Breakdancing (or breaking, b-boying/b-girling) is one of the four pillars of hip-hop culture, alongside MCing, DJing, and graffiti. Guaranteed injury and embarrassment have prevented me from ever even considering to attempt to breakdance, but I did have the privilege of attending a full-on b-boy battle 10 years ago. Why this battle occurred at a small liberal arts college in rural Minnesota I do not know, but getting to see several crews show their stuff was a pretty awesome experience.
Breakdancing is an incredible art form — Cornel West described it as “postural semantics” — but I was inevitably distracted by the music. The best dance tracks are the kind that are just begging to be sampled, like funky drum breaks or grooves that hook into your mind. I heard a lot of great music that night a decade ago, but one song stood out to me so much that I needed to find it when I got home: Jackson Sisters’ “Miracles.”
The Jackson sisters (Compton-bred, Detroit-based sisters with no relation to the 5) were one of the bazillion soul groups of the 1970s. Though it was only a modest hit at the time, “Miracles” had a lasting impact. As hip-hop grew out of the Bronx and spread worldwide in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the track became a breakdancing staple. Later it would become part of the UK “rare groove” revival (peaking at #72 in the UK Singles Chart in 1987), and it was even included on a radio station in Grand Theft Auto V (a game that, with over 120 million copies sold, was a great way to get some exposure). The song’s success is well-founded: it hits insanely hard. Roaring out of a ferocious breakbeat, the song dazzles on every level, from the dizzying bass line to the fiery horns.
One of my favorite ways to find hidden gems is to dig deeper into artists or bands that are known for only one song. I figure if they managed to make one great song, odds are they’ve got at least one other good one. Jackson Sisters only released one record in their career, and while nothing on their eponymous record is quite on par with “Miracles” (the single version is called “I Believe in Miracles”), it’s an all-around solid release with plenty of good tracks.
In many ways the album is typical mid-1970’s funk (along the lines of Rose Royce or The Isley Brothers), but it’s distinctive enough to be noteworthy — particularly through its standout tracks. The album mix of “Miracles” pushes back the drums, brings the dry rhythm guitar forward, and still manages to be incredibly funky. Horns and strings bring a big sound to every song, and sharp drum work and in-the-pocket bass keep it grounded. The sisters share vocal duties, taking turns between lead and support in truly collaborative fashion. It’s what it might sound like if Baby Huey were a girl group.
The drums and bass lock in hard for “Boy, You’re Dynamite,” whose uplifting punch and stabbing string give it a Curtis Mayfield vibe with more grit. Their cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” is downright dirty, and it holds together amazingly well. My favorite track is “Day In The Blue,” a smooth, multi-part groove that puts a great melody front and center.
Jackson Sisters is a detour well worth taking. It’s got irresistible grooves front to back, and don’t blame me if you find yourself trying to break to it.