Looking for the Broken Beat by Hillegonda Reitveld


Dance culture is dead ? This is one conclusion as super clubs are waning in the UK. Nevertheless, alternatives are bubbling underground – a growing international scene of maturing producer-DJs is experimenting with dance rhythms, defying genre restrictions and eluding branding in the process. Musical influences are drawn from existing dance club music (two-step, deep house, Detroit techno, jazz, samba etc), experimenting with beats and making the groove prevail.

Alternatives to ‘mainstream’ musical outputs often travel similar routes – they represent the underground and significant Other of global corporate music culture (a.k.a. the majors, MTV and lounge muzak) to their mainstream counterparts. Prominent examples are musical styles of the Black diaspora, whose historical formation incorporates a fusion of Atlantic cultures in resistance to colonialist and global capitalist repression.

In Tokyo, traces of cross-Atlantic culture have arrived as part of the Western face of global capitalism, where its alien foreign aspect is controlled and ‘mastered’ through a highly developed archiving skill. Would this make a good location to find a simplified version of the ‘broken beat’? Being this far away, culturally and geographically, yet so keen to fit into the global system, Tokyo could be a handy starting point to discuss the issues and problems around attempts to define a genre. Here, underground music cultures seem to be boiled down to a perceived essence, simulacrea informed by a mediated distance to the Western face of global capitalism. Jazz, techno, you name it, the best examples seem to be available in its specialised shops.

Tokyo’s dance and electronica magazine, Remix, announces futuristically “the shape of music to come”, reviewing a range of DJs and recordings from London and New York, as well as Jazzanova for their June 2002 cover. Inside the May 2002 issue, there are some broken beat styled recordings, although they are not identified as such. For example, 4 Hero’s dance tune ‘Hold It Down’, with Lady Alma (Horton) on vocals (Talkin Loud), appears once as house and once as jazz and Agent K’s album, Feed the Cat (Laws of Motion), is listed as fusion. Remix is also responsible for one-off introductory publications such as House Legend which explains Western underground electronic dance musics to a Japanese market and features long lists of New York and London clubs, artists, and records. Included, between historical pictures going as far back as the 1970s, is a recent picture page for London based club night ‘Co-operation’, with IG Culture and 4 Hero’s Dego on the decks.

Similarly in Japanese records stores, the broken beat principle in music seems to be linked with a Japanese brand of bossa-based electronic acid jazz, such as the dance musings of Kyoto Jazz Massive (Parisian label Yellow) or electronic jazz of Jazztronic (Tokyo’s label Flower). For example, in DMR, broken beat material is displayed as part of contemporary jazz. Although this evades the finer details, it does sum up an experimental attitude, an African-diasporic fusion and a certain virtuosity, mainly in programming and studio skills, but also in terms of additional vocals or other acoustic instruments. On display in this section was Victor Davies’ ‘Sound of the Samba’, initially performed on acoustic guitar and remixed in a light Nuyorican style by New York’s Master at Work for Jazzanova Compost Records (JCR), as well as Seiji’s production of Lyric L’s rap ‘Loose Lips’, on West London based Bitasweet label, a minimalist rap tune, with an electronic Jamaican dancehall motive, a drum n bass texture and a sub bass that pushes air.

A few streets further, at Manhattan, a little shop crammed with vinyl, there was an attempt to narrow the material to a category called West London Sound (WLS), dividing the material by artists: Two Banks of Four, Mark De Clive-Lowe, IG Culture/New Sector Movements, Phil Asher, Nathan Haines, 4Hero, Alpha Omega, Seiji and Total Science. This identification by location neatly evades the issue of musical definition, but hides a diversity of historical moments and musical styles in this section, such as jazz, deep house, drum n bass and quite few good examples of broken beats.

The WLS tag works like a mediated simulacrum. It appeared during the European winter of 2000/01 in several English magazines, such as Straight No Chaser, International DJ and DJ. Around the same time, the first Co-operation compilation was distributed through West London based Goya Music. Goya’s website announces a steady flow of new releases that push the boundaries of the genres they work within. The labels they distribute are based in a variety of places: London’s People, Bitasweet, Main Squeeze, 2000Black, Earth Project, Fireworx, and Fluid Ounce, as well as Italian techno label Archive, Swedish funkster label Hollow and Manchester-based deep house label Rainy City. In order to scratch beyond the surface and to find out more about the broken beat, I catch a plane to London.

The artists involved in broken beat music can, at times, be quite elusive, wary of speaking to the press in case their casual comments become set in stone. When I asked about categorisations, Bugz in the Attic’s Mikey replied, “There are a lot of people outside West London doing this music and there is a lot of other music coming out of West London.” In the end, “it’s only about good music”.

On my enquiry into what the broken beat might specifically be (perhaps an implied 4/4 mid tempo beat causing deep head nods in the listener), he replied that “not all of the tracks are done in 4/4 but many are and if people danced to the groove instead of the beat they would probably get it a lot easier.”

The manifesto is in the music. Broken beat related dance music features an artist-led urge to innovate – it is more than just a continuation of African-diasporic syncopation. Spencer and Mike of Goya Music define the broken beat scene as “people who have been known for one style of music and been open-minded enough to get into other people’s music and fuse all these different elements together and continue to blur the boundaries. Also people that are tired of music that was served up as peak-time club music and believing there are always other ways.”

The slippage from categorisation is convenient for musicians who enjoy being fluid in their approach to music and networking. To add to this effect of evading capture, artists’ names vary on productions to accommodate diverse musical approaches and collaborative configurations. Also, in order to attempt to control their destination, many artists start their own labels. Altogether, this causes an effect of multiplication and unintended mystification of a relatively small, yet fast growing group of people. It’s a challenge to the music business, the record shops, the promoters, the marketing people, the journalists and the customers.

This ambiguity and musical focus produces a sense of underground mystery, similar to maverick Factory Records in 1980s Manchester, or Detroit’s Underground Resistance in the 1990s, encouraging collectors in their obsession for the latest release in the field. And although in the UK broken beats only found its first large platform with the Big Chill festival this year, Bugz’ Mikey lists a host of events in Europe and Japan where their music has been exposed to several thousand people at once: “Drum Rhythm festival, Amsterdam; Sonar, Barcelona; Kontrapunkt, Zagreb, Liquid Room, Tokyo; Detroit Electronic Music Festival; North Sea Jazz Festival, Amsterdam…” Goya’s Mike and Spencer elaborate, ” … the feedback we continue to receive from around the world has surprised us and [the music]seems to have struck a chord in places we would never have expected. It seems that there are like-minded people out there in all corners of the globe who have healthy scenes going on along the same lines. These individual scenes won’t go away, they’ll just mutate and I think that’s really healthy. Trash da junk!”

The Co-Op club night features a great variety of broken beat material and its influences, from jazz and funk to hiphop, from samba to deep house. It has been going for a while, first in West London and, since Autumn 2000, in central London at the Velvet Rooms. At the end of July 2002, they celebrated their last night at that venue, making people wonder about their next move. Some of those music ‘heads’ who seem to have supported this music over the last couple of years are “so over it” as one put it, so a break might be a good thing. And still – what a party that last one was’in reggae and drum n bass tradition, there was plenty of DJ and crowd interaction. The new mix of 4 Hero’s ‘Hold It Down’ entered with great theatrics: welcomed by the crowd, the rewind, guys shouting ‘tune’, and back in again accompanied by cheers – it was more or less performed by the crowd; singing, tagging (with laser pointers), dancing. IG Culture (New Sector Movements, Main Squeeze) did his jazz funk noodly stuff, Dego (4 Hero, 2000Black) got into a deep bass electronic dancehall groove with Bitasweet material like Cousin Cockroach. Special guest King Britt presented a retro hiphop set which kept the guys jumping like there was no tomorrow and the he last hour presented a broken beat style, finishing with IG Culture’s mix of ‘Chasing after the Sun’ by Monday Michuru.

The end of July was also supposed to mark the end of Blacktronica at the Institute Of Contemporary Art. Charlie Dark, a member of Attica Blues, has been disappointed with the mainstream music industry, which has a narrow idea of what Black, or ‘urban’, music is supposed be like. Sticking to stereotypical ideas around hiphop and r&b, experimentation with electronic music is often ignored, despite the clear achievements by Black musicians in (underground) electronic dance music.

However the success of that night may change that. Charlie Dark, Gavin Alexander and Bugz’ Afronaught DJed, playing a wide range of syncopated Black electronic dance music. Jazz poet Zena Ewards used a foot steered guitar echo/sampler to record and overlay her voice live, on the spot She visibly and aurally demonstrated how the acoustic and the electronic can be interwoven into a complex exchange, the human and the machine, contemporary Black culture and its electronic tools.

On the opening track of Goya Music’s second Co-operation compilation ‘Co-Op thing’, Alma Horton soulfully voices the Co-Op principle of “future sound”, “freedom to do what you want”, “to take your time” and “to give a little love” over a jazzed out piece of electronic programming. The lyrics of ‘Co-Op thing’ show a recognition of music as laboratory for the future. This contemporary futurism fits well with ideas developed by Kodwo Eshun in More Brilliant Than The Sun, where he reviews post-war Black music, arguing that in its articulation by the machine, a music is created that has no natural roots, and reaches into the future: “The future is an accident” (19); “DJ-producers like to say that Machine Music comes from fucking with the rule book, freaking with the formula” (20). Elsewhere, in Shapiro’s “Modulations”, he stresses the potential of experimental change in electronic dance music: “Dance music, as I define it, is rhythm-machine music. The machines augment bodily thought. They allow you to play lots of different tones and lots of different rhythms that you wouldn’t be able to play normally…and machines de-physicalise music… In that sense, you have to think more about the music you’re playing, or you have to think more about the organisation of rhythm and the organisation of sound.” (72)

In the case of the broken beat, African-diasporic cultural politics are of crucial importance in how sound is organised. Reggae sound systems, with their renegade dubbed up machine sounds showed decades ago that electronic music technology can be used in a different manner than ever imagined by the manufacturer. The dehumanising and dislocating potential of machine music enables an uprooting and breaking up of stable systems and current experiments in rhythms, textures and melodies.

The future of the broken beat is perhaps best described by an anecdote told by Charlie Dark, of meeting punk maverick Malcolm McLaren when he was a teenager. Charlie asked him where he could get that cool customised ghettoblaster with the buffalo horns, featured on his record sleeve. McLaren replied that he shouldn’t wait for people to make it for him, but rather to do it himself. This meeting with a Situationist proved to be memorable lesson in DIY culture. It becomes clear Charlie works on his music continually, even on tour. The machine textured beats come out twisted and warped, yet tight in the groove. Music on the move. Machine music of the future, where it mingles with the acoustic to break the mould.

Some Co-op tunes from the last 2 years:

Da One Way, ‘Trash Da Junk’ (Main Squeeze)
4 Hero feat Lady Alma, ‘Hold It Down’ (Co-operative Mix) (Talkin Loud)
Seiji, ‘Loose Lips’ (Bitasweet Records)
Kaidi Tatham and IzzI Dunn, ‘Betcha Did’ (Bitasweet)
Loquate, ‘Miracles’ (Recloose Mix) (Ubiquity)
Afronaught, ‘Transcend Me’ (R&S)
P’taah, ‘Crossing (Evacuation of Form)’ (Opaque Remix) (Ubiquity(
Afroforce, ‘Goza’ (2000Black(
Swell Session feat. Yukimi Nagano, ‘I See Through You’ (Hollow)
Jazzanova feat. Vikter Duplaix, ‘That Night’s (JCR)
Son of Scientist, ‘Theory of Everything’ (Main Squeeze)
Cousin Cockroach, ‘his Ain’t Tom & Jerry’ (Bitasweet)
Sci-Clone, ‘Close’ (Mark Force remix) (People)


Co-operation Session II (Co-operation)
Co-operation Vol I (Co-operation)
Misturada 4 (Far Out)
Futuristic Dancing (Bitasweet Records)
Out Patients: future jazz & 2-step soul (Hospital)
People Make The World Go Round (People)
Family Planning (Main Squeeze)
When It Rains It Pours (Rainy City Music)
Compost One Hundred (Compost Records)
Abstract Fusion 3 (Track Mode)
Laws of Motion (Laws of Motion)
Bossa Tres … Jazz (Yellow)
Break’n’Bossa (Schema)

Artist EPs/albums:

Jazzanova, ‘In Between’ (JCR)
Uschi Classen, ‘Soul Magic’ (Earth Project)
Recloose, ‘Cardiology’ (K7)
Herbert, ‘Bodily Functions’ (K7)
IzzI Dunn EP (Fireworx)
New Sector Movements, No Tricks EP (Virgin)
Jazztronic, ‘Inner Flight’s (Counter Point Records/Flower)
Atjazz, ‘Labfunk’ (Mantis Recordings)
Afronaught, ‘Shapin’ Fluid’ (R&S)
Agent K, ‘Feed The Cat’s (Laws of Motion)
Nathan Haines, ‘Sound Travels’ (a restless soul production) (Chilli Funk)
Modaji, ‘Laws of Motion’
Chateau Flight, ‘Remixent’s (Versatile)
Fauna Flash, ‘Confusion, the Fusion Mixes’ (Compost Records)

Hillegonda Rietveld


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.