The Hot Box: Rufus Thomas "The Breakdown Pt 1 + 2"

Welcome to The Hot Box! where we look at 7inches with two sides of dopeness that are a must-have for your 45 boxes.

45s have seen a rise in popularity in recent years among collectors, but especially with vinyl DJs. For most, it's a choice based on ease of transport. Being able to boil down your entire night's set into a small box of 45s is far more appealing than lugging multiple (read: heavy) crates of LPs or 12s. That's just a simple choice to protect your back. Some DJs go even further and switch their whole collection from 12inch to 7inch, opening up floor space and appeasing their spouse or partner in the process. But in audiophile terms, they are often much louder than their larger counterparts due to the increased size of the grooves in the vinyl.

But most important to me is how DJing with 45s takes away almost every technological luxury we've been blessed with over the past 15 years. Namely the decision overload brought about by having thousands and thousands of songs loaded in your DJ software like Serato, Traktor, or Ableton. With 45s it becomes all about crafting your box of 45s into the hottest one possible, an exercise in curation where the nerdiest of record nerds thrive. 

The featured 45 for today exists in my collection for a few obvious reasons, and one newly important reason in the season of the pandemic.

First, the obvious. Just based on the music content alone, this 45 is two sides of funky fire. Here are the clips so you can come to that conclusion yourself.

But Thomas explains it best, "The real funky one I did was "Breakdown," that heavy gutbucket bottom, that's what made that funk, that heavy bass and, and the big foot on the drum, that's what made that funk."

Beyond that, this one makes the cut because of its importance in Hip-Hop history. Between the two sides, this 45 has been sampled in hundreds of songs, was featured on the Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilations, and contains a big ol' chunky drum break - which makes mixing a little easier but also makes me verrry happy as a digger and producer.

But what about the reason for the season?

Memphis musician Rufus Thomas was a man of many talents in his lifetime, through several crucial periods in US history, but his two strongest characteristics that speak to current times are how he diversified & leveraged his skillset, and his decision to rep hard locally.

Rufus Thomas

Being multifaceted and his ability to evolve brought Thomas longevity. Beginning his career in the Vaudeville era as a song & dance man with a focus on the dance, specifically Tap. From there, he decided to work on his songwriting, "I just wanted to make a record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist" Thomas states. He didn't get rich, songs underperformed, and recording opportunities dried up. But he was becoming known and soon after this first shot at recording, he turned to radio broadcasting and accepted a DJ role at WDIA in Memphis where he shaped the station into an important voice in Blues and R&B music.

This newfound celebrity led to the release of his national hit "Bear Cat" on the fledgling Sun Records imprint. But it was a curse in disguise as the song nearly ended the label due to a copyright claim. What's more, this, in conjunction with the ever-increasing racial divides being drawn in entertainment in the U.S. during the 1950s, were catalysts for the label's redirected focus onto White audiences with Thomas eventually being released from his contract. The rise of Elvis Presley was a result of this transition and he even recorded a version of Thomas' song "Tiger Man."

Rufus Thomas Crown Prince of Dance

Thomas was down but not out of the recording game. And his next step became his most important.

After taking time away from music to work at a textile mill because his "mind just wasn't right" he decided to give another chance to an upstart label, Satellite Records, whose racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented at the time. It was here where he penned the song "Cause I Love You" which flew up the charts and its success changed the face of Memphis Soul as we know it. With a hit under their belts, Satellite renamed to Stax Records and locked in a production & distribution deal with Atlantic. From that point, the Stax / Volt / Enterprise Empire was off and running. And all the while, Thomas' mind was centered on the culture of Stax and it's artists, as well as being sure to embody the 'Memphis Sound.' He remembers, "You knew that Memphis sound the minute you heard it. If you go to Nashville, you got the country sound. You go to Motown you had the Motown sound. But the minute you heard that Memphis sound from Stax you knew it, you just automatically knew that that was Stax and Stax was solid in Memphis.

Having finally found a label where he could flourish, he took his love for song & dance and built a recording career becoming known as the "King of the Novelty Dance Records." A series of singles planted him firmly on the musical map and the whole of his output has been lauded as integral to the foundation of Rock & Roll, R&B, and Blues.

While his circumstances - and the circumstances of U.S. social politics and evolving music industry at the time - were very unique, so are the times we're currently navigating. With new obstacles being erected every day, how we move forward into an unknown future, into a music industry that will likely look far different than before, will determine our path for years to come. While vinyl may not be the solution to our problems, the Funk can set you free. And the drive of Rufus Thomas to excel through turmoil, while simultaneously supporting the culture he held dear, can be an inspiration to us all.

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