This week on The Breakdown, we wax nostalgic about simpler times and the janky DIY brilliance of early breakcore.

There’s a style I like to call “bassy breakcore” that I’ve been infatuated with for a while; if you’ve ever listened to Alec Empire or early Sonic Subjunkies you may have an idea of what I’m talking about. The formula is simple: take a classic mid 90s-style darkside tune, the kind Goldie or Skanna would have made. Replace whatever kind of sub bass you were using for your bassline with a big buzzy reese bass, because subtlety is for cowards and people who like to live long lives. Distort it. Then distort your breaks. And then go ahead and distort your samples about twice as much as you distorted everything else. Press to wax.

The good shit.

I think the reason I love this sound so much is because it’s transparently basic. It barely even attempts to be its own sound; it really is just breakbeat hardcore, but harder. In fact, these early years of breakcore as a whole are kinda remarkable in that they seem utterly uninterested in impressing anybody in any way beyond maybe being the most obnoxious music possible. For a genre so strongly associated with complexity, with being impossible to follow, with endless arguments between zoomers with nothing better to do with their day about how complex your break chops need to be before you can call it breakcore, this first era of the genre iss home to some of the most freeingly brainless music I’ve ever heard in my life.

The sweet spot is the first four years, when things were not only incessantly uncomplicated but seemed to actively resist elevation as an artform. I recognize that this might not make sense if you don’t understand how different the music was back then from how it is today, so let’s look at an example of a modern breakcore track that I really enjoy:

Even for a track that doesn’t actually have many distinct elements, the complexity is off the charts here: 8 minutes of well-cultivated atmosphere via complex and melodic synthwork, lightspeed breakwork with almost no repetition, actual real harmony. They probably spent over a dozen hours just laying down all the drums, let alone structuring out the actual track, gathering samples, and fine-tuning the synthwork. And it’s a masterpiece! It’s the crowning jewel of an excellent record full of mind-melting choppage and interesting textures and gorgeous synthy atmospheres juxtaposed with the most intense grooves you can imagine.

Okay, now take this DJ Bleed track from 1994, year one of breakcore, for comparison:

This is like dodo hardcore. One single-measure main break pattern that gestures vaguely towards jungle rhythms but without any of the complexity. One secondary break layer which seems to be chopped entirely by just retriggering the sample from the start. A single-measure reese bassline. A spammy “solo” that flails with the melodic gracefulness of a duck falling down stairs. One single-measure incomprehensible sample. This is stupid. It’s the polar opposite of the Yibbon track in every single possible way. It sucks. It’s awesome.

Breaking down the technical ethos of music from this period is a strange mix of stubborn refutation of cutting edge techniques and genuinely just not having access to equipment complex enough to easily make more complicated music. “I use a sampler and computer,” says Bomb 20 mastermind David Skiba matter-of-factly when asked about his gear. “Having started making music with an Amiga, a Yamaha RY-30 drum machine and a Boss Digital Delay it was overwhelming when hard disk recording and all that VST stuff arrived” explains Christoph de Babalon, breakcore’s early “artsy” music wunderkind and all time outlier. “I kind of lost my way for a bit.” The 16-bit computer, where music is made with programs that resemble spreadsheets more than music software, reigns supreme. Patric Catani reaffirms the Babalon workflow by confirming he does “everything” with just a pair of Amigas. Even Atari Teenage Riot, the most “mainstream” and accessible artist to come out of this early era of breakcore, embraces a dead simple workflow. As the inlay of 1997’s The Future of War details:

Atari ST into sampler. 909 into sampler. Samples into sampler. Recordings into sampler. Sampler into your eardrums. Your eardrums into the streets.

But while the music was rudimentary and noisy and often kinda unlistenable by modern standards, it was by no means sterile. The visceral hyperrave sounds of 1994 had fully embraced noise as a medium as early as 1995, and hand-in-hand with that evolution came an increased vector of creativity. It was at this point where breakcore started to fracture, a process that would continue and intensify for the rest of its existence. Much of the Digital Hardcore crew dedicated their efforts to full lengths exploring various new ideas: Alec Empire leaned explicitly into the “punk” aspect of the DHR ethos and put out the first Atari Teenage Riot album; Christoph de Babalon formed Cross Fade Enter Tainment and put out File Already Exists. Continue (Y/N)?, a collection of what can mostly be called demos exploring everything from dead simple jungly break workouts to genuinely emotive and complex full length pieces to even shards of techno, ambient, and noise, foreshadowing the direction he would pursue a couple years later on the acclaimed If You’re Into It, I’m Out Of It. Sonic Subjunkies went in a similar atmospheric direction on Midi War debut full-length Sounds From the City of Quartz, pushing the breakcore into the background and constructing elaborate soundscapes. On the other end of the spectrum, Beloved DHR veteran Shizuo took a different approach on his Midi War debut Disko Punk, embracing abrasion and creating a nonstop soundscape of rudimentary electronic that inverted the ATR formula by generally avoiding explicit punk instrumentation and performance practice and instead leaning into pure anti-artistic rawness.

As far as Sonic Subjunkies were concerned, breakcore was a palette to be explored and, if necessary, de-emphasized.

1996 was a fairly quiet year beyond Alec Empire finally compiling his progress within the genre he invented (one of them, at least) into the full-length The Destroyer and Shizuo reaching what might be the ideological zenith of early breakcore by releasing a song that legitimately just consisted of a distorted amen break and basically nothing else.
And you thought I was joking. (Blame the suit who bought the DHR catalog for your inability to listen to this on this page.)

I guess everyone else thought it was a down year too because 1997 was a massive turning point. The genre finally breached the confines of Berlin, settling in the UK where Aphasic and DJ Scud’s Ambush Records and Hekate’s Breakage Induktion mix helped give breakcore an identity beyond the limits of Digital Hardcore Recordings. The genre even made inroads within France’s industrial hardcore community via No-Tek Records’ Urban Break Corps 12” and Japan’s burgeoning nerdcore techno subculture via the delightfully deranged hyper-jungle of Kastro, perhaps the first breakcore artist to really pump both the tempo and complexity of the music.

I can only assume that this video is in toaster quality despite only being uploaded a little over a year ago because the uploader understands that early breakcore is best enjoyed in the worst quality you can track down.

The increased scope of the community did net a lot of fantastic music - I would even go so far as to call 1997 breakcore’s first “great year” - but it also inevitably meant that breakcore was going to break the bounds of the “no thoughts only noise” punk DIY bullshit ethos that made its Berlin years so magical. Which is not to say that the early releases from artsy weirdos like Heinrich at Hart, Venetian Snares, and Bogdan Raczynsk that came out this year aren’t sick as hell. It’s not even that they’re not just as raw and weird as anything that you would have heard in 95. But it was a symptom of a wider shift in the culture of breakcore.

I think the real death knell for the era was when Alec Empire was contracted to do a set of remixes of “Jóga” from Björk’s third major record, Homogenic.

Far from being watered down, they’re actually pretty great. For the most part, they play like a slightly more vicious take on the sound from The Destroyer, very raw and jungly with a noisy break-forward sound. These remixes are fairly beloved as cult classic cuts from the earlier years of breakcore. But at the same time, you can’t really get past Alec Empire doing remixes for a beloved critical darling on a legendary indie music label. Knowing where breakcore ended up a few years later, defined by its most complex and polished derivates and oriented around music that was popular with critics, not ravers, it’s easy to see this as, if not responsible for starting that shift, at least setting a precedent.

Most of you will have probably realized that this is, of course, not actually that important. It’s not like breakcore went through some kind of freaky overnight transformation from Trve Pvnk Electrvnic to Mainstream Sellout Music just because it eventually became associated with stuff that wins Pitchfork Best New Music instead of stuff that annihilates Berlin dancefloors. Nor does the idea that DHR was some magical Perfect Punk Embodiment (as if anyone who knows anything about the label’s history believes that in the first place) that then had its music appropriated and ruined really deserve to be humored. But when I come back to those first four years, as I often do, there’s something that captures me about just how much nobody gave a shit and everything kinda sucked. 

Early breakcore is punk not in the sense that it’s more ideologically pure than the later stuff; it’s punk in the sense that being artful and skilled and making aesthetically pleasing music is entirely secondary to the goal of just making music, expressing your creativity, and not giving a fuck if it’s good or bad. The dissonance between the music’s raw technical element and the overwhelming creativity and love for pushing boundaries of the people who made it may be its most rewarding facet to modern listeners. They didn’t care if it was easy to listen to. They didn’t care if people thought it was weird. Like Catani explained in 1995, breakcore’s heyday of pure underground exploration:

“For me it’s definitely the case that Hardcore will always develop and that it’s not just about how the bass drum comes back in, that you orient yourself only on the party compatibility, but things that are completely crazy and even put things on the records that will disturb some hardcore fans, wake them up a bit.”

Maybe we need to revisit this music that has been discarded as too clumsy and primitive for the modern listener and remember what made people so excited about it in the first place. Punk is a cycle where musicians are always trying to outrun the normalization of music that used to be challenging; in many ways, breakcore has followed this script perfectly, slowly and painfully arcing back towards music that is simple, repetitive, and concerned only with its own existence. Despite this, the people who listen to breakcore today are often so quick to dismiss anything they perceive as not “complex” or “artistic” enough as derivative trash. In 1994, it didn’t matter if your music was moody and complex or as braindead as could be; only that you made it genuinely. I’ll always respect that.

The Breakdown is a biweekly column about breakcore, hardcore electronic, and jungle. Written by Georgia Ginsburg, it examines the history, culture, and aesthetics of the harder end of the rave era and the modern music influenced by it.

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