These Are The Breaks: J-Zone’s Top Ten Drum Breaks

(J-Zone is back! Last time, he touched on his favorite 45s for a pre-45 Sessions blowout; this time, he zeroes in on his all-time choice breaks. His new release, Lunch Breaks, a sample-palette of live drums performed entirely by Jay himself launched last week, primed for drum-less MPCs everywhere. We’re always stoked to have Jay swing through these parts.- DM)


Every hip-hop producer has their favorite drum breaks – until they start playing drums! I had this epiphany two years ago, when I picked up a pair of sticks and set out to learn a new instrument at the tender age of 34 and three quarters. When discovering the wide range of sounds a kit can make and the wide range of playing styles a drummer can use, you begin to hear breaks differently.

You also begin to realize how difficult some of these classics were to play. Nowadays, it’s no longer about which breaks are easiest to chop up, toss into the MPC and boom bap with, but which ones I like to emulate when I practice and mimic the recording of when I’m making my own breaks. So I’ve decided to mix it up and include both: a few choices from a production angle and a few from a (still learning to be a) drummer angle.

In celebration of the release of my ‘Lunch Breaks’ live drum package out now at The Drum Broker, I present my ten favorite drum breaks of all time.

10. Led Zepplin – “The Crunge”

Drummer: John Bonham

Ask anyone putting on a show in the drum section of a Guitar Center who they’d like to be for a day and the answer is probably John Bonham. The freakish Led Zepplin drummer has more Stans than any drummer in history, and although I have different heroes, I’d never front on Bonzo’s brilliance on the set. For fuck’s sake, the dude plays this groove in 9/8 with the pocket of a James Brown jam. And it was the driving force behind “The Magic Number.”

9. B.T. Express – “Energy Level”

Drummer: Leslie Ming

Although rap hasn’t been this fast in years, I’m shocked at how little this joint has been sampled (or if it’s been sampled at all). Leslie Ming is one of my favorite drummers. A session musician in New York throughout the ‘80s, Ming got his start with disco-funk outfit, B.T. Express, where he lit up the band’s Energy to Burn LP with rat-ta-tat-tat drumming from front to back. Accented, machine gun hi-hat marksmanship, syncopated kick-snare patterns and pure pocket make this a gem for b-boy circles and a dance floor smoker for those with soul.

8. Lonnie Smith – “Spinning Wheel”

Drummer: Joe Dukes

When Q-Tip de-virginized this record for sampling in 1990 for Tribe’s “Can I kick It?” he only scratched the surface. Organ trio jazz drummer, Joe Dukes, goes for his multiple times in the song, playing with grooves and giving producers a buffet of rudiments, licks and hits to fool with. One of the very first drum breaks I cut my sample chopping teeth to, there wasn’t one part I didn’t try to flip while learning to hook up drums. The classic Van Gelder Studios sound brings “Spinning Wheel” to life; it’s even more of a pleasure to listen to as an aspiring drummer.

7. Simtec & Wylie – “Socking Soul Power”

Drummer: Unknown

Those toms! The toms often play second fiddle in funk drumming and are tuned arbitrarily. But the way the drum set was miked, tuned and recorded gives the toms a bruising thump that nearly distorts the entire mix. This is just a raw, demo-like drum recording reminiscent of the great drum recordings of Chess Records.

6. Lee Moses – “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”

Drummer: Unknown

Sometimes it’s all about feel. I’m not sure who the drummer was on this twisted, mind-melting cover of the Motown classic, but it’s just the right mixture of a slightly ahead pocket, fills, jazz tuning and gritty recording gear that bring the song to life. The simple single stroke rolls on the toms for the breakdowns late in the song are gold. The feel and sound are insane enough on their own; the song doesn’t call for any fancy playing.

5. The Meters – “Here Comes the Meterman”

Drummer: Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste

When I first heard this, it was sampled at the end of a Big Daddy Kane song. I’d rewind it over and over, mesmerized by the syncopated bass drum work, the spank of an open metal snare drum and the crass bashing of the ride cymbal. Zigaboo represented all the great attributes of New Orleans drumming and this one sees drum breaks and the drummer himself at their unbridled best. If there was ever a drum break that could revive a dead man, this is it.

4. James Brown – “Cold Sweat” (All versions)

Drummers: Clyde Stubblefield, Nate Jones

The first notable drum break in the annals of funk, “Cold Sweat” is the backbone of both hip-hop and funky drumming. For the reason of it coming first in history, I pick it over “Funky Drummer.” But more impressive than the very first call to “give the drummer some” were the live versions of “Cold Sweat” that were captured in show recordings and videos that live on via YouTube. Stubblefield’s rocket launcher performance of the “Cold Sweat” break at the legendary Boston Garden concert is one for the books, as is Nate Jones’ syncopated throw down on the Mike Douglas Show a year later. For a treat, check out both Stubblefield and Jones tag-teaming on James Brown’s Live at the Dallas Auditorium CD.

3. Kool and the Gang – “Let the Music Take Your Mind”

Drummer: “Funky” George Brown

Kool and the Gang’s early records are brimming with classic drum breaks, but this one was always my favorite simply because Funky George improvises a bit more. An unbelievable drummer with a serious pocket, Brown’s work on “N.T.,” “Give It Up,” and “Electric Frog” was sample ready and straight ahead, but to hear him freewheel and fool around within the bar counts makes this a much more ambitious drum break. And who can deny a Jheri-curled Ice Cube “robbin’ the white folks” over a piece of this solo 20 years later?

2. Pretty Purdie – “Soul Drums”

Drummer: Bernard Purdie

Bernard Purdie needs no introduction and no explanation. But the reverb on the kit makes this record sound like a really funky, in-pocket war song. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Purdie make a mistake; his feel for the groove almost makes you want to quit.

1. James Brown – “Soul Pride (Part 2)”

Drummer: Clyde Stubblefield

This is my favorite break of all time. Clyde’s left hand needs to be studied by scientists and doctors – the snare work is unreal. And this was recorded in 1968, long before all those technique DVDs and tricks came about. Clyde didn’t read music and never took any lessons – a pure talent. – J-Zone


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