History Of The Amen Break
You are sitting back listening to your headphones, whether it is in the comfort of your home studio, at the office, or during your daily commute.
Then it hits: that beat you have heard all over the place. You may not know it by name, but somehow it feels intimately familiar, well chances are it’s the amen break.
That is because it is the Amen Break -the most sampled beat in the history of music.
Whether you listen to electronic dance music, hip-hop, or even rock, chances are you have heard the Amen break.
With well over 2,000 songs under its belt, the Amen break is by far the most sampled drum beat in all of music.
That said, the origins of the Amen Break carry with it a heavy load of contradiction and perhaps even injustice. But where did this beat come from, and what is it that makes it so apt to be sampled by so many different artists as diverse as the NWA to Bjork.
Every genre is guilty of ripping off that iconic beat and taming it for use in their own music, but the truth is that it was always a stolen origin.
A start that begins in the murky water of covers and plagiarism–exactly where it remains today.
What Makes The Amen Break So Unique?
When examining the Amen break, it is important for one to understand what is actually occurring on a musical theory level.
While we may not all ever be able to know the music in the same way that Gregory Coleman did, we can at least examine it to try and understand what it is that makes this short loop so enduring to both music in general regardless the genre–and the human spirit.
Part of the appeal of the Amen break almost certainly has to do with its rhythms, specifically its syncopated structure.
With many of the snare hits coming either on the downbeat or the eighth upbeats, the Amen break has a feeling that is both mechanical and organic–clearly the work of human creativity but just alien enough to all the natural biorhythms of the body to stand out.
Another quality that made the Amen break so appealing was its use of timbre and tone–two qualities that are not immediately considered when one thinks about the sound of drums in general.
First, the Amen break relied on a ride cymbal, rather than the hi-hat, to keep time.
This allowed the loose sound to fill in the gaps between the snare and the bass drum beats.
The snare also carried with it a unique aural quality.
By pitching the snare, Coleman ensured that the beat’s driving voice had a distinctive quality.
Thus, by standing out among other beats due to tone as much as construction, the Amen break provided samplers a unique sound that could at once be unique and distinctive while simultaneously familiar.
Origins Of The Amen Break
The origins of the Amen break follow the same trajectory as many of the more notable movements in music history.
A relatively unknown band with a musician who is not otherwise known for their technical prowess hits upon a development that takes the music industry by storm.
Notice we reference the music industry specifically because that song with which the Amen break was attached did not skyrocket through the charts.
In fact, the Amen Break, the most sampled drum beat in all of music, did not even originate from a band that most people knew existed.
Instead, this beat began its humble origins as simple a short drum solo during the song “Amen, Brother,” a song that had seen a few iterations before the drum solo which would take the world by storm even appeared.
The inspiration came from Jester Hairston’s “Amen,” written as part of the soundtrack for the film which starred Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field. The song itself was actually an instrumental with the drums being played by Gregory Sylvester “G.C.” Coleman.
While the cover did achieve some minor success, it faded into obscurity relatively quickly as many instrumentals of the time did. It would not be until a decade later that a movement of civil unrest that the Amen Break would be rediscovered and come into its own.
So the story goes, Afrika Bambaataa coveted the Amen Break still etched on a 1969 The Winstons B-side record. He would bust out the record whenever he wanted to turn a show up and get people moving on the dancefloor.
The beat would be played and replayed over and over at 33 ½ rpms rather than the standard 45 rpms in order to give the audience more opportunity to tear the dancefloor up.
This minor drum break which lasted only six to seven seconds would go on to change numerous music genres and eventually become the most sampled beat in the history of music.
Interestingly, the song on which the beat was featured did not make nearly the same kind of splash that the actual beat did. In this regard, the sampling of the Amen break is definitely in a different realm as the covering of the song “Amen.”
Still, there is no doubt that Gregory Coleman is arguably the most influential drummer of all time–at least when it comes to the construction of music per quantity.
6 Seconds In Heaven
The true rise of the Amen break did not occur until decades later during the rise of hip-hop and then Jungle.
Both of these genres of music relied heavily on looping this icon drum break on machines like the Akai MPC, a technique that isolates a short section of an existing song and repeats it.
When this loop is a beat, it can form the backbone of an entire song, though it is just as often a repeated vocal track used as musical conceit.
It was 1974 when Kool Herc developed the technique, but loops did not gain mainstream popularity until 1977 when Grandmaster Flash made the technique a household feature.
Still, the Amen Break itself would have to wait even longer–almost another decade–until Breakbeat Lenny, a former employee of Downstairs Records, compiled loops from six tracks into a record called Ultimate Break Beats in 1984.
Once Lenny’s Ultimate Break Beats found its way into the hands of mid-80s hip-hop producers, the Amen break found a resurgence in popularity and thus began the long climb towards music history.
It is also worth noting that Breakbeat Lenny recorded the Amen break at 33 ⅓ pitch down rather than the standard 45, planting the seed which would find the Amen break mixed and remixed in a multitude of ways.
Hop Hop aka The Breaks
After the Ultimate Break Beats album dropped in 1986, few genres were ready to make use of the samples–few, that is, outside of hip-hop.
Having originated within the genre, hip-hop artists had been using samples and loops for almost a decade, and while electronica existed at the time, it was still technically in its infancy once the Ultimate Break Beats album started making the rounds.
As such, hip-hop artists were the first to employ the Amen Break in full. One of the first instances of this came on Salt-N-Peppas debut album on the track “I Desire” in 1986.
This track used the slower version of the loop and was not featured as prominently as it would be on some other tracks. Still, the subtle shifting of the loop to alter the sound would appear again and again.
In 1987, Mr. Mixx of 2 Live Crew disassembled the Amen break into its constituent beats and then used those pieces to develop a new pattern.
This was employed first in their song “Feel Alright Y’all.
A year later in 1988, Mantronix disassembled the beat on his own for the very same purpose and featured it on his album “King of the Betas.”
Still, 1989 saw the Amen break get its arguably biggest break when it made a prime appearance on NWA’s smash hit “Straight Outta Compton.”
Fully cemented as an iconic breakbeat in one of the most influential hip-hop songs of all time, the Amen break would go on to be featured in over 100 different hip hop tracks including as recently as 2007 for Lupe Fiasco’s “Streets On Fire” off of the Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool album.
Still, the Amen break was only just beginning, and it was in the early 1990s when the breakbeat found its true home–in break beat and in a newly emerging sub-genre in particular: jungle.
Enter Tha Jungle
While electronic music had found its origins as early as the late 1960s, it was not until the rise of drum machines like the Roland TR-808 that electronic music began to break away from its disco, reggae, and funk roots and begin to take on a life all its own.
That said, the 1980s saw techno and house music first appear. It would not be until the influence of hip-hop made its way “across the pond” to the UK that a heavier, crunchier Jungle sound would finally make use of the Amen break properly.
However, the early pioneers of jungle that saw the value of the Amen break were more in line with Mr. Mixx or Mantronix than other samplers.
These DJs valued the strict drum break absent any other instrument or voice because they could easily disassemble it themselves.
It was at this point that the Amen break exploded, in both deconstruction and popularity, finding its way onto an obscene number of tracks–over 1000 in total.
It was also through this development that the Amen break saw its greatest creative development as various DJs mixed and matched it to suit their needs.
One of the more prominent changes to the break included speeding the tempo up to well over 100 beats per minute. In fact, playing the Amen break at 130 to 150 bpm was not at all uncommon.
Still, like all genres, electronic dance music continued to move on, looking for the newest sound, beat, or loop to freshen up their tracks.
Eventually, even the Amen break fell out of favor, becoming a beat that evoked nostalgia more than innovation–that is, until recently where it has once again found new life breathed into it as EDM and Jungle fusion genres have become the new trend.
Top Of The Pops
Outside of hip-hop and the heavily hip-hop-influenced subcultures, the Amen break can be found across tracks and bridging genres.
The alt-rock band Oasis used it for their track “D’You Know What I Mean” while the heavy neo metal group Slipknot made it the primary loop for their early hit single “Eyeless.”
David Bowie notably used the Amen break the same year Oasis did on his Earthling album for the track “Little Wonder.”
In fact, 1997 was arguably the year that the Amen break made its strongest debut outside of hip-hop or EDM as it was also featured in the NIN hit single “Perfect Drug” off of the Lost Highway soundtrack.
In a rare display of artistic ignominy, the holder of the right to the song from which the Amen Break was sampled has never received a single penny in royalties for the use of that beat.
Every single time you hear the Amen Break on a pop, rock, hip-hop, or EDM song, you should do well to remind yourself that that is only possible due to the generosity of Richard L. Spencer.
In fact, this act of generosity has been so well-received, that Spencer has even been the beneficiary of grassroots movements which sought to provide compensation–regardless of how inadequate–for the multitude of artists that have taken the drumbeat for which his band had made famous.
That said, Spencer is not without some negative feelings towards the Amen break being sampled so much.
Spencer was actually noted for feeling as though it has been “plagiarized” even going os far as to say he felt “ripped off and raped” to describe the sampling of The Winston’s iconic drum break.
However, it is worth noting that The Impressions beat them to the punch, popularizing the song in 1964, a full five years before The Winstons ever covered Jester Hairston’s “Amen.”
Still, Spencer did not want to live in the past chasing wild goose that had spread so far and wide. Perhaps it was an attempt to pay it forward.
That said, Spencer has categorized the profligate sampling of the beat as both “flattering” and mass “plagiarism”–though, based on his opinions about the band’s original cover, this may come with a patina of ambivalence.
Regardless, numerous musicians are well aware of the boon that the Amen Break provided for both their genre and their own artistic creations personally.
A BBC Radio 1 program coupled with a feature article in the Economist in 2011 both reintroduced the world to the Amen break from a production standpoint as well as noted its ubiquitous use in virtually all major genres of modern music.
Moreover, a GoFundMe page was started by two British DJs, Martyn Webster, and Steve Theobald, in an effort to provide some sort of retrospective compensation to the band the musical rights holder who helped inspire two generations of music and counting with a beat that bridged all genres, ethnicities, and cultures.
In fact, as of the thirteenth of August, 2015, that GoFundMe page has raised over $32,000 in an effort to show Spencer the world’s appreciation for his magnanimity and to provide some meager form of compensation to a man who gave so much to the music industry by simply stepping out of the way.
It is interesting to note, that for some time, there existed a dispute as to which was the most sampled track in music.
While the Amen break was always in the running since the early 1990s, a vocal sample from Fab 5 Freddy and Beside’s “Change the Beat” seemed to keep up pace.
The prolific use of a distorted line saying “Ahhh, this stuff is really fresh,” found its way throughout hip hop.
Of course, once the search was expanded beyond hip-hop–and especially into EDM–the search was over and in short order.
The Amen Break was the clear winner and the race was not even close.
To say the Amen Break has been one of the most influential and prolific drum breaks in music would be a disservice to the impact that the Amen Break has had on music.
Spanning decades and even into the present, the Amen break bridged genres as diverse as hip-hop, EDM, rock, and pop.
All cultures, all countries, and pretty much all peoples have heard the break appear in their music at some point in time.
Due to both a timeless quality that remains as viable and fresh today as it did in the mid-80s when it began its meteoric climb, it is likely fair to say that the Amen break will never be caught as new artists discover it again for the first time, only adding to the mountain of tracks on which it is featured.