A fundraising campaign surrounding the “Amen Break” has been getting an overwhelming amount of attention on social media and the blogosphere recently. From artists like BT and Doc Scott to publishers like Rolling Stone and Resident Advisor, support for the campaign has translated to over $17,000 in contributions in just five days. So why is this break so special?
Over the last 30 years, the highly coveted, six-second drum sample has become the stuff of legend–appearing in thousands of songs, influencing an entire genre of music, and helping catapult several producers to stardom. The Amen Break was originally sampled from The Winstons’ 1969 tune Amen, Brother–the b-side to what is considered to be The Winstons’ most acclaimed and Grammy award-winning track, Color Me Father. However, as sample-based music exploded in the ’80s, it would be Amen, Brother that would forever ingrain itself into the DNA of music.
Audio: The looped Amen Break.
Clocking in at only four bars, the Amen Break has appeared in such songs as Carl Cox’s I Want You, Deee-Lite’s Come on In, The Dreams Are Fine, and even Oasis’ D’You Know What I Mean, just to name a few. However, in the beginning the sample was most commercially exploited within the genre of rap, showing up in tracks like Eric B. & Rakim’s Casualties of War, Salt-N-Pepa’s I Desire, and Dr Dre-produced Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A., among countless others. This mass manifestation of the Amen Break in rap is largely credited to the first volume of Ultimate Breaks and Beats–a 1986 compilation of clean beat samples that included the now ubiquitous Amen Break. About five years later, the Amen Break sample would make it into the hands of beat-makers in the UK, where it was sped up to about 160BPM and became a pillar in the foundation of jungle.
Audio: One of the first tunes to incorporate the Amen Break into UK dance music, Lennie De Ice’s 1991 record We Are I.E.. Widely considered to be the first jungle track. It also signals the transition from the popular 4×4 rhythm of dance music at the time to 2-step, which can literally be heard as the Amen Break drops in.
From Remarc and Ray Keith to Dillinja and Shy FX, jungle producers were unleashing the Amen Break at an unprecedented clip–flooding dancefloors and pirate radio stations all over the UK in the early ’90s. Popular tracks like LTJ Bukem’s remix of Apollo Two’s Atlantis and Shy FX & UK Apache’s Original Nuttah became staples in the London nightlife zeitgeist. As the turn of the century approached, jungle gave way to drum & bass, but the Amen Break withstood the transition. In what later became known as the “golden age” of D&B, the next generation of producers like Technical Itch began deploying the Amen Break at 170BPM–and it still kept its undeniable magic even at the higher tempo.
Audio: Shy FX and UK Apache’s Original Nuttah, circa 1995.
As D&B continued to grow, even more producers had joined the Amen madness–creatively transforming the four-bar break into nuanced rhythmic sequences that became the central component of every track it graced. With the latest iteration of software, bedroom producers now had easy access to tools that could manipulate hit envelopes, reverse hits, chops, filter sweeps, pitch sweeps, and stretch the Amen Break sample to create ludicrous effects. Suddenly, the Amen Break took on new life and its alchemy became perfunctory for all D&B producers. Subsequently, producers like Dom & Roland began to splice the Amen Break with other breaks to form variations of the Amen such as the “Tramen” break–which took its name from the well known D&B DJ/producer Trace, who used the Dom & Roland Amen variation in many of his tunes.
Audio: Trace’s 1998 anthem Sonar featuring the “Tramen” break–a combination of James Brown’s Tighten Up break combined with the Amen Break.
The Amen Break wasn’t just confined to jungle, D&B, and rap–it spread like a virus through R&B, UK hardcore, breakcore, breakbeat, and various other sample-based genres. Eventually, everyone from popular US artist Heavy D to larger-than-life Londoner David Bowie had implemented it in their tunes. Even today, producers both inside and outside of D&B continue to use the Amen Break ad infinitum. Top acts like Sub Focus, Oliver Heldens, and Chase & Status still call upon the magic of the Amen Break to provide the rhythmic backdrop to their tunes.
Audio: The Amen Break can be heard at the 1:58 mark of Oliver Heldens’ 2014 remix of Martin Garrix’ hugely successful Animals.
So what is the allure of this now famous six-second drum break? Some have argued it’s the timbre of the hits or resolving nature of the pattern, while others believe there is something a bit more mystical about it. Perhaps it’s now built into the human psyche and causes immediate satisfaction similar to, and in contrast of, the hissing sound of a snake and its anxiety-inducing effects. Or, maybe it’s just simply an incredible rhythm that creates gridlocked dancefloors whenever the needle touches the groove. Or then again, maybe it’s all of the above.
With so much rich history, there is one overshadowing fact about the Amen Break: The Winstons never received any royalties from its unintended use, nor did they ever pursue any legal remedies for copyright infringement. To compound this fact, the man responsible for the beat itself, drummer Gregory C. Coleman, is reported to have died completely impoverished nine years ago.
While these events are very unfortunate, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As mentioned previously, there is an ongoing fundraising campaign for those interested in paying homage to one of the last living members of The Winstons for their contribution to contemporary music by way of the Amen Break. Inspired by a 2011 BBC Radio 1 broadcast, the campaign will deliver all donations to Richard L. Spencer, former lead vocalist and sax player for The Winstons. Click here to donate and read more about the campaign.
Image: Richard L. Spencer, former lead vocalist and saxophonist for The Winstons.
Going forward, the Amen Break might also become the impetus for further discourse as to whether copyrights stifle creativity. For example, if the Amen Break was as diligently protected as James Brown’s Funky Drummer break, would the landscape of music look significantly different than it does today? Or what if every breakbeat slid under the copyright radar as the Amen Break did; would they have fueled the proliferation of entirely new genres of music? One thing is for certain–a couple of classics from The Prodigy would sound a lot different.
Feel free to post your favorite Amen track in the comments below and let us know if you think copyrights stifle creativity and if there is a better solution to protect artist’s work. For more Amen Break information, check out these resources:
BBC 1Xtra Documentary
List of songs using the Amen Break sample