Pop & Hiss

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Tonight: Breakestra at the El Rey

October 6, 2009 |  1:41 pm
Breakestra Organic. The quintessential 21st-century trope — used to hawk everything from pesticide-free tomatoes to online viral marketing campaigns to buzz bands with aspirations of authenticity and loose limbs. Forget the whole grain, Whole Foods connotations, Breakestra is organic — a fluid and funky fusion between the city’s coffeehouse indie-rap scene of the mid- to late-'90s and the breakbeat-heavy samples they stole from their parents’ crates.

Today, the notion of another 10-piece band re-working Stax, Motown and the holy, dirty groove of James Brown and the Meters feels slightly trite. After all, everyone from the Menahan Street Band to Maxwell has paid homage to retro soul, with the sub-genre seemingly the most viable antiphony to the auto-tuned excesses of contemporary R&B. Yet, at a time when most revivalists had just parted with their New Jack Swing gear, Breakestra were vanguards, emerging as an Angeleno analogue to Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings, full of beach ball-fat bass lines, heaven-sent horns and filthy drum fills.

Quickly winning converts with legendary weekly gigs at the Breaks and its successor Root Down (the weekly hip-hop night promoted and curated by Breakestra mastermind “Music Man” Miles Tackett), the band soon received an offer from Stones Throw honcho Peanut Butter Wolf to release their debut 7', “Getcho Soul Together.”

Several EPs and a Ubiquity Records full-length later, Breakestra are back with their latest excellent slab of funk, “From Dusk Till Dawn,” released on London’s venerable Strut Records imprint. Partially a tribute to their deceased comrade DJ Dusk, the disc finds Tackett and company expanding their palette to include fuzzy Afro-psyche flourishes, Colombian cumbia and even a cello solo.

In advance of their album release party tonight at the El Rey, Tackett spoke to Pop & Hiss about the new record, the memory of Dusk and his favorite breaks of all time.

Breakestra originally formed out of the Breaks, a hip-hop night that you used to run prior to Root Down. How important would you say the break beat is to the genesis of your sound?

The Breaks was very magical. We didn’t promote it at all; it just took off on its own. Soon, we had a little coffeehouse packed with people -- there were b-boys breaking between tables. At first, it was a bunch of us playing jam sessions, but soon we developed a Breaks method. We’d break down songs, their bass lines, their melodies, their key parts, and then we’d learn how to do it.

We eventually got more organized and developed a set list, but we’d do it on the fly. Hip-hop DJs were a major influence — I’d listen to their mixtapes and study their transitions. I was really influenced by the way hip-hop producers would arrange the break beats and picked up on the cut-up style. We eventually merged the two traditions.

The album is partially a tribute to the memory of DJ Dusk. What do you think it was about Dusk that meant so much to so many people?

He was definitely touched, and I’m not trying to be overdramatic, but he had a very special connection spiritually and he was in touch with it. It was undeniable and it manifested in the way he used to connect with people and help them — whether it was the way he selected sounds to bring people on a trip or the way he worked with at-risk youth. He was always making sacrifices for others, and one of his true passions other than music was helping at-risk youth at the Mar Vista Center.

Besides the tribute to Dusk, how do you think "From Dusk Till Dawn” contrasts with Breakestra’s earlier work?

It’s a sort of musical fantasy of what Breakestra is — it’s arranged like a show bringing different elements together. It’s intended to be a non-chemical psychedelic thing — it’s rooted in hard funk, but there’s everything from psychedelic sounds to African sounds to soul-jazz fusion. We tried to cover everything in the whole range of musical expression from joy to pain. It’s about paying homage to Dusk and moving forward in life, because I know that’s what he’d want for me and Mixmaster Wolf.

As difficult as is to narrow it down, what are your all-time favorite breaks?

James Brown/Clyde Stubblefield “The Funky Drummer.”

Essential. The most fluid, syncopated, sick drum beat ever played by one man [Stubblefield] and a very cool horn and song arrangement by the Godfather of soul.

Kool and the Gang – “Give it Up.”

The meeting of laid-back groove with deep jazz pocket funk.

Eddie Bo/James Black “The Hook and Sling.”

Completely insane in and out of the groove. Syncopation from New Orleans’ funkiest drummer and Eddie Bo's original party time groove for days.

Sly & the Family Stone – “Sing a Simple Song.”

Raw driving psychedelic soul that does not let up and a break that could take down the West Bank wall. Just check how many covers of it were made.

The Meters “Chicken Strut.”

Though not the most syncopated or funkiest, this is still my favorite and a frequent spin of mine at Funky Sole for many years. I first heard it on a Queen Latifah track produced by the 45 King.

James Gadson with Dyke & the Blazers “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man."

Pile-driving steady and offbeat, all at the same time — from L.A.'s own living drum master James Gadson. One of the coolest and weirdest sounding drum sounds on the breakdown that I've ever heard, which Public Enemy got their hands on for "Welcome to the Terrordome."

-- Jeff Weiss

Breakestra plays tonight at the El Rey, 5515 Wilshire Blvd. 8 p.m, $14.

Photo: Ubiquity Records