The times sure have changed. Before there was the Internet and Google, building knowledge of records was a skill cultivated from years of experience and hard work. Digging in the trenches, taking chances on unknown recordings and literally dropping the needle on every disc to ascertain its contents was something reserved for the dedicated enthusiast looking to expand their knowledge of recordings.
Hip hop legends like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were the first DJs to recognize the importance of the breakbeat—a point in a song where the percussion takes the foreground with no other accompaniment. Entire parties were constructed around spinning two copies of a record’s drum break back-to-back to keep a dance floor moving. As time progressed, MCing over instrumentals gained more prominence in the field, and playing the rarest and hardest drum breaks made some of the original hip hop DJs kings of the party.
Besides the technical skill involved with proper cueing and backtracking, the most important aspect of this art form was actually finding the records that contained the juiciest breaks and building a catalog to consistently dip into. Well established DJs, as well as up-and-comers, kept their breakbeats secret from the audience and fellow diggers, creating a very competitive playing field. Certain artists like James Brown and Dennis Coffey were popular sources for endless amounts of mind-blowing material, but the challenge was to excavate more obscure and unassuming records that had breaks hidden deep away in the grooves—only to be found by truly dedicated diggers who took the time to play every track on every record they touched.
Modern technology has made it so vinyl digging no longer requires the time and labor once demanded of the art. Within seconds, a record’s worth in regards to drum breaks can be deduced with a Google search. Extremely accessible software like Scratch Live (aka Serato) not only replaces the need for having a physical piece of vinyl to spin but allows users to dump an entire music collection onto the hard drive and cherry pick the breaks from any recording. The time and effort required for endless digging hunts to chase down rare vinyl has all but disappeared. While the benefits of preserving a rare disc from countless needle abrasions —and saving one’s back from hernia-induced crate lifting— are nice, it removes contemporary DJs from the early development of their art.
Half the fun of digging for vinyl as a DJ is finding the original break on an old slab of wax and watching a crowd react to the beat. Any modern day artist who is keeping the spirit of break digging alive is helping to preserve the past by bridging a strong connection to their predecessors who took the time to excavate dusty old grooves.
Below are some examples of LPs and 45s that contain incredible, and historical, drum breaks. Take some time to look in your basement or attic for the old records— you might unearth some vinyl that helped play a role in shaping present-day hip hop.