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Diggin' in the dirt

A small sample of the world of beat digging

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Every DJ can remember that electric moment when they recognized their first sample, and an entire new world of music greeted them.

But not only DJs have felt that shiver of recognition. In the early '90s anybody could be flipping through their dad's record collection and, bored, put on a Herbie Hancock or James Brown album for kicks. Next thing you know, they're calling their friends, excited about how the beginning to Hancock's "Bring Down the Birds" sounds like Deee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart." Or how they've noticed that James Brown and Public Enemy have the same drum pattern.

What most impresses the hip-hop head is the "break" -- the section of a record where the instruments are most minimal but the groove is most full. The break is that little strip of record that's pure percussive funk -- prime for dancing (breakdancing, yo) or singling out for sampling, whether it's on a jazz, rock, soul or country record. The break could be five seconds to almost a minute long, and the search for breaks -- known as beat digging -- has become an esoteric pastime for some, an obsession for others.

With the influx of DJs throughout the '90s, competition to find untouched troves of rare grooves has stepped up a notch, but so has the number of services that provide hard-to-find in-demand cuts.

"Nowadays you can get a compilation or go to a website and find out what everybody sampled and all the drum breaks," says J-Sun, owner of More Dusty Than Digital, a Ponce de Leon record shop that specializes in beats for the discerning digger. "It's way easier nowadays. It helps more people find records, but there will always be more records than nobody's used."

Actually, it may be way way easier to get information from websites, compilations and columns in magazines like Big Daddy, Life Sucks Die and even local mag Elemental about hot labels, players, producers and prime years from the past. Fan fervor to collect obscure records has led to compilations turned around in record time for turntablists -- like the collections of the super rare 45s used during DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's highly revered Brainfreeze sessions, put out within a year of the live show that inspired the comp.

But don't expect to walk up to any DJ spinning the choicest, juiciest cuts at a club and get much info on the spot from him about his records. Beat digging is still one of the most heavily guarded of DJ techniques, and the fewer the untapped breaks, the more closely guarded DJs become. If you ever run across a guy in a store clutching a portable Japanese record player in one hand and a stack of records in the other, it's probably easier to get gold from Fort Knox then get him to let you see what he's hoarding.

You have to take your own chances, advises DJ T-Rock -- a member of both the Atlanta-based Citizenz and Mr. Dibbs' Ohio-based crew 1200 Hobos -- and pick more records than just those your favorite producer already sampled. For every DJ like J-Sun -- who admits some of his still-to-be-discovered treasures are German krautrock, Hungarian percussion and European "library" records that collect instrumental beds for television -- there's a would-be producer coiled around his list of hot stashes like a dragon around mounds of precious jewels.

For tracking down rare records, local DJs such as J-Sun and T-Rock recommend some of the old fail safes: Wax N Facts, Brookhaven Records, the Book Nook, Scavenger Hunt, thrift stores, flea markets and especially the Atlanta Record Shows (usually promoted by fliers at record stores). They also suggest looking through the classifieds for private sales. But the biggest selection is available on the Internet.

One of the best domestic sources for original records is www.dustygroove.com. And eBay probably will offer everything you could ever have wanted -- assuming you're willing to pay the inflated price and wait long enough.

The casual beat digger, however, may prefer one of a spate of recent compilations. Vinyl-only underground collections like Dusty Fingers and Strictly Breaks long have provided out-of-print gems. Some diggers have set up record labels such as Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw Records to re-release regional cuts they consider worthy of a second round of attention.

Many of the collections of less obscure records are even available on major sites like Amazon.com. Some labels have clued into beat-digging's demands. Blue Note released Blue Note Breaks, comps of their most sampled works. But in recent years some of the best collections have been import only.

"[Europeans and the Japanese] know more about our music than we do," says J-Sun. "There are books from Japan that list crazy amounts of records and how to tell real ones from fake ones. I've heard of people going to Japan and finding every record they can't find here."

Hip-hop is an increasingly expanding market in places like Japan and Europe. Take for example France, where hip-hop is the second-largest selling genre.

Which could explain why a French label has released the two-volume collection, Shaolin Soul, comps that collect artists such as Al Green, Syl Johnson, Lyn Collins, the Dramatics and Baby Huey, among others. What do these artists have in common? Nothing French. No, they've all been sampled by Wu-Tang producer the RZA.

The highly respected London-based BBE produces deep comps such as Funk Rock, compiled by New York's DJ Spinna and featuring artists from Sly and the Family Stone to the Head Hunters to Steve Winwood. Major labels like Virgin have put out a couple of two-disc comps called Sampled, that feature tracks from artists such as Barry White, Diana Ross and Issac Hayes nicked by artists ranging from Robbie Williams to Puff Daddy, among many more commercial hip-hop and dance artists.

Even big European electronica artists have put out compilations. Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook's Break From the Norm reveals Cook as a beat digger of pretty high status, though maybe not on the same tier as hip-hop producers Premiere, Diamond D or Biz Markie. Break collects his more obvious samples, from the Yvonne Elliman cover of the Who's "I Can't Explain" and Camille Yarbrough's "Take Yo' Praise" to Lulu's "Love Loves to Love Love."

Compared to hip-hop productions, Cook's samples are more prominently displayed and recognizable, maybe because the European market is fueled more by commerce than cred. So, even though hip-hop DJs scour trunk sales for the thrill of secrets more than sales, Fatboy Slim and a no-name beat-diggin' DJ -- or even casual collector -- have one thing in common: the electric shock people get when they recognize that what they're hearing has been built on something they know from the past.

Fatboy Slim performs at EarthLink Live at 8 p.m. Fri., Aug. 31. $36. 404-885-1365.

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