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Musical inspiration and theft often go hand in hand, but most of the time the crimes tend to be immaterial—a lifted chord progression or a borrowed melody. The theft that kicked off AB’s Original Breaks, however, is not the sort of thing that could be explained away as homage.
“I had a laptop stolen from me,” says drummer Andrew Black. “And when I bought a new laptop I decided that since I’m around ProTools so much, I should learn it. So, I started re-tracking all of these drum breaks that I had been playing and cataloging them.”
Black took four of these breaks—minute-and-a-half percussion grooves with minimal instrumentation meant to be sampled by hip-hop artists—and pressed them to a 7” single, dubbing the project AB’s Original Breaks. They’re up-tempo and lightly funky, the kind of thing that might have been snatched out of the middle of a James Brown tune. “I sit down and I try to play them and see if it feels like people would want to move to it,” says Black. “I like to play at about the speed of the human heartbeat—90 bpm. A lot of my favorite go-go is at about 90-95 bpm.” Surprisingly, Black does mellow and groovy pretty well for a guy who has spent the best part of his career pounding the stuffing out of his kit with punk-rockers the Explosion and defunct D.C.-based power-pop duo Georgie James. Black still gigs frequently with post-George James quartet Title Tracks and with his hardcore band, Domino Team.
But Black put out the 7” for practical, as well as creative, reasons. He is an American studies major at the University of Maryland, College Park, and he received academic credit for pressing and distributing the record on his label, Black’s Records.
Black has also been a hip-hop fan for a long time—his interest blossoming around the time he took up skateboarding as a teenager. “It opened up this whole other world of perspectives,” he says. “It made me recognize that there were other people out there with perspectives that were completely different from mine. It changed way I thought at a young age.” Tied to that sentiment is Black’s appreciation for the break. “If you were to go pinpoint the life beat of hip-hop culture, you could argue that it was the drum break,” he explains. “And that stuff has just impacted me so much. I thought, well, maybe this is a little thumb-print that I can put on the face of that culture.”
As a drum nerd, Black is also into the subtle technical aspects of the music. “When I was older, during my late teens/early 20s, I started paying more attention to where drum breaks were coming from—people like James Brown, Jim Gordon, the Incredible Bongo Band, Buddy Miles,” he says. “I started to think about how intricate [the playing] is.
“I would cut some of the breaks [for the 7”] and think, It’s too simple. But they’re all simple. I mean, it’s just drums,” Black continues. “Still, the simplest things have become the iconic parts of top 40 hits, like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” or James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.” People instantly recognize that stuff.”
Black tried to carry that old-school aesthetic over to his own project. “I guess I was just trying to create something that sounds a little more lo-fi, or older, in the hopes that more people who were interested in producing and creating hip-hop would step away from glossy productions,” he says. “I was hoping to release something that people would pick up and say, ‘That’s sick, that’s all I need.'”
And if somebody wanted to sample one of those grooves, that 45 is pretty much all they would need. Copyright law, it turns out, does not protect drum breaks, so there’s no need to get permission from Black, unless of course, a producer is looking to be polite.
“I called up the people up at SESAC and told them that I was going to issue this 7”. I thought I should get it cataloged,” explains Black. “They asked ‘Is there a melody on it?’ If not, it turns out they can’t copyright it. Old drum breaks existed in between parts of a recording, so those count. But mine is different in the sense that it’s just drums.” So, a sweet royalty check from Jay-Z is probably not forthcoming. “Best case scenario, I’ve been using these as calling cards, since I do studio work as well,” says Black.
But Black has been doing legwork to ensure that should anyone sample his grooves, it will be someone who can put them to good use. “They’ve gotten some really cool places,” he says. “Sean Peoples (proprietor of Sockets Records) has some stuff for an online mixtape. Also, I hand delivered two copies to Questlove [drummer of Philadelphia’s the Roots] two days before Fallon hit the air.”