Happy 25th Anniversary to Main Source’s debut album Breaking Atoms, originally released July 23, 1991.
If you’re like me, you still—and will presumably always—yearn for the halcyon days of hip-hop’s heralded Golden Age. The formative, fertile period that extended roughly from 1987 to 1994, give or take a few years on either end, depending on your perspective. Those fruitful years when hip-hop cultivated its increasingly multi-dimensional identity, both musically and culturally, diversifying into sub-genres and expanding into new regions here in the U.S. and worldwide. All while yielding album masterpiece after album masterpiece after album masterpiece.
Beloved by many, but also not necessarily top of mind for some when they recall that vaunted era, Main Source’s classic debut LP Breaking Atoms remains a prime example of the unparalleled quality and originality that define the period. Even the album title itself reinforces the pervasive spirit and ambition of the age, by which Main Source and their peers aspired to pave new creative paths, push hip-hop’s creative boundaries, and achieve the unthinkable. And most importantly, to make GOOD MUSIC.
Formed in 1989, Main Source originally consisted of the Toronto-bred DJ duo of twin brothers K-Cut (Kevin McKenzie) and Sir Scratch (Shawn McKenzie), along with the Queens-bred producer/emcee Large Professor (William Paul Mitchell), a.k.a. Large Pro and Extra P. In the few years prior to the trio’s formal introduction by way of Breaking Atoms, the latter had begun padding his production résumé through his work with the legendary duos Eric B. & Rakim (including “In the Ghetto” from 1990’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em) and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo (a handful of tracks on 1990’s Wanted: Dead or Alive).
Released on Wild Pitch Records, Breaking Atoms proved the first full-fledged showcase of Large Professor’s prodigious production gifts, sampling acumen, and all-around studio wizardry. But the eleven original songs contained therein also highlighted his criminally underappreciated lyrical and rhyming prowess, much in the same vein as his kindred musical spirit and Breaking Atoms associate producer, Pete Rock. Indeed, most critics and fans alike often point to the top-notch production as the driving force behind the album’s brilliance, but upon repeated listens, it’s actually a rather balanced affair, lyrically, sonically and thematically.
The album’s most recognizable track and one of the greatest singles to surface during hip-hop’s early ‘90s heyday, “Looking at the Front Door” finds an exasperated Large Professor lamenting a relationship doomed by a shady girl “who's shootin' up his world like Shaft,” as he daydreams about more gratifying romances beyond the front door. The arrangement is propelled by an infectious groove courtesy of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” (1974), which perhaps not coincidentally, would be sampled to equally glorious effect a few months later on Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s dancefloor-friendly hit “Let the Beat Hit ‘Em.” “As soon as ‘Looking at the Front Door’ came out, Lisa Lisa and [Cult Jam] did they thing and they didn’t holla at all,” Large Professor recalled to HipHopDX in 2012. “They didn’t pay no homage or nothing and they just did it.” Imitation is apparently not the sincerest form of flattery in this case, then.
Though never released as an official single, the rough and rugged posse cut “Live at the Barbeque” is arguably Breaking Atoms’ most historically significant moment. For while Large Professor, Akinyele, and Joe Fatal each delivered commanding rhymes, it was the ferocious head-trip of an opening verse by an aspiring, laser-sharp emcee from Queensbridge that stole the show.
For many of us, this was the first time that our ears were treated to the poetic gifts of one Nasir Jones, who at the time embraced the stage moniker Nasty Nas. With a verbal acuity and captivating flow that augured the brilliance to come three years later on his landmark 1994 debut LP Illmatic (featuring stellar production by Large Professor, mind you), Nas unleashed audaciously imaginative lines full of mind-stretching imagery, such as “Stampede the stage, I leave the microphone split / Play Mr Tuffy while I'm on some Pretty Tone shit / Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus.” “I specifically meant for that verse to spark my whole existence in rap music,” Nas confided to Rolling Stone in 2014. “So I approached it that way and I felt like, ‘This is it. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so I went for it.’" Mission accomplished.
Notable for different reasons, and regrettably very much relevant today, twenty-five years later, is the cleverly conceived “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball.” Atop an Idris Muhammad (drums) and Lonnie Smith (organ) blessed sample of Lou Donaldson’s swinging groove “Pot Belly” (1970), Extra P applies the analogy and vernacular of baseball to examine the historically fractured relationship between the police and the black community in America.
With lines like “’Cause to the cops, shootin’ brothers is like playin’ baseball / And they're never in a slump / I guess when they shoot up a crew, it's a grand slam / And when it's one, it's a home run,” the song reinforces the unavoidable reality of systemic racism, police brutality and the disproportionate profiling and victimization of black citizens that have persisted for decades. But it’s a particularly salient message in 2016, in light of the very recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two victims among too many others who didn’t deserve their tragic fates at the hands of those who’ve betrayed the public’s trust, despite taking an oath to uphold it.
Plenty of other standout tracks round out the affair, beginning with the banging album opener “Snake Eyes,” an impassioned discourse on the pitfalls of placing too much faith in chance, with an irresistible baseline inspired by Johnnie Taylor’s “Watermelon Man” (1967). Featuring a vocal sample of Sister Nancy’s classic 1982 dancehall stunner “Bam Bam” and references to his artistic kinship with Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth and the aforementioned Nas, “Just Hangin’ Out” finds Large Professor in braggadocious mode, as he extols his microphone skills alongside a relatively mundane narrative of hanging out with his friends.
Additional highlights include the propulsive boom-bap of “Peace is Not the Word to Play” and the empowering message of choosing a crime-free, straight-and-narrow life path heard on “Watch Roger Do His Thing,” which lifts two famous drum loops from Funkadelic “You’ll Like It Too” (1981) and Sly & The Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” (1968).
Due to irreconcilable intra-group conflicts, Large Professor left Main Source in 1992, and Breaking Atoms remains the only album that the original trio recorded together (K-Cut and Sir Scratch subsequently invited emcee Mikey D to join the group, and the modified threesome recorded the second and final Main Source album Fuck What You Think in 1994). Large Professor quickly embarked upon what would become a prolific production and solo recording career, the most recent fruits of which is his excellent 2015 album Re:Living.
Though Main Source’s time together proved ephemeral, their masterpiece Breaking Atoms earned an eternal place within the prestigious canon of hip-hop’s most indispensable long players. And while many understandably continue to hail Breaking Atoms for its inclusion of Nas’ first appearance on wax, the album’s primary claim to fame is the revelatory introduction of Large Professor, one of hip-hop’s most vital and enduring pioneers.