Hands Off My Hardcore: An Examination of the 2020s “Breakcore” Revival
What is Breakcore? What is the “Amen Break” and why is it the most sampled sound in music history? What is it about Breakcore as a genre of music that captivates people’s attention? The 2006 Documentary Notes on Breakcore dubs the genre a "bastard hate child" of gabba, speedcore, techno, IDM, acid, ragga, electro, dub, country, industrial, noise, grindcore, classical music, hardcore, metal, and punk. The actual sound of the music can be accurately categorized by its harsh, discordant, and loud drum breaks, equally dissonant synthesizers, and menacing basslines. It arose in the late 90s and early 2000s as a subgenre of Breakbeat Hardcore, a popular genre sharing similar characteristics that gained popularity in the 90s. It was frequently played during raves and dance parties in the United Kingdom. In the current day, however, “Breakcore” is often used as a catch-all term to refer to a large variety of music associated with any derivative genre of Breakbeat Hardcore, including but not limited to Drum’n’Bass, Jungle, Breakbeat, UK garage, and Happy Hardcore. While the “Breakcore community” before included a small number of artists, dance clubs, music labels, and online forums, the “Breakcore community” today takes up a much larger space, especially online.
Starting in the late 80s and early 90s, DJs worldwide began cooking up new and distinctly digital forms of music using new synthesizers and sampler technology. Mainstream knowledge lends to associations of this period of electronic music with the “rave” sound, and we immediately point to genres such as Techno and House as exemplifying the sound of the 1990s rave. However, the influences of Black American Funk, Soul, and hip-hop music, as well as Afro-Caribbean dub, reggae, and dancehall music, typically go under the radar, despite the fact that early electronic music borrowed many samples, rhythms, and production techniques from all of these genres. The Black roots of electronic music are most easily identifiable in drum samples, with some of the most sampled loops in electronic music and all of music as a whole coming from Black American soul. Drum loops such as the “Amen Break,” “Think Break,” and “Helicopter Break,” all originally came from 1960s and 1970s Funk and Soul songs but gained immense popularity due to sampling by Hip-Hop and electronic music artists.
All these drum breaks effectively act as a blueprint for Breakcore, as the genre relies heavily on the chopping, splicing, and looping of drum breaks. If it were not for the funk artists who first played the breaks and hip-hop DJs who converted these breaks into loopable and sampleable recordings, all of Breakbeat music would not exist today. But, the originators of all the components of Breakbeat are rarely given credit. For example the aforementioned “Amen Break” is one of the most widely sampled recordings in all music and Breakbeat especially. The original drummer of this beat, Gregory Cole, died homeless in 2006 without ever seeing a single penny in royalties. In addition, it is also not common knowledge that Wendy Carlos, a transgender woman, helped a great deal to create the first-ever commercial synthesizer. Delving into the history behind the music reveals that the key components of Breakbeat are inherently Black and Queer. But, the unfortunate truth is that marginalized groups rarely receive recognition or credit for their contributions to electronic music, while the genre remains dominated by white men to this day. As the “rave” sound has become mainstream, the demographics of electronic music have shifted away from their origins. Journalist Casper Melville documents in an article for the international multi-disciplinary music journal Popular Music how as the epicenter of the “rave” moved from illegal warehouse parties to popular nigh
tclubs and concert venues, the music and culture of the rave became whitewashed and gentrified. In his article titled It's a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City, Melville shows how jungle became Drum’n’Bass, UK garage became House, and Hardcore Breakbeat became Happy Hardcore and Hardstyle; the same clubs and establishments that originally served the Black and Queer communities became gentrified epicenters of upper-middle-class white nightlife. While founded on Black creativity, clubs, raves, and festivals showcasing electronic music have grown to serve white heterosexual men while ignoring the Queer and BIPOC founders of the electronic music scene.
Golden Boy - “Hardcore Steppa” (Image Credit: Norm Corps)
While electronic music underwent turbulent changes in the 2000s, Breakcore lurked in the underground, maintaining relevance. Centering on explicitly political and antifascist attitudes and desires to avoid social media platforms and journalist coverage, Breakcore has spent much of its lifespan with a massive “keep out” sign on its bedroom door. It is within this ecosystem that marginalized groups precluded from other genres of electronic music have been able to thrive. More so than other electronic music subgenres, marginalized artists enjoy representation and success within their communities. Some people have tried to come up with theories about the sonic qualities of the music, citing friendliness to experimentation and lack of traditional confines as attractive qualities to individuals who seek to break free from traditional gender confines. Certainly, freedom of expression has fostered inclusivity. Yet, the important work of predecessors to make the small community a safe space for people of all identities is what has made Breakcore and Hardcore Breakbeat music an enriching pursuit for creatives who may feel marginalized in other spaces. Breakcore moves past boundaries of genres and social norms, embracing all types of sounds and people to create a small yet tight-knit community of fans and artists with an inextricable connection to everything weird and unconventional about electronic music.
Knowing now what Breakcore is, how can one explain the massive influx of streams, Spotify playlists, and artists embracing anime or video game-inspired sounds and aesthetics mixed with drum breaks? Listeners searching “Breakcore” on any streaming service will be greeted with heaping amounts of anime art, early 2000s nostalgia, and glitchy digital imagery. Diving into the music, most artists will utilize smoothed drum patterns with ample reverb looped over airy, ambient, metallic-sounding synths, with occasional vocal samples from popular video games or anime. Artists create shorter songs curated for use in social media clips while latching onto any trending media by adding a generous amount of references through song titles, album covers, samples, and even artist branding. While still labeled “Breakcore,” artists such as TOKYOPILL, Yung Lain, and swimswim resemble nearly nothing of predecessor artists such as Doormouse, Venetian Snares, and Shitmat. The new style and sound of “Breakcore'' work wonderfully for streaming services and social media platforms, evident by the hundreds of thousands of plays and views. But these newer artists often do not experiment or contribute back to the inherently collaborative community. Many churn out low-effort remixes of songs popular on social media and slap on random memes or anime girl photos on their album covers. Through the proliferation of low-effort music, which focuses on reproducing trends and popular aesthetics, Breakcore risks becoming another trendy aesthetic wielded to generate more social media attention.
To the Breakcore community, representation in major music festivals, radio air time, and streams have never mattered as much as providing a safe space for nonconforming individuals. Not only does the changing landscape in Breakcore threaten the creative vision of the genre, but it also threatens Breakcore’s status as a safe space. The constant borrowing from Japanese anime, manga, music, and video games in vast amounts of newer “Breakcore” music often contain racial undertones. Artists will include samples in Japanese simply because it sounds exotic or cool, in the same way that a vaguely spiritual early 30s white person may get a tattoo of a random Chinese character. Samples from jungle and reggae music get similar treatment, while creators and listeners further appropriate Jamaican patois to engage in Digital Blackface—some artists throw in some vocal samples and start calling themselves “soundboys,” a patois term referring to a DJ. “Breakcore” artists can gain internet clout by associating with Orientalism and Blackness in the form of Reggae Jungle, and Asian music as well as through Jamaican patois and Eastern languages. This appropriation strongly resembles how many white people appropriate AAVE online to seem cool or hip without facing the discrimination that actual Black people who use AAVE face in real life.
Artists may also plaster images of “lolis,” anime girls who are drawn to look underage and are often placed in compromising situations, on the covers of SoundCloud uploads, Bandcamp pages, song covers, and more (see: “Lolicore,” “Loli in the Early 20s,” etc.). Not only is the “loli” trope pedophilic, but it is also deeply orientalist and misogynistic, as it contributes to the fetishization and objectification of Asian women. Artists who peddle harmful tropes and edgy substanceless media gain the most engagement, but they bring in listeners who are only attracted to the edgy and harmful aesthetic. This not only overshadows artists who are genuinely interested in trying new things and experimenting but also threatens to weaponize Breakcore music against the people who created it. Granted the ability to experiment with a vast wealth of musical genres and influences, it is incredibly disappointing that “Breakcore” producers have followed a path towards cultural appropriation and exploiting harmful stereotypes to promote music rather than focus on improving the future of the genre itself.
On the positive side, there are still artists who can carry the torch. Casper McFadden, a Black Breakcore artist from Chicago, explores retro video games and old-school Hip-Hop influences in his music, adding breakbeats and creative analog synth sounds. Portland-based Transfemme artist Govlink juggles ambient and experimental sounds with Hardcore Breakbeat, Techno, Hardstyle, and even Hip-Hop and Chicago Footwork, showing off an impressively wide variety of songs and albums. Ireland-based female artist Breakbeat Heartbeat mixes Chiptune with Breakbeat to create nostalgic, catchy, wistful, and cheery tunes that include creatively crafted low-bit synthesizers. Even if the surge in “Breakcore” music has illuminated a great deal of harmful and downright bad music, the silver lining is that genuinely talented artists have been starting to receive a little more recognition. As someone who wants to see this community and music genre grow and thrive, I implore listeners to look beyond the copious amounts of trash and find some of the truly groundbreaking music that the Breakcore scene has to offer.
Jasper Hunsinger is a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics.