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New American Songbook

New American Songbook: The Break


The album “Break Stuff,” released in 2015 by pianist Vijay Iyer, is a complex and challenging performance. At the heart of the music is the concept of the break, an idea with deep roots in hip hop music and culture. 

The most basic form of the break is that moment in a song where the music falls away leaving only the drums, or maybe only the drums and a bass line. This moment, says Vijay Iyer, is “the span of time in which to act.

The break was always in music, but its potential as an independent space had to be discovered by the godfather of hip hop, DJ Kool Herc. Through the simple act of looping the breaks in music, hip hop was born, and along with the breaks came a whole host of new or newly implicated forms and concepts including sampling and the remix.

The concept of the break extends beyond music. Taking Iyer’s definition of the break as a moment of action, we can begin to look for breaks, short circuits and remixes in other fields and forms, finding fissures and fractures that expose nascent or sublimated expressions. The emerging field of hip hop architecture is one exciting exploration of the building as remix, rejecting the skyline as a static imperialism in favor of a radically collaborative approach to building cities.

In the song ‘Travellin Man,’ Mos Def raps ‘this thing called rhymin’s no different than coal mining, we’re each on assignment to unearth the diamonds’, evoking yet another form of break to explain the process of hip hop: the mine, a crack in the earth that opens to new resources and worlds, if you take the time to act in it.