The endless break

At a dance party in 1973 Bronx New York, DJ Kool Herc mixed the breaks from James Brown, British rock music, and a bongo band – and in doing so, laid the foundations of hip hop.

DJ Kool Herc
Minusbaby at English Wikipedia / CC BY

Hip hop, like most genres of music, arose from many sources and inspirations. Today I’m going to focus on just one: bongo drums. But first, the break.

Breaks are those moments in a song when most of the melody, bassline, and vocals cut out, leaving just a few components of the music to carry the song forward. Often this is the percussion and drums: the beat goes on alone for a while, and then everything else comes rushing back in and the main thrust of the song continues.

In the early 1970s, in the recreation / community room of a working-class apartment building in the Bronx, New York, DJ Kool Herc was playing music on a couple of turntables. And people were dancing to it, in a style that would later be known as breakdancing. (Can you guess where this is going?) The DJ noticed that people were waiting for each song’s break in order to dance because that was where the rhythm came out to shine… so he tried something new. He played only the breaks, back to back, in a technique he called the merry-go-round.

The first merry-go-rounds featured three specific breaks: “Give It up or Turnit a Loose” by James Brown, “The Mexican” by Babe Ruth, and “Bongo Rock” by the Incredible Bongo Band. People loved it: they could dance uninterrupted by the end of the break, because the break never ended. DJ Kool Herc had isolated the pure rhythm from these songs and made something completely new: hip hop. (He was also one of the first to rap over the beat, one of the other essential components of the genre.)

Break sampling is deep in the DNA of hip hop music. The break from “Apache” – a bongo drum cover from same album as “Bongo Rock” – has been sampled by the Sugarhill Gang, Nas, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Raekwon, Run-DMC… and about 600 others, including Mick Jagger, Moby, and the Backstreet Boys.

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