Since I left Los Angeles for the Bay 10 years ago, what I‘ve missed most is the driving. Maybe that’s because turning 16 in L.A. felt like gaining the (car) keys to freedom, even if that only meant lunch runs to In-N-Out and late-night cruises through the Westside. Now that I‘m back in L.A. once a week for school, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the Southland‘s asphalt sea. Avoiding the cramped north-south routes, I’ve been doing a lateral slide along the 60, the 10 and the 210, drifting between Riverside (my class), Arcadia (my bed) and Santa Monica (my friends). On a good day, that‘s at least 90 minutes from end to end, and with only a working tape player (but no radio) in the car, I’ve had to refresh my personal soundtrack every week.
Normally I‘d roll to hip-hop, but lately I’ve found a new affinity for funk on the road. There‘s something about the raw, gritty drive of 45 funk sides to impel me toward a CHP confrontation, and the more languid, soulful compositions ease me into a gangster lean. What’s ended up in heavy rotation has been “breaktapes,” curious bastard children of the hip-hop mixtape and the funk compilation. Led by DJcollectors like Seattle‘s Conmen, Philadelphia’s Phill Da Soulman and BostonN.Y.‘s Kon & Amir, most of these mixtapes use hip-hop as the common sonic denominator but slide blackward into the sample sources of rap music. For example, on Soulman’s superior “Neva Stop Diggin‘” tape, he organizes his samples by theme, grouping together a half-dozen loops used by Mos Def, another couple by Ghostface Killah, or assembles a monster megamix of his juiciest drum breaks. Few songs play for more than a few seconds — once the funky loop ends, it’s on to the next episode, and it‘s not unusual to hear over 100 different songs packed in.
The problem is that these tapes target obsessive trainspotters far more than music aficionados. Hey, I like my bombastic breakbeats as much as the next cat, but sometimes I actually want to hear the entire song, not just a four-bar tease. The musical logic is reductive, presuming that the only worthwhile part of a song is what’s been sampled. Moreover, record collectors are loath to reveal the secrets they‘ve spent so much time hoarding, so they play a game of show but don’t tell, meaning you never get track listings either. Most break tapes are a nice novelty for about 15 minutes, but you‘re almost always left wanting more.
That’s why I appreciate Chairman Mao and Citizen Kane‘s Selects 001 mix-CD. They toss out all the rules of the conventional break tape, playing complete songs, including a partial track-listing (song titles, but no artists), and while most of their selections are obscure, they don’t simply pander to what‘s been sampled — the only criteria Mao and Kane choose with is what sounds good to them. The result is a 74-minute, uptown-Saturday-night warehouse party, mixing everything from ’60s Southern swamp funk, to ‘70s bounce, rock-’n‘-skate jams, to ’80s sweet synthesizer soul. Reviving the spirit of Britain‘s infamous Northern Soul parties of the ’60s, Mao and Kane blow your mind out with little-known gems, but blow your back out too with dozens of grooves to get your waistline in sync with the bassline.
Lastly, L.A.‘s own resident loop troop, Breakestra, have just released their new The Live Mix Part 2 (Stones Throw). Led by their versatile bassist, Miles Tackett, the nine-piece Breakestra band cruises through over two dozen classic funk, soul and jazz songs. Like the DJ tapes, Breakestra’s Part 2 aims for familiarity with the hip-hop generation, choosing to play many songs made familiar through samples, but the band‘s ability to make instant segues with just a brass blast or drum drop gives them a flexibility even the most deft turntablist couldn’t pull off. They create exquisite moments, like where the slick jazz groove of Stanley Turrentine‘s “Mr. Clean” explodes into the breakbeat barrage of Eddie Bo’s New Orleans cooker “Hook and Sling,” and before you know it, they‘re resurrecting the spirit of Sly Stone’s soul anthem “Sing a Simple Song.”
While you‘re left wanting for more of their original material (besides the included “Getcho Soul Together”), Breakestra can liven any dull mood by invoking the sound and spirit of everyone from Clyde Stubblefield (the original “funky drummer”), to keyboardists like Eugene McDaniels and Galt MacDermot, to guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the Meters. Their music may even save my life someday — rather than surrender to the inevitable rage of L.A.’s crazy streets, every time I throw on this stuff I just unwind and have myself a funky good time.