In the late ’80s, a trio of young men hailing from Toronto, Canada and Queens, New York, respectively came together to form Main Source, a hip-hop group that released only two studio albums yet earned a place among the icons of the genre. Comprised of DJ and producer duo K-Cut and Sir Scratch and emcee Large Professor, the trio’s debut album, Breaking Atoms, was defined by complex lyricism, astute social commentary and some of the most avant-thinking production of the time.
The album also went on to gain widespread popularity for another reason: it features the first recorded verse from a then baby-faced Queens emcee who called himself “Nasty Nas.” The very same song also features Akinyele whose first album, Vagina Diner, was completely produced by Main Source member Large Professor. The Queens native would of course go on to make, “Put it in Your Mouth,” one of the raunchiest sleeper classics of the ’90s.
The widespread sampling on “Breaking Atoms” had never before been done with such finesse, intricacy and attention to detail. As a result, over next decade, hip-hop’s approach to incorporating samples into tracks changed forever. While the group eventually split due to differences, the members would go on to make instrumental contributions to hip-hop and work on projects with the likes of Big Pun, A Tribe Called Quest, Rakim and many more.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of Breaking Atoms’ release. In honor of the date, Vinyl Me Please hosted a reunion concert at New York’s SOB’s. In a time where protesters are flooding onto the streets in droves and normalized violence is a way of life, some of the very themes Main Source discussed 25 years ago are just as relevant today as they were then.
We caught up with the group to chat about the legacy of Breaking Atoms and the future of hip-hop.
“A Friendly Game of Baseball” references some troubling realities. How do you feel such a song still applies in these times?
We used baseball as a metaphor for police brutality. It still applies now because there’s always these run-ins. Hopefully one day everybody can get on the same page, meaning the police and the people. If that were to happen that would be nice man, but it definitely still applies unfortunately.
Similarly, a song like “Peace is Not the Word to Play” offers social critique on normalized violence. Once again, how do you feel that such a song applies now?
When you’re speaking of peace its such a simple thing; we can have that in the world if everyone were more connected. Peace is talking about how to connect. Unfortunately when you go out on the streets peace is not something you can take for granted; wanted to put it out there
In “He Got So Much Soul (He Don’t Need No Music) you reference the genesis of rap. What is the contemporary equivalent of that evolution?
When I said “he got so much soul” about turning scat into rap there’s probably a different version of that now. It’s not so much done lyrically – I think they’re adapting musically today more than lyrically.
In what sense?
The bridge between what we’re all creating is just that music is pumpin’. Now maybe it’s a slower beat or a faster beat but there’s still the idea of someone rocking. We’ll always have our different interpretations of what we think is hot and what we think is not.
Do you think music has a role as a means of social commentary?
Today’s music is definitely social commentary, that’s why this album is coming out. With the times, we can pull this back out and spark the minds, get some questions going, get some dialogue going. This is like a time capsule almost. You can go back to this and say, “wow this is how it was, and wow it still applies”. You can really spark the minds with that.
Breaking Atoms was considered groundbreaking from a production standpoint. How have other artists have re-purposed some of your sound signatures?
From the jump [contemporary artists] have been repurposing a lot of this stuff and that’s just how it is. You have versions, and people have their different versions. It’s a beautiful thing to be a cornerstone in hip-hop music.
How do you feel that Breaking Atoms influenced East Coast hip-hop in general?
Breaking Atoms influenced East Coast hip-hop because the way we were chopping up the records we sampled was more seamless. Technically what we were doing was lightyears ahead – guys would come to us and say,”how did you do that? How did you get that voice inside that record?” A lot of the artists after [Breaking Atoms] got into it and they learned how to do it. In a way, Main Source kind of sparked the chopping and sampling of records.
One of the most referenced songs on the album is “Live at the Barbeque” because it features Nas’s first recorded track. How did you connect with “Nasty Nas”?
At the time we were all in high school and our names were ringing bells. Our name started resonating. Nas was one of the guys that got the word out. Fatal connected some dots and that’s how it happened. That Barbeque track was definitely one of the favorite joints.
New York has long been considered a hip-hop mecca, but in more recent times Southern rap has emerged as being equally influential. Do you think we’re past regional divides?
New York is New York; it’s like Italy with pizza. Energy is going to travel to different places – it even happened with all of the boroughs. You know, just when you thought it was over Staten Island came out. Even though New York started it, when the South started coming out they got their turn too and that’s a beautiful thing
Sampling has long been part of the musical narrative – what were some songs that inspired Breaking Atoms?
Throughout the whole project we have interludes from Sweetback, just a lot of coming into the culture. Honestly, that’s the thing that inspired us with Breaking Atoms, just learning all of the soul of it and applying the technology to it.
Catch up on all of the hip-hop classics with 8track’s 38-hour “Evolution of Hip-Hop” playlist.
- Photographer: Thomas Welch