Breaking and Making: An Introduction

Emery Petchauer

Video Transcript

Hey, everybody, thanks for joining us. Our panel is called "Breaking and Making: Hip-hop Aesthetics across Place, Sound, and the Moving Image." I'm Emery Petchauer. I work at Michigan State in the Department of English and the Department of Teacher Education. My work thinks about the aesthetic practices of hip-hop and their relationship to teaching, learning, and living.

With me today, I've got with me Stephany, Jared, and Vanessa, who you'll meet in a few minutes. But it's not just us. We've got some records and sounds with us as well, and that's where we're starting.

"You don't have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got, don't turn it loose, 'cause it's a mother."

James Brown was right. The steady backbeat Clyde Stubblefield was drumming underneath "Funky Drummer" (Brown, 1970) was a generative musical unit. In what became hip-hop arts, DJs still backspin this drum break. Emcees still rhyme over it. Dancers still get down to it. Producers still sample it. Like all breaks and samples in hip-hop's sonic foundation, indeed, it's mother: It gives birth.

In fact, you can see and/or hear me backspinning breaks right now as I enact this particular way of approaching vinyl records that has existed for at least 45 years. It's a result of a particular kind of listening practice attuned to the body. Not necessarily one's own body but attunement to other people's bodies and how they respond to sound. Joe Schloss (in press)—a dance and hip-hop studies scholar—explains this process in a pretty straightforward way in the Afterword to the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Dance:

In the early seventies, deejays were playing records for teens in New York City, competing for their attention and loyalty. In that context, recorded music had a serious deficit when compared to live music: a record sounds basically the same no matter who plays it. So a deejay's competitive advantage lay in either having records that other deejays didn't have, or in somehow finding a way to play them in a different way from other deejays. And the success of either of these strategies would be judged by whether or not people danced.

This history often starts with DJ Kool Herc, who spoke to this point while explaining his thought process behind playing only the breakbeat section of funk and rock records. He saw dancers waiting for the break of the song so he thought, "I wonder how it would be if I put them all together." His recollection of what happened: "Everybody was like, I'm feeling this! Oh yeah!" (Israel, 2002).

The break is not only a musical unit of sound but a unit of possibility within hip-hop aesthetics. The backspun extended break is what creates a track on which an emcee rhymes. The backspun extended break is what dancers dance to. The break is possibility. It is also a conceptual starting point for the presentations in this panel.

By starting with the break, we join other scholars and creators who think with sound. In context with hip-hop studies, we anchor this thinking in Tricia Rose's (1994) attention to the aeshteic foundation across hip-hop expressions—flow, rupture, layering, sampling—all of which are in play right now as I backspin these breaks. And we trace this approach up through Ruth Nicole Brown's (2013) theorization of Black girlhood as a sound nobody can organize.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here, or I've let the fader cross over for a moment to the other channel and let you hear for just a second what this panel has cued up on its other turntable. And that's different ways of theorizing from the break.

Theorizing from the break entails using the break and the material affordances associated with it as a conceptual filter for imagination and understanding. These material affordances are many. They include the physical dimensions of the vinyl record, the grooves where sound is pressed, and the sounds in those grooves. Fairplay from this local of theorization is what the body does with or in response to the break. This includes the physical act of backspinning two copies of the same record to extend the break, and what creativity people enact upon that extended break through movement. Theorizing from the break isn't only using sound as a conceptual tool. The break contains sound, but it is also what that segment of sound does, and what people do with it, when the hip-hop DJ makes the straight line of sound into a circle.

A host of scholars and artists working in rhetoric, writing, and technology have used the DJ and DJ practices as analytical starting and ending points. Here I am alluding to work by DJ Lynnée Denise (2014), Adam Banks (2011), Todd Craig (2015), and others. These works often start with the DJ—sometimes hip-hop, sometimes not—as a rhetorician, composer, archivist, and more.

To theorize from the break as I see it does not start with the DJ as these efforts do. It starts with the break—just like you see me doing right now as I drop needles into it—and works outward. Working outward, this approach does indeed implicate the hip-hop DJ and their rhetorical, compositional, and aesthetic priorities. But by theorizing from the break, the other material affordance are also in play—as you'll hear in the panel.

Let me give some examples. In Phonographies, Alexander Weheliye (2005) talked about history and time like grooves in a record: They can rupture and collide for different outcomes. He wrote, "Should we not ask what transpires when different grooves of history interface and/or collide?" (p. 82). In this instance, I imagine the needle skipping or dragging from one grove to the other and in doing so, skipping through time. In this instance, the measurement of time is one full rotation of the record, about two chronological seconds for a 12-inch record played at 33 ⅓ rotations per minute—depending on the +/- pitch of the turntable. Dragging or bumping the needle into the next grove skips ahead or behind in time.

Before getting too abstract, let me get specific. I think this is what happens with respect to time in Kiese Laymon's (2013) novel Long Division. Long Division is two interwoven stories—one in 2013 and one in 1985. It's the same protagonist in each story—or maybe a different version of the same protagonist, whose name is City. In 2013, City finds a mysterious book called Long Division and starts reading it. And in that book, he reads about another character named City in 1985. 1985 City and his love interest travel forward in time to—you guessed it—2013. In 2013, they meet their future daughter, who also has a copy of Long Division. If all this is confusing, maybe I can put it this way: In Long Division, the "grooves of history interface and collide."

Laymon said something to this effect while talking about the narrative structure of the novel. He said, "I wanted to explore sound in a narrative form... I literally tried to create a chopped and screwed narrative... because that genre really mimicked a part of Southern history and memory. We literally are the home of the trill, but we are also the home of chopped and screwed character and sound" (Rasheed, 2013). Time traveling is crucial part of what Laymon was talking about here—not only in the novel but with respect to writing.

Here I think about what happens with respect to time in the break and when hip-hop DJs manipulate the break. Since Laymon named chopped and screwed, its appropriate to answer this question through DJ Screw. As Victor Del Hierro (2019) has shown in his work on DJ Screw and Screwtapes (what's up, Victor, thanks for organizing the conference), the pitched down speed of screwtapes is one of its most distinct characteristics. This is a manipulation of time. On Diary of the Originator Chapter 45, DJ Screw played a pitched down version of Warren G's cover of Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It." He backspun or repeated the bar, "But I'm the same brother day in and day out / and I'ma stay that way until the day I lay out." Like Herc and other DJs—and like the narrative structure of Long Division—time becomes circular.

DJ Screw also made use of chasing, by placing one copy of the record slightly ahead of the other and moving the fader the the lead record, thus creating a momentary jump ahead and back in time.

These technical aspects of DJing that create a chopped and screwed aesthetic resemble what's happening narratively in Long Division. A narrative that jumps back and forth in time, two version of the same character operating in some kind of syncopation with one another, a needle that bumps over the grooves of history that have collided with one another. And when it lands, of course it's in time, but not necessarily on time.

As I bring this set to a close and get ready to pass it off to Stephany, I'll invoke Breakbeat poet Patrick Rosal (2015) who said that "breaking is also things going wrong" in "the slim inches of the crossfade or cut" (p. 325). So, things might go wrong during this panel—just like they've gone wrong in the world over the last 6 months.

The testimonio, film, and academic paper we have for you are not about the break. Rather, each theorizes form the break by attending to embodiment and movement, sampling from what the break might be, or getting stuck in the groove.


Banks, Adam. (2011). Digital griots: African American rhetoric in a multimedia age. Southern Illinois University Press.

Brown, Ruth Nicole. (2013). Hear our truths: The creative potential of Black girlhood. University of Illinois Press.

Craig, Todd. (2015). Makin' somethin' outta little-to-nuffin': Racism, revision, and rotating records—the hip-hop DJ in composition praxis. Changing English, 22, 349–364.

Del Hierro, Victor. (2019). DJs, playlists, and community: Imagining communication design through hip hop. Communication Design Quarterly, 7(2), 28–39.

Denise, Lynnée. (2014). The Afro-digital migration: A DJ's journey from hip-hop to house music. Girls Like Us Magazine, 96–102.

Israel (2002). The freshest kids [Film]. Imagine Entertainment, DVD.

Laymon, Kiese. (2013). Long division. Agate Bolden.

Rasheed, Kameelah. J. (2013). "All things considered": Conversation with Kiese Laymon. Specter Magazine, No. 21. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from

Rosal, Patrick. (2013). The art of the mistake: Some notes on breaking as making. In K. Coval, Q. Ali Lansana, & N. Marshall (Eds.), The BreakBeat Poets: New American poetry in the age of hip-hop (pp. 322–326). Haymarket Books.

Rose, Tricia. (1994). Black noise: Rap music and Black culture in contemporary America. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Schloss, Joseph. (in press). Afterword. In M. Fogarty & I. K. Johnson (Eds). The Oxford handbook of hip hop dance. Oxford University Press.

Weheliye, Alexander. (2005). Phonographies: Grooves in sonic Afro-modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Song List in Order

Brown, James. (1970). Funky drummer [Song]. On In the jungle groove. King Records.

Scott, Tom. (1974). Sneakin' in the back [Song]. On Tom Scott & The L.A. Express. Ode Records.

Le Pamplemousse. (1976). Gimmie what you got [Song]. On Le Pamplemousse. AVI Records.

James, B. (1975). Farandole (L'Arlesienne suite no. 2). On Two. CTI.

Warren G., featuring Adina Howard. (1997). What's love got to do with it. On Supercop soundtrack. Interscope.