Beat surrender: the labels and DJs at the vanguard of the broken beat revival

The early-2000s club sound was all but forgotten but now a new wave of DJs and labels are bringing it out of retirement and cementing its place in electronic history

Among the more familiar sounds that make up the capital’s ever shape-shifting club landscape, one rather more niche concern seems to be increasingly relevant: broken beat. The intricate, soulful sound of a few clubs of the late 90s and early 00s is inspiring DJs and labels, who are in turn helping to shape new underground dance music. Jazzy Four Tet affiliate Floating Points, Detroit don Theo Parrish and Canadian producer Kaytranada take influence from its fragmented rhythms, and small dance labels such as Eglo, Rhythm Section and Peckham’s 22a are putting on parties that mirror the broken beat scene’s friendly spirit.

Broken beat had a home in the Co-Op night at Shoreditch’s Plastic People and attracted a cosmopolitan crowd who liked the best singers, best dancers, best sound and best clothes. Everyone recalls it as promoting positive vibes. “Always all smiles on the dancefloor,” as broken beat stalwart Charlie Dark puts it, “and never any heavy drugs: a spliff and a drink and people were all good.”

It was a deeper, more reflective big brother to flashy UK garage, full of jazz-funk vibes and classy vocals. At its core, though, it was eclectic, fusing discerning genres that were slicker than your average. Mark Force of broken beat act Bugz In The Attic summarises a typical night out: “You’d hear hip-hop, house, techno, jazz, Afrobeat and jungle all rolled together.”

This mature sound is perhaps a reason why broken beat didn’t get hyped as much as other styles. It only ever generated one real crossover act – Bugz In The Attic – and even as it echoed through Radio 1’s Gilles Peterson and Benji B’s DJ sets, it faded away when rowdy nephews grime and dubstep arrived.

But today broken beat feels familiar – this was the genre that influenced UK funky, which in turn inspired the kind of house-tempo post-dubstep music peddled by James Blake and co. More recently, it can be heard in the work of producer Luke Meads, AKA EVM128. His new album Nova captures the feel of the broken beat era while also sounding current. Meads caught the tail end of the scene, and he too recognises the genre’s significance in the current electronic spectrum: “Broken had a part to play in the whole UK bass sound, and we can’t ignore that.” Its appeal, he continues, was “about not knowing what direction the music would take you, and there being no pretentiousness, just sweaty bodies moving to a different kind of beat”.

Maybe, as well as the well-crafted musicality, it’s that small-club, good-vibes feel that people are nostalgic for, especially in the wake of Plastic People’s closure in January. Broken beat may seem like a footnote in London’s clubbing history, but this little scene could be what is needed to bring the soul back to nightlife.

Nova is out via Studio Rockers on Friday 18 September


Joe Muggs

The GuardianTramp

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