The history of breaks in music production

With humanised push/pull timing and dynamics, live-recorded drum breaks are extremely difficult to recreate authentically on a grid. Here, we’re giving a nod to the drummers – some household names, some unknown – who took their grooves to breaking point.

The Winstons - Amen, Brother

Many of the greatest breakbeats started life as B-sides thanks to the more eagle-eyed crate-diggers searching out beats that nobody else had used. Gregory Sylvester “GC” Coleman didn’t just deliver the quintessential breakbeat with Amen, Brother, the B-side to The Winstons’ 1969’s Color Him Father: he unwittingly invented an entire genre.

Four bars of drumming played over seven seconds is all it took to deliver future samplists everything they needed to chop, speed up and rearrange many thousands of variations on his original beat. And he never saw a penny.  

Originally played at around 138bpm, the already-high-pitched snare has a tonality to it that’s so distinctive, you can hear it even when it’s layered. Key to the beat’s success is the displaced snare in the third bar, with Coleman almost hinting at how DnB producers could utilise it later. 

Then there’s the cymbal crash in the final bar, which adds additional variation. Coleman passed away in 2006, tragically, apparently homeless despite creating one of the most-used and culturally significant drum samples of all time.

James Brown - Funky Drummer

Clyde Stubblefield’s bouncing, single-handed 16th-note hi-hats propel Funky Drummer for well over five minutes, until Brown instructs the band to drop out when he counts to four, telling Clyde, “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!” The band drops out, revealing Clyde’s trickier-than-you’d-think open hi-hats and ghosted snare notes. The sound of the kit is as unmistakable as the groove being played, making it an all-time classic. 

Public Enemy used it multiple times (namechecking it in Fight The Power), while it also made appearances on tracks by LL Cool J, Run-DMC and NWA.

As per a familiar story, Clyde never got reimbursed for his break, and created his own album of breakbeats, The Original Funky Drummer Album. Yurt Rock – created by Loop Loft founder, Ryan Gruss – has since released recordings and loop packs by Clyde and producer Leo Sidran in 2001. Similarly, Clyde and fellow JB drummer Jabo Starks feature on Toontrack’s Funk Masters EZX pack for EZdrummer/Superior Drummer. 

The Incredible Bongo Band - Apache

Apache is a hip-hop staple thanks to DJ Kool Herc’s legendary “Merry-Go-Round” creating an indefinite loop of the break. The only problem is, nobody is really sure who played the beat in the first place. IBB’s version was the third recording of the song, which had already existed as a surf instrumental by both Bert Weedon and The Shadows. 

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John Bonham 1971

(Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty)

10 of the greatest drum breaks of all time.

In 1973, record exec Michael Viner enlisted some studio veterans to record a funky version of the track. One session took place in LA with Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon (whose undiagnosed schizophrenia led to him murdering his mother in 1983, for which he remains behind bars now) behind the kit. Due to a legal loophole regarding Canadian airplay rules, Viner reconvened to Vancouver where the song was recorded again featuring Kat Hendricks. The 2012 documentary, Sample This confirms that there’s no definitive answer as to which take ended up on the final master. Grandmaster Flash, DJ Shadow, Switch and The Sugarhill Gang (albeit a cover) have all found success with the Apache break.

The Honey Drippers - Impeach The President

Producer Roy C enlisted a group of students known as The Honey Drippers from Jamaica High School in Queens, for this funky 1973 protest song. Uncredited beyond the band name, the drummer on Impeach The President remains unknown, unlike their beat, which was recycled by hip-hop heavyweights for years.

It starts with an irresistible, uninterrupted bar of the drum beat, with the hi-hat giving a slight accent to the offbeat, while also following the 16th-note pattern of the bass drum. The open hi-hat on the ‘&’ of beat 3 seems to last for days, leading to the final backbeat. 

The sound is clean and clear, with just enough grit and slight ambience, and it’s this, combined with the loose groove, that makes it such a sampling classic. The Notorious B.I.G. used it more than once on his debut album, Ready To Die (on the title track and chopped up for Unbelievable), but it’s also found its way onto tracks by
Dr. Dre, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, Tupac and hundreds of others.

Led Zeppelin - When The Levee Breaks

Bonham’s gift to music. Considered the greatest rock drummer ever with his heavy-hitting style combined with a deep pocket, with Levee he delivers a groove masterpiece that was too good to be confined to history.

It all started when Zeppelin set up shop in Headley Grange manor house to start tracking Led Zeppelin IV. Famously, Bonham’s Ludwigs were placed at the bottom of the house’s stairwell, with legendary engineer Andy Johns placing the mics up at the top of the stairs to capture the huge ambient sound. 

But the production didn’t just shape the sound of the break, it had a hand in creating it too. Johns ran the ambient mics through a pair of Binson Echorec delay lines, embellishing the simple beat that Bonham was playing with the distinctive slapback. It’s a laid-back, slow groove that got the heads of Beastie Boys (Rhymin & Stealin), Eminem (Kim), and Dr. Dre (Lyrical Gangbang) nodding.

Give the drummer some...

Of course, plenty of other breakbeats have shaped music: check out Bernard Purdie’s bass drum workout on Melvin Bliss’ Synthetic Substitution, George Bragg’s spacious groove from the Skull Snaps It’s A New Day, and Bobby Chouinard’s unmistakable performance on Billy Squier’s The Big Beat to hear some of the other most used breaks in history.

To find out more, check out our guide to 10 of the greatest drum breaks of all time.

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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