Like a lot of seminal hip-hop albums that were released around the same time--Paul’s Boutique, 3 Feet High and Rising--Main Source’s Breaking Atoms simply could not have existed in a commercial space if it came out today. It samples too freely, and you’d have to imagine the sample clearances for just the James Brown samples on this would be cost prohibitive for any rapper not named Kanye West.
But that doesn’t mean Breaking Atoms is a spot-the-sample album; it’s more than the sum of its parts, and pulling the samples out of its mix isn’t always easy. The group boasted the crate-digging producer/rapper Large Professor--who often gets a lot of the credit in Main Source retrospectives--but they also had Sir Scratch and K-Kut, who both had done time as DJs digging through samples for the best party. Figuring out which songs are sampled on Breaking Atoms--and which producer/group member plucked it from the ether-- turned out to be such a fun experience--peace to our pals at WhoSampled?--we did the same thing we did for our Panda Bear Record of the Month: here’s a breakdown of the songs sampled on Breaking Atoms.
The sample stew on Breaking Atoms is felt from the jump, as the group manages to sample Ike Turner (the main musical figure at the beginning of the song), Melvin Van Peebles and Earth Wind and Fire (the saxophone and melody at 3:19), Soul legend Johnnie Taylor (the UH!s you hear throughout the song), and Kool & the Gang (the titular dialog at :11). For good measure, they throw in a flute sample (at 2:41) from an obscure soul record too.
Kanye West famously sampled Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” on well, “Famous,” last year, and you have to figure the fact that it was a famous break and sample on this album had a lot to do with that. However, “Just Hanging Out” is mostly built on the meat of Vanessa Kendrick’s “90% of Me is You,” a sultry soulful song. The track also cribs the opening guitar strum of a Mike Bloomfield-Stephen Stills-Al Kooper song (:22), drums from a Skull Snaps song, and its theme and vocal samples from a Sweet Charles song (he played with James Brown). Main Source are just showing off here, plucking tiny bits of music to make into something bigger.
Large Pro’s dexterity with chopping up jazz--which had a major impact on all the Native Tongues groups like Tribe Called Quest, De La, and groups like Digable Planets--isn’t fully felt till “Looking at the Front Door,” a song that chops up an indelible, tossed off groove from jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, who at 1:48 of the song below skronks off the melody that became the melody for this Main Source classic. The drums come a Detroit Emeralds song, and then the vocal samples and “UH’s” all come from a variety of crate classics the group dug up.
The showcase for Large Pro is mostly built around the group’s dexterous scratching abilities. But the samples here take time to crib a dope organ line and drums from the Mohawks (at :15 in the original and :34 of the Main Source song), a piano figure literally 14:51 into a Charles Wright song, and vocals from an earlier Main Source single.
The emotional centerpiece of Breaking Atoms is this track, a song about police brutality and how a police force can see its policing as just a game it’s playing on a populace. It’s also the sample centerpiece, pulling in scraps of seven songs. Two ancillary James Brown samples (drums and organ at :37 of the Main Source song, and some drums at 3:05) boost the song’s foundational Lou Donaldson sample, and its Lightnin’ Rod vocal samples. Then Large Pro drops samples in lead up to the choruses, dropping Elephant’s Memory, the 9th Creation, and Melvin Van Peebles at various points.
Sir Scratch and K-Kut get to show off here, on this monument to scratching and sampling. The song’s main pillar is drums from the jazz musician Bob James, it also cribs some flute from Kool and the Gang (at 1:18 on the song below), and some sampled vocals from Lyn Collins and an earlier Main Source song.
This track could be its own masterclass in the power of taking scraps of old songs and making something new, as pieces of seven songs form a new, distinct, original whole. Sleigh bells and drums from an obscure old R&B Christmas song by Milly & Silly give the song its backbone. Horn blasts from Philadelphia soul group MFSB add some flourish on top of that. Then, scraps of vocals from five songs--ranging from James Brown to the Meters--pop up in the choruses where the group cuts and scratches. The result is that the song sounds like it’s conversing with these lost samples.
Large Professor gifted Pete Rock one of his first solo production credits with this track. Rock found the Soul Symphony song that this is built on, and gave it to Large Pro who made it his own. Large Pro still gave Pete the co-production credit though. Large Pro also added the vocal samples from “The Message From The Soul Sisters.”
This track has the fewest samples of any song on Breaking Atoms, and for incredible reasons: it rescues a lost song by the soul singer Lou Courtney and recontextualizes it as a hip-hop headknocker. It’s a simple song, but it swings big.
This track is maybe the most famous from this album, in that it’s the recorded debut of Nas, as he cuts a vapor trail 40 miles wide through the first verse of this song. He would go on to sample the song on his debut LP, Illmatic, which started a trend that is impossible to track: Breaking Atoms is probably the most sampled and interpolated album in rap history, as lyrical threads, samples, vocals, and parts of this album have appeared on dozens of other albums.
That’s a story for a different time though; about the samples here. The drums come from a Bob James song--he’s one of Large Pro’s faves-- and the blaxpolitation sound effects at the beginning come from a Melvin Van Peebles soundtrack cut that’s impossible to find on the net. The guitar strums--that end up on the Main Source song sounding like alarms to let you know Nas is coming through--come from a Vickie Anderson song. Then, at the :15-:18 mark of “Live at the Barbecue,” we’re treated to an interpolation of the early Run DMC song “Hollis Crew,” and a snippet of “Just Hanging Out” from this very album. Which I guess means Breaking Atoms was the first album to interpolate or sample Breaking Atoms.
Another song that’s relatively light on samples closes out Breaking Atoms. “Watch Roger Do His Thing” has a drum break from Sly Stone (at 2:12 of the Sly song below), and another drum break from Funkadelic (:34 of the Main Source song). The hockey organ? That’s apparently a Main Source original, though the mind races at the idea of the group holding up a mic at a Rangers game to get the sound.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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