The 12 greatest breakbeats of all time

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The 12 greatest breakbeats of all time

Words by Harry Connell & Will Brewster

Some of the most sampled drum breaks from The Winstons to James Brown

Drum breaks are one of recorded music’s greatest gifts to producers, DJs, and avid fans alike.

Whether it be an intro, outro, or interlude – when the band drops out and reveals what the drummer has been playing underneath all along, you can’t help but feel the groove.

We’re taking a look at 12 of the greatest breakbeats throughout the years.

Read all the latest features, interviews and how-to columns here.

‘Amen, Brother’ – The Winstons

It should be no surprise seeing this one on the list, The Winstons’ ‘Amen, Brother’ is the second most sampled record of all time, and has been used in tracks like N.W.A’s 1988 hit ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘I Desire’ from two years prior.

The drum break in this track lasts about seven seconds and was performed by Gregory Coleman.

‘Think (About It)’ – Lyn Collins

This funky tune was released as a single on James Brown’s People Records in 1972.

‘Think (About It)’ is one of the most frequently sampled James Brown productions, being used in tracks like Kanye West’s ‘Lost in the World’ back in 2010, and even this year on Beyonce’s ‘Church Girl’.

While the main drumbeat is heavily popular, the vocal passage known as the ‘Woo! Yeah!’ break has also been a staple in hip-hop production, making its way onto a lot of tracks too.

‘Impeach The President’ – The Honey Drippers

Written and produced by Roy Charles Hammond, aka Roy C, ‘Impeach The President’ was first released on Alaga Records in 1973.

With a recognisable sound, and a distinctive open hat on the sixth note, this hard-hitting soul break has found its way to the centre of countless hip-hop classics over the decades.

Some notable tracks that feature the sample include TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ and The Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Unbelieveable’.

‘Apache’ – The Incredible Bongo Band

The combined drum and bongo break from The Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 version of ‘Apache’ has been labelled by many as “hip-hop’s national anthem”, and has found its way onto tracks by Nas, Grandmaster Flash, and Kanye West.

In the ‘90s, the break made its way into dance music too, used in Drum & Bass and the various forms of breakbeat-led dance music that preceded it.

An example of this is British producer Goldie’s 1994 track ‘Inner City Life’.

‘It’s A New Day’ – Skull Snaps

With thick sounding hi-hats, punchy snare drums, and a headnod-provoking bounce, drummer George Bragg did his thing on this one.

Released in 1973, this track has been sampled hundreds of times, and has found its way into lots of hip-hop tracks in the late ‘80s, as well as hip-hop inspired electronic music from the ‘90s, like The Prodigy’s ‘Poison’ and Rob Dougan’s ‘Clubbed To Death’.

‘Hihache’ – Lafayette Afro Rock Band

Released in 1973 off their second studio album Soul Makossa, ‘Hihache’ was the standout song on the record and has been sampled by a variety of artists from Janet Jackson and LL Cool J to Naughty By Nature and the Wu-Tang Clan.

The mid-tempo funk break features a hat pattern that’s not dissimilar to the aforementioned ‘Impeach The President’, and was first used by Biz Markie in 1987, before the flood gates were opened and its sound spread across hip-hop.

‘Funky Drummer’ – James Brown

You don’t have to look far to find James Brown’s infectious drum breaks – they’re everywhere and rightly so.

‘Funky Drummer’ is remarked as the undisputed king of James Brown breakbeats, with a distinctive rolling beat provided by one of, if not the most sampled drummer in history – Clyde Stubblefield.

Famous appearances include ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy, ‘Fuck Tha Police’ by N.W.A, and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ by LL Cool J.

‘Synthetic Substitution’ – Melvin Bliss

It’s hard to believe that this track originally started as a throwaway B-side, failing to chart anywhere upon initial release in 1973.

It wasn’t until the song was sampled by Ultramagnetic MCs, that other artists began to take note, and a new life was breathed into ‘Synthetic Substitution’.

Almost half a century on, the track has been sampled in more than 650 songs, serving as the break of choice for musicians chasing a classic and punchy mid-tempo feel.

Other notable samples include ‘My Life’ by 50 Cent, ‘Die in Your Arms’ by Justin Bieber, and ‘Animal Instinct’ by Mobb Deep.

‘Cold Sweat’ – James Brown

James Brown makes the list once again, this time with his 1967 track ‘Cold Sweat’, that he wrote with his bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Lewis.

The complete recording is over seven minutes long, but an edited version released on King Records reached number one on the R&B hits chart, and number seven on the Pop Singles chart.

The main drum part is comprised of a two-bar pattern, with a snare hit on the two and four, a standard sort of 4/4 rock pattern, but with a simple variation – the four beat hit in the first measure is delayed by one eighth note.

This snare pattern (once again played by the legendary Clyde Stubblefield) contributed greatly to the funky drum sounds of the time and would go on to influence drum breaks for years to come.

Some samples include 1997 dance track ‘Brown Paper Bag’ by Roni Size, and ‘Prophets of Rage’ by hip-hop group Public Enemy.

‘Ashley’s Roach Clip’ – The Soul Searchers

Another break that’s synonymous with late ‘80s hip-hop, this 1974 instrumental has been sampled across a variety of genres.

It seemed to peak in popularity around this time though, only 20 per cent of documented uses post-date the 1990s.

Among the most popular are ‘Paid in Full’ by Eric B. & Rakim, ‘Run’s House’ by Run-DMC, and ‘Hey Young World’ by Slick Rick.

‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’ – Bob James

When released in 1975, Bob James never would’ve imagined his cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’ would become an integral part of hip-hop production.

It was famously used by Run DMC in their 1986 hit ‘Peter Piper’, and its underlying drum pattern has since made its way into over 271 tracks.

It also features in ‘Nasty’ by Nas, ‘AJ Scratch’ by Kurtis Blow, and ‘Flowers’ by Ghostface Killah feat. Raekwon, Method Man, and Superb.

‘When The Levee Breaks’- Led Zeppelin

This country blues song was first written and recorded by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy way back in 1929.

In 1971, iconic English rock group Led Zeppelin reworked the track as the last song on their untitled fourth album.

The two-bar break that opens ‘When The Levee Breaks’ is one of the most widely sampled in modern music, and Bonham’s drumming in the song is regarded by many as one of the most monumental pieces of rock drumming ever recorded.

The break can be heard in tracks like ‘Dollar and a Dream III’ by J. Cole, ‘Kim’ by Eminem, and ‘Rhymin & Stealin’ by Beastie Boys.

More on When The Levee Breaks here.