Library Of Vinyl Experience 1.3


Beat research: In search of the original funky drummer

Audio links

NPR interview with Kool Herc, one of the founding fathers of hip hop.

NPR interview with Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop. See especially DJ D-Sharp's mix of classic hip hop breaks.

Many pages of classic and obscure breaks c/o Adam Douglas' "These are the breaks" articles
These are the breaks 1
These are the breaks 2
These are the breaks 3
These are the breaks 4

These are the breaks (classic hip hop)

Comprehensive audio archive of breaks from

Los Hombres Calientes Vol 4. Vodou Dance (Amazon link with audio samples)

Vodoun drum rhythms and dances (with audio samples)

Soul Jazz "Rhythms of Life" compilation


One corner of Chalfen's stash

Folkways recording Phono-cylinders Vol 1. that contains a reissue of the 1907 cylinder version of The Ragtime Drummer. The liner notes state: "This record, cut in 1907, is the first drum solo ever recorded, and about the only cylinder ever issued that is even of marginal jazz interest."

In the first entry of LOVE online, I mentioned that I met Rob Chalfen at the Zeitgeist Gallery when he noticed a copy of Wax Poetics I had been reading. At the time, I was thinking about the history of breaks (or breakbeats), and their function in hip hop, funk, soul and other dance music of the African diaspora. As I described Wax Poetics as a scholarly the quest for breaks (the musical roots of hip hop), Rob mentioned that he had jazz breaks from the turn of the century. While we failed to document that first conversation, just the other night we finally returned to the question that started it all for me, "Was there an original funky drummer?"

If all of this sounds like musical code, let me try to deconstruct it a little bit. First, what is a break and why are they so important?

Of course, the history of hip hop breakbeats (and hip hop in general) has been well documented elsewhere (e.g., History of Rap, Yes Yes Y'All, etc.) For a particularly musicological look at early hip hop check out Rakim Told Me -- a series of "lost liner notes" to classic old hip hop records by Brian Coleman. Despite all this ink about early hip hop, I have been unable to find work that focuses on the evolution of the "funky break" per se.

The term "break" or "breakbeat" has been most often associated with the instrumental drum sections of funk records of the 1960's and 1970's that were the "secret weapons" of early hip hop DJ's like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaattaa and Grandmaster Flash. As the now apocryphal story goes, Kool Herc noticed that these "breaks" had a particularly strong effect on the dancers at his late night New York parties. Indeed, the break dancers (or b-boys) would often save their best moves for these sections. In a familiar symbiosis between DJ and dancer, Kool Herc responded by playing two of the same breaks back-to-back thereby "looping" the break and extending the energy they created.

Some of these original funk breaks, like the "Amen Break" from the Winston's Amen Brother, "Funky Drummer" break from James Brown's song of the same title, or the "Apache Break" from the Incredible Bongo Band track, are so familiar as to have become iconic. According to the sample faq (and other reputable sources), the Funky Drummer break is the most sampled, and probably most familiar of all the classic breaks. Although it was originally performed by Clyde Stubblefield, the moniker "Funky Drummer" has also been associated with another one of James Brown 's drummers, John "Jab'O" Starks. You can see a clip of Stubblefield and Starks performing together at Drummer's world. (While you are there, don't miss Buddy Rich's appearance on the Muppet Show where he has a drum battle with Animal!).

The other night as Rob and I reached a break in a string of musical associations (perhaps related to the deconstruction of Louis Armstrong's record collection LOVE 1.4), I reminded him about our idea to trace the "history of the breaks. This history would go much further back than the old funk and soul breaks of Herc and Bambaattaa fame (no disrespect to those forefathers). This would be a history of the breaks going back to their American roots in ragtime and proto-jazz.

Of course, breaks appear in all forms of music, as one section passes into a quieter section, as one instrument is featured and others drop out, etc. So what distinguishes these generic musical breaks from the more specific breaks that are distilled into their purest form in hip hop? I think there are a few things.

First, unlike more generic musical breaks, hip hop breaks are "funky breaks." In other words, they are breaks in music that was made to be moved to. Unlike a break in a piece of chamber music, funky breaks make you want to move your feet (and even better, your ass). Second, in funky breaks, the melodic instruments typically drop out thereby "featuring" the rhythm section. Therefore, unlike an instrumental solo, a horn break or a vocal break, these are breaks featuring the rhythmic foundation of the music. However, they are not drum solos (as you can hear in the examples above). Rather, they are alterations/continuations/accentuations of the rhythmic structure of the music that highlights the underlying pulse, or beat, which presumably people have been dancing to. No wonder these "funky breaks" have an almost magical quality: They are the most distilled, purified, funkified essences of the music that makes you want to move. Rare stuff indeed!

The unique symbiotic relationship between "funky breaks" and dancing is a critical feature that distinguishes their function in hip hop, funk, rock, blues and jazz from their function in other forms of music. As Kool Herc found, there is something uniquely motivating about a funky break for a bunch of party people. The breaks as we know them emerged from the symbiotic interaction between musicians (DJ's/Drummers) and the bodies that move with them. Hip Hop, like Jazz, was music made at parties.

The entire relationship between drumming and dancing is clearly too long to discuss here! But allow me to offer a few tantalizing tastes of the historical/mystical relationship between drum breaks and dancing. My first clue came from a conversation I had with my friends Darren (a true beat junkie and hip hop Jedi) and Will (itinerant beat researcher and ecologist) about Haitian Drumming. It seems that in traditional Haitian drumming, breaks are used to drive spirits into the dancers. (Note: Will points out that this info came from "The Drums of Vodou" by Lois Wilcken). While these are different from funky breaks (as they alter, rather than accentuate a pulse), there is clearly an ancient indivisible bond between drum breaks and mystical dance experiences. This connection appeared again as I talked with Rob about the function of funky breaks in Jazz. Apparently, in early jazz, these rhythmic breaks were often included as a feature for tap dancers. The final piece fell together while listening to an interview with the tap dance legend, Diane Walker on NPR. She makes the connection between dance, jazz and hip hop complete.

Simply put, when you are playing music for dancers, you get funky breaks. Since funk breaks are the holy grail of hip hop, and Clyde Stubblefield was the original funky drummer, and jazz breaks preceded funk breaks, who...was...the ORIGINAL funky drummer?

According to Prof. Chalfen, the best bet for the first funky jazz drum break record is James Lent's "Ragtime Drummer." There are two versions here: A 1907 and a 1912 version. It seems that the idiom of the jazz drum break was well established enough in 1907 for Lent to record a track featuring it. While I don't claim to understand the motivation behind this recording, it does strike me as an early recognition of the power of funky drum breaks. For this reason alone, I think it deserves consideration as the first recorded funky break record.

While we were talking early jazz drum breaks, Rob unearthed a track called Brown Skin-Who You For? written by the New Orleans composer Clarence Williams. Published by the Williams/Piron Music Pub. Co. in New Orleans in 1916, this version was recorded by the Victor Military Band in New York the same year. It documents one of the early connections between the established New York entertainment industry and New Orleans Jazz composers. Serendipitously, a later version is cited by some as "the first rap song" and the first recorded mention of the word "jazz". While the first claim is hard to assess partly because the definition of rap is somewhat hard to pin down. However, the second claim is probably not right.

This 1919 version of "Hesitation Blues" by Al Bernard (which Rob had on Edison disc) contains the exhortation, "Jass it, boy, jass it" in the first few bars of the piano solo. (Note the "delay" in the track which comes from playing an Edison disk with a regular phonograph stylus.) Since the vocal version of Brown Skin was not recorded until later, "Hesitation Blues" at least contains an earlier mention of the word "jazz." Another possibility is a Cal Stewart recording from 1909 called Uncle Josh In Society. (This online article provides a nice overview of the history of the term "jazz"). However, the feature that makes this track relevant here is the fact that it contains some nice early jazz drum breaks.

Finally, just because I can't resist, I also include two tracks I think of as Tahitian Breaks. The label (below) calls it a "Primitive chant with vocal effects featuring pahu drums by Thurston Knudson." Wha? These tracks ("Vana Vana" and "Paoa"), by Augie Goupil and his Royal Tahitians are left over from the ethnosession (Love 1.1) and seemed to fit better here somehow. Smokin!

Keep diggin!