky President’s swinging, kick-heavy drum beat has been used plenty of times too. NWA deployed it in the verses of Fuck Tha Police and Ice Cube went on to use it multiple times, too. More recently, the fill and groove were used by Nas for White Label Freestyle.   

Hear it on: Eric B. & Rakim - Eric B. Is President 

10. Joe Tex - Papa Was Too

You might not know the tune, but there’s something extremely familiar about both the beat and sonics of Joe Tex’s Papa Was Too. The crunchy, open soul drum sound has plenty of room in it, while the kick drum is weighty. The snare’s open, jazzy ring makes it distinctive, and the loosely-layered tambourine part on beat two only serves to fatten the groove.  

Papa Was Too appeared on the infamous Ultimate Beats and Breaks collection, and was subsequently used by EPMD on Jane, Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit’, Common’s Two Scoops Of Raisins, and Dr. Dre’s The ¢20 Sack Pyramid from Da Chronic. Incidentally, the piano part that kicks in for the second bar forms the basis of the guitar riffs in blues-rock supergroup Cream’s Politician.

Hear it on: Common - Two Scoops Of Raisins