The VH1 series The Breaks airs its first episode tonight after a successful pilot last year. The show follows three young friends in 1990 as they try to break into the hip-hop industry, just as the music they love is starting to blow up into a worldwide phenomenon. The show features hip-hop royalty both in front of (Method Man, T.I.) and behind (Phonte Coleman, DJ Premier, DJ Rob Swift) the camera.
We reached out to series co-creator Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, on which the show is based, to exclusively give us the titles of this season's episodes, and explain what they mean. Each episode is, appropriately, named after a famous break.
101 - "Hard to Handle"
102 - "It's Just Begun"
103 - "Blind Alley"
104 - "Substitution"
105 - "Amen, Brother"
106 - "Runaway"
107 - "Under Pressure"
108 - "N.T.”
“Hard To Handle” by Otis Redding
sampled by Marley Marl on "The Symphony"
“It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch
sampled by the Jungle Bros on "On The Run"
“Blind Alley” by The Emotions
sampled by Big Daddy Kane on "Ain't No Half Steppin"
“Synthetic Substitution” by Melvin Bliss
sampled by damn near every producer on the planet, but, for example
by Naughty By Nature on "O.P.P."
“Amen, Brother” by The Winstons
sampled by, again, damn near every producer on the planet, but, for example
by N.W.A. on "Straight Outta Compton"
“Runaway” by Coke Escovedo
sampled by T La Rock on "Runaway"
“Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie
sampled by Vanilla Ice on "Ice Ice Baby"
“N.T.” by Kool & The Gang
sampled by Nas on "NY State of Mind"
“The Breaks,” as a phrase, is a multiple-entendre. It could refer to the classic song of the same name by Kurtis Blow (the first rap record to be certified Gold by the RIAA). It could refer colloquially to the characters attempts to break into the business, or alternately to their failures to do so. But the highest meaning of "the breaks” is that it refers to “breakbeats”—the canon of soul, funk, R&B, and rock records that form the sonic bedrock of hip-hop; the genre’s incontestable, singular musical contribution to global pop. Without breakbeat, we not only wouldn’t have hip-hop, but also much of electronic music, R&B, alternative rock, and so forth.
If the breakbeats are hip-hop scripture, then the holy books that preserve them are the two-dozen Ultimate Breaks & Beats albums, compiled by Louis Flores, called “Breakbeat Lou” by those who know and love him. The album covers, below, are class and instantly known to any hip-hop DJ or producer from the 80s or 90s. Louis has his own incredible story, and one of the great pleasures of making The Breaks was a chance to get him an onscreen cameo this season, to show our respect for his work.
Each of these titles refers in some way—and sometimes in a number of ways—to events in the episode to which it corresponds. And vice-versa, “breaks” themselves will figure significantly in the larger story as the season progresses.
Contrary to fable, hip-hop wasn’t created by gangsters, it was created by nerds: Guys like Flash or Marley Marl who experimented with electronic equipment; folks like Hank & Keith Shocklee or Prince Paul or DJ Premier who were virtual librarians of recorded music history. The episode names are a nod and a tribute to them. — Dan Charnas