Music News

Sample and Hold

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.