Sample and Hold

The members of Breakestra: ready to hit it and quit it.

At the risk of stealing an intro, let me count it off.

How it happened was like this: Five years ago there was this club in Los Angeles called the Underground Cafe. The Underground hosted a once-a-week funk night dubbed "The Breaks," at which a young hip-hop aficionado named Miles Tackett spun classic sides by the JB's, the Meters, Kool and the Gang, and so on -- all the original songs that provided the breaks and looped samples for modern-day hip-hop.

Miles loved all that old funky shit. He'd been introduced to it, like many kids, through hip-hop (it was Ultramagnetic MC's 1988 Critical Beatdown that provided his earliest awareness), but he didn't stop at the samples. He went back to the source on a search-and-rescue mission, dragging both familiar and forgotten tracks back into the light of day. All this was in the service of preservation, you see; hip-hop, by Miles, was the only brand of modern music keeping funk alive. And in fact, funk night at the Underground Cafe blew up in short order mostly because of hip-hop. Club kids who didn't know from bands like Third Guitar, or even Sly and the Family Stone, would recognize the cuts Miles and other DJs spun from contemporary rap and hip-hop samples. Class, such as it was, was in session.

It was a good gig. But Tackett was a musician at heart, from a musical family. His father, Fred, was a demon session player, and a member of Little Feat's late 1980s incarnation. For son Miles, the DJing soon coalesced into the bright idea of forming a kind of house band for "The Breaks," a live unit that could re-create all those classic funk doses.

Cut to summer '99, by which time "The Breaks" had morphed into "Root Down" and (after bouncing around a bit) found a semi-permanent home on Thursday nights at a club called Gabah, over on Melrose. And there, amid all that DJing and retro-fashion, the Breakestra -- as the Tackett-led house band was known -- went from taking 'em to school to running it like a damn seminar.

Breakestra emerged from Miles Tackett's personal vision, but a group like this -- by now it's at 10 members and counting -- stands or falls on the musicianship of each contributor, particularly when homage and careful re-creation are the order of the day.

"And these are all great musicians," says Tackett from his California home, placing a firm and equal emphasis on each word, lest his meaning be mistaken. "In the beginning, when we first started rehearsing, I made mix tapes for them, stuff from my own record collection, so we could all learn the songs. And what we'd do is we'd come together and play, and I'd call out, like, something by Tony Alvon or James Brown, and we'd go into it. And finally they were like, 'Um, Miles, why don't you write out a set list, so we don't have to be coming into things all of a sudden?'" He laughs. "So that's what we did. On the record especially, I wanted it to feel like it was all of a piece, all one solid performance. The flow of that performance was really important."

By "the record," Miles is referring to Breakestra's The Live Mix Part 2, on DJ Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw label. "We wanted it to sound like the live show . . . actually, the record is our live show, all in that sequence."

There are no track listings and no running times on Live Mix Part 2, so be advised that of the album's 29 cuts, tracks 1-27 represent Breakestra's current live set, with each track running anywhere from 10 seconds to four minutes, no stopping, all segues. For 42 minutes, Breakestra, with Mixmaster Wolf providing (according to the credits) "sho'nuff vocals," counts it off, then hits you with it, then takes it to the bridge, after which it moves on it, and then hits it and quits. Along the way you'll hear brief slices of the Meters' "Just Kissed My Baby," Marva Whitney's "Unwind Yourself," Sly Stone's "Remember Who You Are," Tony Alvon and the Belairs' "Sexy Coffee Pot," and about 30 others -- all covers, all precisely and lovingly performed. These are other people's songs, sure, drawn from a span of about 20 years. But Breakestra is such a tight and accomplished outfit that each cut flows into the next without hesitation.

Live Mix Part 2 is a stone groove, but it's a particular joy for DJs, funk historians and sample-spotters, who'll snap straight up off the couch when Breakestra moves into a dusty, once-forgotten lick off an old Grant Green record. This is the kind of disc that builds community among funk bloodhounds ("Hey, goddamn! That's 'Humpty Dump' by the Vibrettes! Do you know that record?") -- which, in truth, is what Live Mix Part 2 is all about, being a replication of Breakestra's weekly class sessions, wherein crowds of kids groove happily to sounds 10 years older than they are without necessarily knowing where they came from.  

So you might be maddened by the fact that none of the tracks are credited, and no source is given for that 12-second sample you remember from some Tribe Called Quest record, and leave it at that . . . or you can grab that DJ buddy of yours, the one with the crate of obscure 45s under the bed, and go find out where the hell it came from. As with most worthwhile knowledge, familiarizing oneself with Breakestra's brand of funk costs time and effort, but the payoff is sweet and long-lasting.

Miles Tackett should know. "This kind of stuff was never the mainstream," he says. "Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown . . . those guys were popular, but mostly this kind of music never got big in the general culture."

Not until the b-boys and DJs picked up on it, that is. Until South Bronx stylists started cutting and reinventing those old sides at house parties and club dates in the '80s, most of the funk dusted off by Breakestra on Live Mix Part 2 was preserved, when it was preserved, on out-of-print or hard-to-find vinyl.

Those were the days when DJs used to obliterate the labels on their records, so the competition wouldn't know what beats they were ransacking. In a gleeful shout-out to that tradition, Breakestra actually released its first recording in 1999, an original composition on (get this) an honest-to-God 45 called "Getcho Soul Togetha." And if all the above isn't cool enough, can you dig that Side A of that 45 was the vocal mix, and Side B delivered the instrumental version, just like an old Funkadelic single. Both sides are collected as tracks 28 and 29 on Live Mix Part 2, providing listeners with a little taste of where it all began.

Or rather, where it all started when Miles Tackett's initial idea found realization in the hands of some true believers. Tackett on bass and Wolf on vocals are joined by Carlos Guaico (organ), Josh Cohen ("an incredible drummer, who shouldn't have to still be working a day job," in Tackett's estimation), Dan Ubick (guitar), Dan Osterman (trombone), Paul Vargas (trumpet), Geoff "Double-G" Gallegos (sax, flute, and brass what-have-yous), Davey Chegwidden (percussion) and Todd Simon (trumpet on the "Getcho Soul Togetha" two-shot).

"These musicians [in Breakestra] all bring their musicality to the table, no question," says Tackett, who begins to get tongue-tied when he attempts to articulate his admiration. "They're all . . . I mean, they . . . these are my favorite musicians to play with, ever, that I know of. I'm blessed, obviously. I'd shared my record collection with most of these guys years ago, like they'd shared with me. I mean, everybody has to be turned on to good music. I had people turn me on years back. So I was making these breaks tapes, sample tapes, with jazz and groove and funk and all these songs for my friends. But of course a lot of these musicians were educated on all of that already. Carlos, for example, is very knowledgeable about that funk history. So first and foremost, really, you have to give it up for the guys who were doing the original work, the James Browns and the Meters and all that."

True enough; and though the individual breaks on Live Mix Part 2 are uncredited track-by-track, the thank-yous and shout-outs on the inside cover are a rogues' gallery of "original beat makers," damn near 300 of them. With entries ranging from Fred Wesley and Bobby Byrd to KRS-One and Dilated Peoples (with whom Breakestra has performed on several occasions), you can't say that Tackett and company don't give due props.

Discussion of James Brown's second Live at the Apollo album, from 1967, leads naturally into Breakestra's copious debt to the Godfather -- a debt shared, of course, by virtually every funk and soul performer who came after him.

"To me," Tackett says, "James Brown was probably the first musician to really incorporate the concept of the breaks into his songs . . . those quick riffs that took the music to another place. It's tough to say, you know, whether the b-boys and DJs who first started using that music as the base for their own were consciously picking up on it, doing the same thing. But there's no doubt that the influence was there. I just wanted to make this album sound like it could all be a single performance that went through all those different changes and still sounded live, still sounded coherent." On that level, Breakestra's new joint succeeds with a vengeance.  

Miles, let's hit it and quit:

"I like the album," says Tackett, satisfied without sounding smug. "I'm happy with it."

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