The Big Beat: A Loop History

Nate Patrin sizes up the second lives of Billy Squier’s massive break

Billy Squier - The Big Beat

Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” is a strange case of how the histories of hard rock and hip hop have intersected. There was already a precedent of breaks from songs like Thin Lizzy’s “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed,” Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” and The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” being canonized in hip hop crates, along with the James Brown and Meters records that made up early block party fodder. But the one thing that these records had in common was a rawer production style associated with the mid-’60s and early ’70s, rather than the high-gloss techniques popularized by contemporary studio session work of the late ’70s to early ’80s.

Few records at the turn of the ’80s sounded glossier than Billy Squier’s The Tale of the Tape. Co-produced by Eddy Offord, best known previously for engineering state-of-the-art recordings by prog titans like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Squier’s 1980 solo debut was a bid for larger-than-life, big-console stadium rock that sounded the part. It was also an auspicious breakthrough for Squier. Having had a couple brushes with NYC rock royalty – an early band, Kicks, featured drummer Jerry Nolan, later of the New York Dolls, and his later power-pop group Piper opened for KISS in 1977 – he was on his way to a restless age 30. But Tape was soon overshadowed by the following year’s hit-crammed Don't Say No, leaving side-starting Tape cuts like “The Big Beat” and request-line favorite “You Should Be High, Love” as forgotten harbingers of bigger success. (Neither were included in his 1995 retrospective 16 Strokes.)

Run DMC - Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse) 1983

Yet there’s something about Tape that’s particularly evocative of an East Coast crossover sensibility. It’s as easy to imagine it blaring from windows of Camaros cruising through Long Island as it is to immediately place it in the midst of an early Run-D.M.C. performance from ’83, as immortalized on the ’85 single “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” (also in ’85, both Run and D.M.C. put Tale of the Tape in their personal top three albums during a profile in Spin magazine). Even though the crew most immediately associated with early rap-rock crossover wasn’t the first to touch it, the introduction of “The Big Beat” into the hip hop canon didn't take long at all. There are documented recordings of it being incorporated in circa-’81 routines by the Cold Crush Brothers, just as Squier’s follow-up LP was going triple-platinum. So why these drums in particular?

If the beat’s intent was to swing, it was in the service of landing a massive, Reggie Jackson upper-deck shot.

The easy retort to that is: come on, just listen to them. There have been stranger sources for a big break than a semi-obscure debut by an eventual household name in rock, and you didn’t have to be a particularly iconoclastic or adventurous DJ to look for choice b-boy breaks in the rock section of the record store. And if Squier garnered Led Zeppelin comparisons in the press, it only makes sense that anyone who knew the power of John Bonham would gravitate towards Tale of the Tape, and that promising Side 1 Track 1 title in hopes of finding another “When the Levee Breaks” or “The Crunge.” The big-room style that Bonzo brought to a deep-in-the-pocket conclusion on 1979’s In Through the Out Door was still fresh in memory, and from the word go “The Big Beat” was a logical extension of that sound.

We can credit Squier for being a rhythm-focused kind of songwriter. The track sequence of Tale of the Tape was tailormade to start with an over-the-top beat, and the late drummer Bobby Chouinard, previously part of late ’70s country-rockers Pierce Arrow, was the one to help deliver it. Its jackhammer thump – more of a canyon than a groove – was simple enough to emphasize how huge the song was meant to be. Squier stated in a 2005 interview that the original “boom-ba-boom-ba-boom, bap” on the intro came from the clap his own hands, beating on the side of a trap case. If the beat’s intent was to swing, it was in the service of landing a massive, Reggie Jackson upper-deck shot. That gave it some clout in the early days of old school hip hop, but it was a new phase – and rap’s first truly legendary response-record war – that embedded it into the production fabric.

Full Force/UTFO - Roxanne, Roxanne

Full Force’s production for UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” was put together in the midst of hip hop’s growing focus on drum machine beats, and for the most part that gave them the freedom to build off something entirely of their making. They did so with Kangol’s first verse, but then EMD cuts in with his side of the story (“She needs a guy like me, with a high IQ”), and that 808 does an uncanny emulation of Chouinard’s beat. That the break’s booming simplicity was easy to replicate on a drum machine might have been enough on its own to popularize it, but the ensuing Roxanne wars etched that beat in the memories of everyone in its vicinity – including Marley Marl, who initially lifted UTFO’s instrumental for “Roxanne’s Revenge” before infringement issues forced the Roxanne Shanté debut to change the beat.

Big Daddy Kane - Ain’t No Half Steppin’

By the time samplers had made looping the original “The Big Beat” recording more accessible and Vol. 9 of Ultimate Breaks & Beats added it to the canon, Marl wound up taking his own approach to it for Big Daddy Kane’s 1988 track “Ain't No Half-Steppin’.” This beat wove a full-blown collage of popular breaks – the sirens from ESG’s “UFO”; the drums and organ from Emotions’ “Blind Alley”; the hook from Heatwave’s song of the same name – but saved the Squier cut for his voice, scratching through his line “get on down” before Kane’s last verse and letting split-second shards of the accompanying drums act as a percussive flourish and counterpoint to the main break. The beat was compelling enough to be grabbed by producers readily, but it was becoming so omnipresent that the more ambitious ones had to find their own unique flip of it – that guitar riff and Squier's voice (especially that high-pitched “woooo!”) became integral elements, too.

By the time the late ’80s-early ’90s Golden Age was winding down, nearly every producer who helped define the era had got his hands on “The Big Beat,” no matter which coast they were on. And the better ones found odd ways to mess with it. Prince Paul’s rapidfire sample-soundbite approach snuck a fragment of that break into Queen Latifah’s “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” just for kicks, as if in comedic recognition of just how often it had been used by previous producers – a statement in itself from a beatmaker who was driven to push the art of sampling in more iconoclastic directions.

As boom-bap drums got bigger, heavier, and more intricate, “The Big Beat” became more of a component than the whole structure. EPMD’s “It's Going Down” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “We Can Get Down” mutated Squier’s “get on down” line into implied titular hooks by smothering it in even bigger beats, and Das EFX’s “Klap Ya Handz” inadvertently cast it as a marker of hip hop past, going full circle by reworking Marl’s “Ain't No Half-Steppin’” juxtaposition between the “Blind Alley” and “Big Beat” breaks into something even more simple and immediate.

Das EFX - Klap Ya Hands

What the West did with the break was both more direct and more transformative – and more meta, if you count its cameo appearance in Ice Cube’s break dictionary “Jackin’ for Beats.” N.W.A.’s alumnus had a field day with it, often using it to embellish or otherwise upend the comparatively smooth glide of g-funk. Above the Law’s Dre-produced “Livin' Like Hustlers” used its drums to interject a dose of climactic mid-song intensity into an otherwise laidback cut.

And Dre and Yella found a way to make that beat slice instead of bludgeon: sawing off the booming reverb to keep its punchiness compact, and making it sleek enough to pair with the velvety post-disco of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” for Eazy-E’s ’88 cut “Radio.” By the time other L.A. legends like DJ Quik, DJ Pooh, and King Tee had reduced it to brief snatches of percussion, “The Big Beat” had become the hip hop world’s answer to the Wilhelm scream.

The omnipresence of “The Big Beat” threatened to dull its impact through the ’90s, even though its utility was still hard to top. At some point, it started to feel like a gratuitous acknowledgement of its own prominence. In a moment of rock world irony, Rick Rubin briefly incorporated the drum break into his 1991 “Ruined By” remix of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” – ten years after Squier tried and failed to get Queen guitarist Brian May to produce Don’t Say No.

Queen - We Will Rock You (Rick Rubin 'Ruined' Remix)

In other ways it almost felt like a secret handshake among beat scholars, especially in Cali’s burgeoning indie movement, where acts like DJ Shadow (1992’s “BASIC Mega-Mix”), Freestyle Fellowship (“Respect Due”), and Jurassic 5 (“Unified Rebelution”) snuck cameo appearance fragments of the break in as a nod to its influence. “We know the fundamentals,” they seemed to say. “Now let’s take it to the next level.”

Deconstructions of hip hop eventually took it for some wild rides. “Soul Suckin Jerk” from Beck’s major label debut Mellow Gold turned it into the backbone for his fusion of outsider rap and alt-rock sludge, a tongue-in-cheek half-reconciliation between modern rock and the arena rock it was supposed to displace. And the mid-late ’90s turntablist movement frequently put “The Big Beat” through the wringer before tearing it to shreds, mutating one of the most straightforward breaks ever laid down into hyperventilating madness.

Invisbl Skratch Piklz Vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth 12"

You can hear it being mutilated in “Invisbl Skratch Piklz vs. Da Klamz Uv Deth,” Mr. Dibbs’ “Hypothalamus,” Z-Trip’s “Rockstar II” and the intro to The World Famous Beat Junkies’ Volume III, a once rock-solid foundation jackhammered into rubble by scratch theatrics. By the end of the ‘90s, “The Big Beat” had nearly receded entirely from any sort of mainstream hip hop presence – with the notable exception of the Trackmasters remix of Jay Z’s ’98 track “Wishing on a Star.”

That wouldn't be the last time Hova rapped over the “Big Beat” break, but his second entry reached a lot further. The Black Album was a (premature) retirement statement from Jay Z, then a thirty-something veteran looking back on the empire he’d built and considering a future basking in it, stress-free. It’s nearly wall-to-wall quotable, but “99 Problems” grew into its most popular callback: the Ice-T-sourced hook becoming an instant catchphrase; the churning, Marshall-stack force of Rick Rubin’s ’80s rap-rock revivalism helping to seal its mainstream crossover. Rubin pulled a neat trick of building a resonant yet unique throwback out of a couple of time-worn drum breaks – including Mountain’s loping “Got that? Loudah!” hippie-funk jam “Long Red” and Wilson Pickett’s cowbell cavalcade “Get Me Back on Time, Engine #9.” But it’s the drums from “The Big Beat” that swing the biggest hammer – as an MC who was 5 years old when “Hawaiian Sophie” dropped had done a few months previous.

Dizzee Rascal - Fix Up, Look Sharp

Earlier that summer, 18-year-old East London grime producer and MC Dizzee Rascal released his debut full-length, Boy in da Corner. With the panicked, post-UKG fusillade of sound of hit single “Fix Up, Loop Sharp,” he expanded on the promise of previous single “I Luv U” by being more Schoolly D than So Solid Crew: a monstrous rework of mid ’80s-style hip hop breaks that comes at the throwback invocation from a different angle than the maximalism of “99 Problems.” “Fix Up, Look Sharp” is all beat. Every ounce of bass comes straight out from the thunderous kick drum and with nothing to complement or obscure the break, Dizzee’s more than willing to let slip where it came from: the voice of Billy Squier is brought in after the introductory hook to proclaim, “I! got the big beat/I! hear the sound/I! got the big beat/I! get on down.”

In the wake of “99 Problems” and “Fix Up Look Sharp,” it’s become clear that “The Big Beat” has grown to belong to just about anyone now. In the last five years, it's been incorporated by indie-poppers The Ting Tings (“Hang It Up”), Kanye West in his early world-conqueror phase (G.O.O.D Fridays entry “Looking for Trouble”), the 2011 XXL Freshman Cypher (featuring Kendrick Lamar, Lil B, Meek Mill, YG, Big K.R.I.T., Mac Miller and others), A$AP Rocky’s futurist breakthrough Live. Love. ASAP (“Out of This World”), and Samiyam’s Low End Theory-catering “Stuff.” That’s a long distance for one sample source to travel, even one cited as the most sampled track ever – but after jumping from the arena of hard rock to the world of hip hop, any subsequent leap feels natural.

By Nate Patrin on November 13, 2015

On a different note