Hi-Tek (“Breakin’ Bread,” Hi-Teknology, Rawkus, 2001)

Often the artists/releases, across jazz/hip-hop that click with me tend to be the ones that garnered ambivalent, grudging responses to their work when it came out; Hi-Tek’s debut solo album from 2001 is a case in point.

Writing music reviews isn’t easy, especially when working under pressure, but it’s hard to understand the luke-warm responses this record received. Take, for example, the response to this track, “Breakin’ Bread” which I think is phenomenal, perhaps even an example of a perfect hip-hop song from that era.

One contemporary reviewer was prompted to say: ‘On the radio accessible Wannabattle collective track Breakin’ Bread we are given an entertaining posse cut over a beat that changes up enough between verses to keep from getting repetitive.’ (Ah thanks). The AllMusic review, meanwhile, covered the territory well enough, but ends on this note, wondering if after this release Hi-Tek will ‘claim his rightful spot among hip-hop's elite soundboys’. The first line of the review reads: ‘Since breaking in quietly with fellow Cincinnati residents Mood in the mid-'90s, DJ Hi-Tek's climb up the crate-digging ranks has been a slow one. (Cheers, then).  Here's yet another in the same vein.

Ranking, ranking, ranking: assessing worth of music in terms of their rank, lining artists as if they were greyhounds chasing a hare is a defining element of much hip-hop criticism. Responding to work like this has long seemed problematic to me, as this way of assessing the value of art leaves little, or no, room for nuance. 

Within this frame-work, how are brave, artistic ‘failures’ to be assessed, the kinds of projects that may not be the artist’s ‘best’ (sic) but still important in the way they gesture towards a future development in their career, or the genre as a whole? Or what about the releases that connect with you for reasons that are deeply personal, not immediately obvious to others?

Not everything needs to be so public, so collective, so shared.

In other cultural contexts, you might have critics ranking new releases – books, films – or even giving out stars but this is not the focus. It’d be highly unusual, for instance, to find a literary critic expending energy wondering if Wyndham Lewis beats Jean Rhys, or if Ezra Pound is the greatest (writer) of all time? It just doesn’t happen.   

So, what makes me like this track by Hi-Tek then, what distinguishes it from all the others from that time, most of them better-known and better-respected/loved? For me, the interest lies in its expression of something that I’ve always believed is essential to hip-hop as a genre, and something that defines it: the spirit of collaboration. My very first piece that I wrote on hip-hop for this site, on Pete Rock, began with this idea …)

The title makes this explicit, where the language of Christianity and language of the street come together :

(to) break bread

1.    1.

celebrate the Eucharist.

'as we gathered to break bread, a sense of thanksgiving ran through us' and from Urban Dictionary: 'to share ones belongings or assets with another person.' The lyrics enact this spirit as well, making connections: referring to the Pete Rock via the sample from ‘Tru Master’ from 1998 (and sampling Common as well later on).

[Hi-Tek cuts it up]
"It's like the A to B to the C, it's easy as.."
"1-2-3"
"DJ"
"Hi-Tek y'all" -] Inspectah Deck
"Collaborate, break bread with.." -] Pete Rock

The original lines from Pete Rock’s verse: ‘A rap nigga, show respect, write rhymes that connect/Collaborate, break bread with Kurupt and Deck ..’ Also sampled on the track: Elmer Bernstein’s ‘Rejected’ from 1962 and Run-DMC’s ‘Beats to the Rhyme’ (1988).

That core notion of hip-hop production then is given another dimension here lyrically and musically. Information on the MCs is a bit sketchy, with not all references mentioning all of the artists: Homeskillet, Crunch Ex. and Mood (Donte/Main Flow) all offering up 'Big Ohio status.' Listen to Crunch Extraordinaire:

I'm +Live+ and +Fortified+ like Kweli and Mos Def
Practice the incredible, shit ain't even competable
Due to that I'm technical, TKO's I got those
I got control but I'm reckless in studios
I got Harmony and Thug tendencies all in my Bones
No need to be flashy, for heads to recognize me
Hi-Tek throw them joints that magnetize me
We global, East, West, North, South, we robo
Hands that touch mic's get smacked cuz that's a no-no
Who rock the mic? Yo, we take the whole show
When heads hear this piece they call off with no shows 

Coda:

Like it when Hi-Tek says in relation to the Elvis record that he wouldn’t have normally picked it, but that the sound quality was really good on RCA at that point, in 1973 (and then later bursts into song, providing a brief Elvis impersonation; nice)