Hardcore will never die – we’ve all heard the old adage. Except over the last ten years, hardcore did kind of die. The breakbeat, once supreme champion of dancefloor percussion, just wasn’t cool anymore. Meanwhile all the genres that worshipped at the altar of these chopped funk breaks: drum’n’bass, jungle and hardcore, began to stagnate, left to the die-hards with their perma-gurns as the school of the new millennium turned to grime, garage and dubstep, or indeed back to the worthy institutions of house and techno. The use of breakbeats within hip hop has a long history and continues to bear fruit, but it’s only recently that the percussive style has seen a re-emergence in the dance sphere.
For years the breakbeat scenes haven’t seen much in the way of progress, the last notable exception being DnB’s Autonomic phase spearheaded by the likes of Instra:Mental and dBridge. Yet listen closely and the winds are changing: there has been a sharp increase in the use of breakbeats in modern dance music in 2013, whether they appear as retro ornaments or something altogether newer: conventional drum loops twisted, distorted and recontextualised into fresh shapes. While others have charted the re-emergence of new forms of drum and bass, this article will explore the practitioners who are recontextualising breakbeats at slower tempos, in techno and beyond.

One of the men at the heart of this revival (and the inspiration for this article) is none other than man of the moment Paul Woolford, who is currently attracting all the right attention with the rugged productions of his Special Request moniker. With a name that references (perhaps even mourns) the pirate radio stations that birthed his sound, Woolford’s Special Request tracks are ferocious club monsters, where familiar breaks are squashed into tough technoid forms, glorifying hollow, compressed kicks and elastic breakbeat loops. Yet Woolford’s compositions are not just throwback. On each of his celebrated white label releases, he adds a distinct flavour to the gritty soundcraft, keeping it personal and modern. For example, while the superb Mindwash may give way to a tear-streaked breakdown of breathy vocals and eternal synths in pure 90s style, it has at its core the restless pursuit of a maniacally sinuous melodic line which would only be heard this decade.

As most of the music that heavily used breakbeats hovered around the 160bpm mark, some of the more interesting re-appropriations of the beats have come from artists who have slowed them down. Livity Sound head-honcho Pev (formerly Peverelist) is one of the UK scene’s leading lights at the moment, honing an utterly unique style of techno which incorporates various elements of the UK’s hardcore and dubstep lineage. Hear on this year’s Aztec Chant how the breakbeat is just one of the track’s percussive components, nestled amidst panning melodics and frayed hi-hats, looping like a broken record until it finally takes centre stage for the track’s final two minutes. Yet it is not just scene stalwarts who are reclaiming the breakbeat: A Sagittariun, one of the country’s more intriguing new techno producers, constructs a moody scifi soundfield on his stylish Eye Against Eye, only for a slo-mo breakbeat to steal the scene, a perfect fit for the slick Detroit atmospherics.

It’s not just individual producers who are looking to reclaim the hardcore sound: certain labels seem particularly intent on pushing the 90s revival. Chief among them is DJ Haus’ inimitable Unknown To The Unknown, who topped our list of 2012’s best labels. Besides a hilarious Youtube channel and bizzare cover-art, DJ Haus has used UTTU to resurrect some of dance music’s less popular genres, from electro to bassline garage. Proving that these old styles have life in them yet, some of UTTU’s breakbeat experiments have been pure gold: one need only look as far as Haus’ own Cold As Ice for an achingly cool lesson in hardcore, replete with a tacky synth breakdown which I wouldn’t have any other way. Elsewhere on the label, Lords Of Midnite’s excellent Drown In Ur Love EP took the breakbeat on a scifi odyssey for its epic analog title jam.

We’ve seen a clear renewal of interest in the noble breakbeat, with a variety of artists co-opting those breakneck rhythms to their own ends. Yet outside of the dancefloor exists another group of hardcore operators, dealing with decay and disintegration, resulting in what is perhaps the most fascinating material that the breakbeat has to offer today. These artists can be loosely grouped around the experimental Modern Love and PAN imprints, the former’s Andy Stott being a perfect example. The formidable Up The Box, from his ace 2012 album Luxury Problems, is a semi-experimental piece which loops a locked breakbeat, jamming like machinery in a slowly building gale of static noise. After three minutes it drops away, and after a few atmospheric shifts returns with a phenomenal compressed kick in toe, an exhilarating fusion of jungle and techno that combines the tough distortion of each without even a moment’s relief. It may also be worth noting the possibility of Stott’s involvement in Modern Love’s ultra-limited Unknown / Hate project, a purist exercise in pitch-black junglism which yielded uncompromisingly destructive club tracks.

Further into the world of experimentation one comes across Demdike Stare’s recent Testpressing series, also out on Modern Love. Drawing on a profound knowledge of jungle, hardcore and noise, Collision saw the pair at their rawest yet, building four minutes of seething, heatsick noise around a bed of jammed, dysfunctional breakbeats. While Demdike turned jungle to noise, PAN’s Lee Gamble used his superb Diversions 1994-1996 to draw out the ambience of these tracks, dissolving breakbeats in the faded ambience of musical recall, turning the raves of the 90s into the incoherent, mesmerising sequences which now exist only in our memories. In a fitting parallel, a similar trick was pulled off by Anthony Naples on his remix of Special Request’s Mindwash, casting the legend of hardcore beneath the gauze of memory, eroded by time, subject to dissolution and fragmentation. These experimental re-appropriations of breakbeats treat the drum pattern as an artefact of its own time, and through recontextualising the familiar drum loop they pose questions about evolving musical trends and the unreliable nature of memory itself.

Before this article disintegrates, weighed down by the fragility of its pseudo-philosophical musings, it’s worth drawing attention to how current, how big these modern breakbeat iterations can also sound. On the following playlist you’ll hear a selection of some of the sounds discussed above, but also some genuinely innovative use of the classic drumloop – DJ Rashad’s minor masterpiece, the emotive Let It Go, which dissects breakbeats with the finesse of a surgeon, or Clouds’ ode to the rave thump on the monumental Future 1. Yet at the same time we have Dance’s curious Still, a ghostly slo-jam that leaves the breakbeat wholly intact, or Shed’s nuanced second outing as EQD, which ranks among the producers best work to date. Then there’s Tessela’s phenomenal Hackney Parrot, doubtless one of 2013’s most memorable anthems, guaranteed to get the crowd moving even if the dancers don’t know their breakbeat from their steak frites.

The lasting impression of this survey is the extraordinary versatility of this simple set of drum loops, which twenty years on are still being used and abused in the most fascinating, exhilarating fashions. Not only are artists continuing to insert breakbeats into showstopping underground hits, but the passage of time has permitted an artistic re-appraisal, with producers subjecting the drums to the decay of memory and time in a way which opens entirely new avenues of musical possibility. Will hardcore ever die? It’s up to the artists, but on the strength of the scene’s ability to appropriate and re-integrate artefacts of our musical past in ever-more innovative ways, it looks set to survive for a long while yet.

DJ Rashad – Let It Go
A Sagittariun – Eye Against Eye
EQD – EQD 002B (04)
Clouds – Future 1
Point G – Braka
Special Request – Broken Dreams
Ramadanman – Don’t Change For Me
Pangaea – Razz
Unknown / Hate – Human Resources
Deadboy – Nova
Special Request – Mindwash (Anthony Naples Eternal Mix)
Lowout – LAS
Dance – Still
Simoncino – Happy (DJ Sotofett Slow Jungle Trippin’)

If you want more, check out Boomkat’s ace series of playlists on 14tracks.