When Florida's DJ Icey throws on a record, expect forceful, syncopated grooves to quake from the bass bins, not the straightforward metronomic thumps most often associated with dance music. For Icey's name is synonymous with breakbeat, a somewhat nebulous subcategory of electronic music that's based on hijacked and often roughed-up drum parts from old funk records. Over the years, Icey has managed to keep pace with the ever-bifurcating trajectories of the breakbeat underworld, producing tracks that have influenced everything from the sample-driven, hip-hop-oriented party tracks of the early '90s to the currently en vogue sci-fi funk of the British "nu-school" breaks scene. A lucky man indeed, for in his case, the future has always found him.
Many trace the beginning of modern breakbeat to former industrial dance kingpin Jack Dangers, who helped kick-start the fledgling genre in the late '80s with his group Meat Beat Manifesto. On his early tracks like "Radio Babylon" and "Mars Needs Women," Dangers was able to get white industrial fans, who until that point had only experienced hip-hop culture through films like Krush Groove, to start giving pilfered James Brown beats a serious listen. Of course, the '80s had apartheid and Reaganomics, too, and it took electronic musicians like Dangers to shake suburbia out of its slumber with songs that referenced John Cage, Public Enemy and a million bombs being dropped on the dance floor all at once. This earliest phase of breakbeat, based on a copyright-trampling approach to appropriating sounds, inspired a whole generation of bedroom producers to reconfigure their record collections into "new" tracks using all sorts of cheap electronic gear.
Among them was a teenaged Icey (born Eddie Pappa), who would make collages out of hip-hop, electro, funk and New Wave singles on his boom box. "Before I even knew what being a DJ was, I would make crazy tapes with the pause button on a cassette deck," he said in an interview with Urb magazine. "In high school, people would bug out because they'd hear a tape that went from New Order to Run-D.M.C. to Scritti Politti."
Club Freedom in Tempe
Scheduled to perform on Friday, May 31. Showtime is 9 p.m. for the 18-and-over show.
After enrolling in college at the University of Central Florida in the late '80s, Icey got the itch to try his mixing skills on actual turntables, and managed to convince an Orlando club to let him DJ there Tuesday nights. The Sunshine State being home to Miami bass, Icey tended to select tracks built on massive low-end frequencies and vocal snippets lifted from rap songs. As his skills developed and his tastes broadened, he began incorporating the new dance sounds emanating from other cities as well. He took a record-buying trip to New York in '89 and discovered acid house, a style originally from Chicago that made use of squelchy synthesizer chirps and other oddball studio effects. By blending the trippy electronics from acid house with accelerated, block-rockin' breakbeats taken from hip-hop, Icey helped found the Florida breaks sound, which has been one of the few niche varieties of electronic music that's endured in essentially unaltered form over the years. Fads like trip-hop and speed garage seem to go in and out of fashion as often as the changing of the seasons, but you can always count on Florida to produce and consume more breaks than just about anywhere else on the planet.
Icey was responsible in no small part for his state's love affair with breakbeat. Not only did he propel the music forward with his DJ appearances, but he also released literally hundreds of 12-inches on his own Zone Records and booked international breakbeat talent at the club he managed, the Edge. Icey, in fact, was the first to bring British big beat pioneers the Chemical Brothers to the States, and in so doing, laid the foundation for a transatlantic support system for artists in the nascent breakbeat movement.
What began as a way for ravers to get in touch with their inner b-boys turned into the most commercially successful style in all of electronic music. The Chemical Brothers became one of only a handful of dance acts to score a gold record in America (1997's Dig Your Own Hole), and fellow countrymen Fatboy Slim and Prodigy took breakbeat out of the warehouses and onto MTV. It wasn't a total coup for samplers, drum machines and synthesizers, however each of these acts got over with plenty of help from that old standby of the pop charts, the electric guitar.
Icey, though, never managed to cross over like his colleagues overseas did. In order to exploit the mainstream marketing machine to the fullest, a dance artist needs to submit a full-length album of original songs, a step Icey still has yet to take. Other than the vinyl-exclusive singles he punches out seemingly every few weeks, he's only released DJ mixes, a format that rarely makes an impact outside of specialty markets. He did complete an LP of his own tracks back in 2000, but had it shelved indefinitely by the ffrr/London label when the company lost its corporate sponsor.
But a career in the underground has suited Icey well. He spins multiple times a week across the country and releases a well-received mix CD every year or so. And his particular brand of breaks, layered with multiple psychedelic synthesizer lines and dance-floor-packing drum machine workouts, is probably best enjoyed in sweaty clubs and out-of-the-way warehouse parties anyway. Don't expect Icey, a quiet, behind-the-scenes type who tends to shun publicity, to start churning out videos or appearing in the gossip pages like Fatboy Slim has. (At press time, in fact, Icey was not granting interviews.)
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The initial wave of interest in breakbeat crested after Slim's '98 smash You've Come a Long Way, Baby, and with the supposed implosion of the breaks-based drum 'n' bass style, syncopation in dance music seemed like a hopelessly dated concept for a few years. DJs spinning trance and house, which are both based on steady, four-on-the-floor kick drum patterns, monopolized the headlining slots at raves while breaks jocks were relegated to spinning in back rooms.
But, as is the case with just about every once-hot topic in electronic music, breakbeat would eventually reemerge. British drum 'n' bass producers, who had been pushing the tempos of breaks into regions that had forced all but the most hyperactive of dancers out of clubs, began looking at the slower-paced work of artists like Icey for inspiration. Thus was born the nu-school breaks phenomenon, an extremely high-tech overhauling of the Florida sound that's currently the toast of London.
Icey, clearly not much of an opportunist, hasn't gone out of his way to capitalize on his newly reaffirmed relevance. He doesn't bill himself with the trendy nu-school tag, and he's not switching up his production techniques to cater to that niche. The man who DJ journal Mixmag dubbed the "King of the Funky Breaks" is going to keep satisfying ravers with his time-tested formula instantly gratifying beats and flashback-inducing synthesizer mayhem. Especially daring or innovative his approach is not, but he's consistently packed dance floors for more than a decade, a claim that few DJs in the fickle club scene can make. Endorsement from hipsters and tastemakers can come and go, but in the end, all Icey wants to do is make the party jump.