Last year A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and D.I.T.C. were all celebrated for their comeback albums in 2016, but only a dedicated few remembered the 25th anniversary of Main Source’s Breaking Atoms. The album, released on July, 23, 1991, is regarded as the foundation of the classic boom-bap sound in New York, courtesy of boardwork by Toronto DJs Sir Scratch (Shawn McKenzie), K-Cut (Kevin McKenzie) and Queens-bred MC/producer Large Professor (Paul Mitchell). Praised for their fresh take on sample-heavy hip-hop, Breaking Atoms has earned respect in the underground community, but rarely recognized for its ingenuity on a mainstream level. Songs like “Just A Friendly Game Of Baseball,” a running metaphor of baseball terminology with police brutality, and A-side/B-side singles “Watch Roger Do His Thing,” and “Looking At The Front Door” fit within hip-hop’s uncompromising direction of today.
The online record club Vinyl Me, Please chose Breaking Atoms as their Record of the Month for February. A collaboration that began in mid-2016 between the Colorado-based service and Main Source (with some help from Baby Paul), they re-issued the album on January 20 in hopes to introduce new fans to an underrated gem of American musical history. In celebration of the release, SOBs hosted Main Source’s 25th anniversary reunion show last Wednesday night in New York, featuring a vibrant opening set by host Just Blaze. Maneuvering through the packed venue, you could spot architects of New York rap (Pete Rock, Marco Polo, JuJu from the Beatnuts), and a slew of Main Source affiliates (Lord Finesse, Neek the Exotic, Royal Flush, Joe Fatal, Buckwild, and Mr. Cheeks) on stage to perform, soak in the moment, or say a few word saluting Large Pro.
“I don’t want to say too much, but I do want to say this,” Mic Geronimo said, after an impromptu singalong of Heatwave’s “Always And Forever” with Extra P. “You would not have a Kanye West or a Pharrell or any of these producers that move you right now if you did not have Large Professor.”
A day before the show, I asked Large Professor who in the rap game was influenced by Main Source. He admitted that a lot of artists have shown their appreciation for Breaking Atoms and the blueprint it has created for new producers. As a veteran who was instrumental in Nas’ early career and worked with guys like Pete Rock, he was humbled by the feedback.
“The amount of people that came to us, saying, ‘Yo, that album!’ is insane,” he said while signing new vinyl copies of Breaking Atoms with K-Cut at a WeWork in Williamsburg. “Some of the people that would come up, it was great because those were some of our peers and some of the people we looked up to. Now I hear they are coming back to us like ‘Yo, that album man! That album! Yo!’ And you can see it in their face and hear it in their voice that it was urgent for them to say that. So that was incredible.”
The chemistry between Large Professor, K-Cut, and DJ Sir Scratch was pure hip-hop soul, developing a sound from a E-mu SP-1200 that was embedded in funky samples, razor sharp scratches, and grooves. Large Professor and K-Cut, who went to John Bowne High School in Queens, met their senior year of high school through a mutual friend named Van in 1989. After connecting off the strength of their mutual admiration for each other’s musical tastes and vinyl collections, they decided to become a group with K-Cut’s twin brother Sir Scratch.
Large Professor remembers exactly when K-Cut came up with the name. “We were at the lawyer’s office. And I think the lawyer asked, ‘So what are you guys going to name the group?’ He said, ‘Main Source.’ Word. And when I heard it, I sat there and I listened to it and I thought about it. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, Main Source.’” K-Cut adds, “I was just like the Main Source. The Main Source of Information. The Main Source of where you’re getting your stuff from. I just told Paul and basically it fit. We are the Main Source.”
While at John Bowne, Main Source put out two singles that built their buzz in the streets: “Think” and “Watch Roger Do His Thing,” which were both released through Actual Records. When the label folded in the late ‘80s, the group struck a deal with Wild Pitch Records in 1990, and started piecing together Breaking Atoms throughout the year. Large Professor says work for the album began directly after they graduated from high school, predominantly done in studios called Libra Digital and Power Play in Astoria. As 19-year-olds at the time, the group was drawing inspiration from various records they were digging up to chop up soul samples, as well as life experiences growing up.
When you think about other influential albums from 1991 like Tribe’s The Low End Theory and Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena, Main Source was able to deliver the same level of socially conscious awareness and intelligent rhymes in their music. A protest song like N.W.A.’s “Fuck The Police,” that made a lot of noise on the West, only fueled the group’s passions to address important issues head-on. The meditative “Just A Friendly Game of Baseball” spoke to a lot of young African Americans who’ve gone through similar interactions with police. “That right there was just a really poetic [song],” Large Pro reflected on the song’s message against police brutality. “We threw that song the other day and it just came back so clear. That beat is crazy. It puts you in a trance. You can zone out to that.”
It’s true — you can play a joint like “Just A Friendly Game of Baseball” or “Looking at the Front Door” and it still holds up today. At SOBs, Large Professor, flanked by K-Cut and Rashad Smith, an early contributor to Main Source and now an honorary member, performed it to the enjoyment of a crowd who rapped along to every word. Before his encore, Large Professor’s first performance earlier in the evening was just as invigorating. He paused to drop some knowledge, too, telling us this was the song that got a group of underage kids to perform at Bentley’s, an upscale nightclub popular in the late ‘90s.
In retrospect, Main Source had all the momentum to be one of hip-hop’s most revered acts. Large Professor said during the show that Breaking Atoms was a “benchmark project that a lot of people measure by.” On the venue’s television screens that night they previewed a quote from Pharoahe Monch, whoseforeword for Vinyl Me Please’s edition of Breaking Atoms was a show of respect from an artist who came up under the same school of the late Paul C with the others. It read: “In my humble opinion, this particular day, July 23rd 1991, marked the release of what was to become one of the most important records in the history of hip-hop. A record that I feel shifted the boundaries of production, writing, and arrangement.”
Breaking Atoms famously marked the first time we heard a young Nas, Akinyele, and Joe Fatal — three guys that Main Source knew were for real spitters — on “Live at the BBQ.” But that kind of camaraderie was largely missed on Main Source’s second album, F*ck What You Think. Released in 1994, Main Source decided to move on with the brand after Large Professor left and enlisted MC Mikey D. Though songs like “Hellavision” were traces of Large Pro’s contributions, F*ck What You Think lacked the synergy from the original members.
Sitting in the same room together and sipping beers at WeWork, Large Professor and K-Cut both stress that there was no ill will towards each other once the crew split. Large Professor chalked it up to being young and caught up with money and fame. K-Cut mentioned that Main Source was managed by his mom, which was a conflict of interest in viewing everyone’s careers with their best interests in mind. Sir Scratch, who didn’t participate in the 25th anniversary reunion show, may have his own reasons for distancing himself from Main Source. (K-Cut declined to comment on his absence.) But today, they are older and wiser now, leaving whatever conflicts and disputes behind them.
“We both had to find a path to jump back on that [Main Source] path,” K-Cut says. “We were both at the age where we were trying to [establish ourselves]. You know, Paul was working. I was trying to figure out what I was doing. I was trying to get work so when the train falls off the path, you gotta find that path. It was like years later; it was right to jump on that path. We connected I think it was 2005 or 2006. It was like, ‘Yo, what up?’
“It was all love the whole time,” Large Professor said.