With Gang Starr’s »Step in the Arena«, »De La Soul is Dead«, Ice-T’s »O.G. Original Gangster«, N.W.A’s »Niggaz4Life« and »We Can’t Be Stopped« by the Geto Boys, the first half of 1991 was already richly blessed with hip-hop albums, all of which are now considered milestones of the genre. The fall would see the release of the debut long players from P.M. Dawn and Cypress Hill, »Naughty By Nature« and »The Low End Theory« by A Tribe Called Quest, among others. The golden age of hip-hop was already well on its way to its zenith when, relatively exactly between these two parts of a parade of essential recordings, on July 23, 1991, to be exact, Main Source’s debut album »Breaking Atoms« was released on Wild Pitch Records. The event density of that time may be one of the reasons why it has remained a second-tier classic in the general perception compared to the works mentioned above.
A closer look at the distribution of attention of the hip-hop public reveals another symptom of the fact that »Breaking Atoms« must be considered latently underestimated: Although Main Source certainly understood how to set standards here – for example, in the organically coherent combination of cleverly combined jazz and soul samples with powerful beats and a relevant message – »Breaking Atoms« is likely to be remembered by many above all as the moment when one first encountered the unmistakable flow of Nas. »Live at the Barbeque« is the name of the classic posse cut, in which Main Source mastermind William Paul Mitchell aka Large Professor, Joe Fatal, Akinyele and a certain Nasir Jones, who called himself Nasty Nas, try to outdo each other. As the 18-year-old rapper from Queensbridge, N.Y., literally put disarming, compelling rhymes in the room („Poetry attacks, paragraphs punch hard / My brain is insane, I’m out to lunch, God”), needed nothing but a few verses to come from the Ku Klux Klan on AIDS, in a phrasing that corresponds to the surprisingly effective and purposeful movements of a snake or predatory cat, bouncy playing around a center, jumping ready tense, elegant and dangerous – none of that had been heard before.
However, the producer skills of Mitchell, who is the same age as Jones, have also made a significant, if perhaps more subliminal contribution to this unforgettability, especially in dealing with the sampler: With tracks like „Watch Roger Do His Thing”, whose groove consists of a montage of two prominent drum loops – one taken from Funkadelic’s „You’ll Like It Too” (1981), the other from Sly & The Family Stones’ „Sing a Simple Song” -, Large
»Breaking Atoms« marks a point of consolidation of the genre at the transition from the subcultural niche to the mass-compatible and majority-capable mainstream rap of our days.
Professor is one of the main people responsible for making the E-mu SP-1200 with its »crunchy digitized drums, choppy segmented samples, and murky filtered basslines«, as Ben Detrick wrote in the Village Voice, the definitive signature sound of the era. Large Pro’s productions on »Breaking Atoms« sound mature, confidently to the point, specific yet exemplary. Three years later, he will produce Nas’ long-play debut »Illmatic«, the album that could be seen as the culmination and conclusion of that golden age.
A veritable hit on »Breaking Atoms« was in fact »Looking at the Front Door«, which revolves around an exceedingly infectious hookline loop from Donald Byrd’s »Think Twice« (1974) – incidentally, just a few months before it also catapulted Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s »Let the Beat Hit ‘Em« into the charts. The shimmering, incorruptibly grooving cymbal nets of Idris Muhammad from Lou Donaldson’s »Pot Belly« (1970) ground »Just a Friendly Game of Baseball«, whose Black Lives Matter statement – almost irritatingly indirect from today’s perspective – is merely grimly sarcastic. Almost like an anticipation of G-Funk comes »Just Hangin’ Out«, in which Large Professor mentions Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth in addition to Nas. Truly co-produced by Pete Rock, »Vamos a Rapiar« is one of the other highlights here, along with »Peace is Not the Word to Play«. Like Mitchell’s musically rich, sonically colorful production, the staging of the trio on the cover as a research group of quantum physicists, as scientists initiated into the secrets of the universe, became a blueprint in the folklore of the genre, taken up in multiple variations and modifications.
Formed in 1989 by Mitchell, who had previously earned his first producer spurs with Eric B. & Rakim and Kool G Rap, together with twin brothers K-Cut (Kevin McKenzie) and Sir Scratch (Shawn McKenzie) from Toronto, the trio was not granted a long lifespan: Even before a successor could be recorded, Mitchell left Main Source – »Breaking Atoms« remained their only album, at least in this constellation (K-Cut and Sir Scratch recruited Michael Deering aka The Real Mikey D to fill the gap left by Large Professor, but after one more Main Source album (»Fuck What You Think«, 1994), the group split up for good). This may also have contributed to the fact that »Breaking Atoms« has still not quite received the attention that the album actually deserves. Subcutaneously style-forming for the East Coast hip-hop of the nineties, »Breaking Atoms« marks a point of consolidation of the genre at the transition from the subcultural niche to the mass-compatible and majority-capable mainstream rap of our days.