By Daniel Kohn
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Here's the etymology of Breakestra, according to Stones Throw Records' Egon: "Break as in 'breakbeat': that 10-second slice of percussive magic in the middle of a funk song that—when looped together by progressive South Bronx DJs in the 1970s—became the basis of the hip-hop movement. And Arkestra: out-there jazzer Sun Ra's funkafied concept of the stuffy classical orchestra." Combine the two, and you've got the Breakestra: in other words, an orchestra that plays breaks.
Breakestra is the five-to-eight-to-10-piece Los Angeles-based ensemble rooted in deep funk and soul and just-as-deep musical friendship. After blowing people away onstage for about a decade, they've just released Hit the Floor, their first album of original recordings on Ubiquity. These 14 songs are instant funk classics: Mixmaster Wolf is shoutin' and sangin' in fine form on jams like the title track, and Breakestra founder/bassist Miles Tackett sings on several cuts like "Hiding." Chali2NA & Soup of J5 and Double K of People Under the Stairs kick butter verses over funky instrumental "Family Rap" (featuring the percussion work of Mixmaster Wolf's dad, Munyungo Jackson).
Tackett's inspiration began when he fell in love with hip-hop after hearing groups like the Jungle Brothers and historic records like Ultramagnetic MCs' Critical Beatdown in the late '80s and early '90s—the era during which piles of dusty drum breaks and funky samples were first reintroduced to the light of day. These samples hit close to home for Tackett: "The hip-hop of the late '80s is nothing short of sacred," he says.
If we were to construct a family tree of LA bands, Breakestra could be mentioned in the same breath as Weapon of Choice, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jurassic 5, Mesh of Mind and Ozomatli: groups that all grew from backyard jam sessions and random open mics from Echo Park to Venice and Highland Park to Topanga Canyon, and groups that blew up following the '92 riots. Musicians from all over the city pulled more tightly together, and experimental jam sessions fusing genres like funk, hip-hop, rock and acoustic soul resulted in the most innovative, multicultural music of this generation. Friendships between cats like Tackett, Mixmaster Wolf, Cut Chemist, Carlos Guaico and many others became the seeds for such landmark clubs as Funky Sole, the Breaks and Peace Pipe, as well as indie labels Kajmere Sound and Stones Throw. And these times also eventually spawned the Breakestra.
Tackett took great joy in watching DJs like Cut Chemist and Mixmaster Wolf mix breaks from rare funk and soul records. This is what gave birth to the idea to create a band to simulate the blending of breaks through live music rather than on turntables. Around 1996, Tackett organized weekly jams at a local coffeehouse and called it the Breaks. It didn't take long to catch on.
By building their fan base playing an A to Z of funk classics—from James Brown to Jimmy Smith to endless breaks revived by Gangstarr and A Tribe Called Quest—it's no wonder former keyboardist Guaico says "the Breakestra should become a class or a four-year graduate program. Playing with the Breakestra is a great way to get a degree in funk." (Original members have gone on to either play with or write songs for-or-with artists like the Black Eyed Peas, Macy Gray, the Rebirth and Dakah.) But through the course of their nearly decade-long existence, the only two members who have remained constant are bassist/guitarist/upright cellist/producer/vocalist Tackett and vocalist Mixmaster Wolf. ("The Breakestra has always been an amorphous project," says Tackett.)
The rotating evolution of the band has inspired the evolution of the Breaks into the current Thursday-night extravaganza dubbed the Root Down, in reverence of organist Jimmy Smith's classic. Tackett and the Breakestra perform regularly to capacity crowds alongside luminaries such as Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Black Eyed Peas, Freestyle Fellowship, Crown City Rockers, Visionaries, Cut Chemist, Nu-Mark and DJ Shadow. Says Mixmaster Wolf: "Here's a live mixtape—you don't need a cassette!"
THE BREAKESTRA PLUS SPECIAL GUEST DJ AT THE BLUE CAFÉ, 210 PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111; WWW.THEBLUECAFE.COM. DEC. 30, 10 P.M. $14. 21+.