Review Summary: 25 years later, Main Source's immaculate debut record sounds as striking as ever.
If there was ever an overlooked classic from the 90's hip-hop albums, Breaking Atoms takes the cake. Main Source comprised of Toronto's Sir Scratch and K-Cut, and New York's very own Large Professor. Keen hip-hop fans would know the Professor as being one of the most essential producers during the golden age of hip-hop, co-producing legendary records such as Nas' "Illmatic" and Pete Rock and CL Smooth's "Mecca and the Soul Brother". But on this record, he's only 18 and at his best, giving an excellent lyrical performance throughout the album and, of course, contributing stellar production.
Breaking Atoms was produced mostly using the E-mu SP-1200, a sampling machine used widely during the golden era of hip-hop, and its presence is felt throughout the record, with the many fat, gritty beats, funky bass melodies and ambient jazz and soul samples. The Professor thought deeply about each song's structure, focusing not solely on each track's loop, break, and hook, but juggled each idea in unison, resulting in an album dripping with sonic richness and grandeur. The majority of the album features muffled and grimy drum patterns, bluesy guitar and subdued bass riffs, horn and keyboard loops and conscious lyrics; all of this tied together by the splendid production. Scratch and K-Cut do a very impressive job on the turntables, experimenting with different scratching and splicing techniques, adding to the charm of the album's old-school sound.
The record features a variety of subject matters, from police brutality to sour relationships and the importance of education to just spending time with friends. Some tracks such as "Large Professor" and "He Got So Much Soul" are filled to the brim with lyrics of braggadocio and hubris, such as: "Your brain is simple and revealed while mine is sealed, coming up with the archeological finds, funk drums allow me to spark you with rhymes, the mic's my instrument, my skills are infinite, catch a hint from it..." On "Peace Is Not The Word To Play", the Professor talks about the meaning of the word peace and how it's being misused, effectively described in the line, "Cause I've seen people on the streets, shoot the next man and turn around and say peace, but that's leaving people in pieces, it's not what the meaning of peace is..." While his expression may be blunt, his delivery is still very effective, making his lyricism one of the highlights of the record.
While the album should be listened to as a whole, there are some serious standout songs. "Just a Friendly Game of Baseball" is one of the darker tracks on the album, as the Professor uses brilliant analogies of a baseball game to describe the effects of police brutality that were present in the ghettos during that time. The track incorporates a barely audible bass line playing three notes, accompanied by crashing jazz cymbals and snares and occasional keyboard and horn effects. "Just Hangin' Out" is another album standout, about, well, just hanging out with your buddies. The song uses a jazzy horn loop, a funky bass line and slick beats over a string section to effectively create a relaxing atmosphere. "Looking At The Front Door" is one of the more popular songs of the album, released as a single, and features an extremely catchy and foot-tapping beat that was sampled by many artists in the future, and uses a smooth bass line, containing various soul and funk samples in the bridge and coda. "Live At the Barbeque" is another classic track where the likes of Nas and Akinyele make their debut alongside Joe Fatal. The lyricism on the track is brilliant, and it is regarded as a classic posse cut and one of hip-hop's greatest and most influential tunes.
It's hard to believe that 25 years have gone by since the release of this unrestrained beauty of a record. The production on Breaking Atoms is slick and exceptional, influencing many rising producers and rappers with its vintage hip-hop sound, and the lyrical content is spectacular and relevant even today. Every track possesses a certain vibrancy and colourfulness as presented in the album's cover. It is a timeless, cohesive effort by the group, sadly overlooked, as it was not widely available in stores at the time because of financial issues. But when talking about what makes a great hip-hop record, whether it's the beats or the lyricism, it's inconceivable not to mention Breaking Atoms, one of the undisputed jewels of the East Coast.