The Amen Break

Imagine you’ve just phoned into a radio station as part of a contest. You’re the ninth caller, and you can win a fabulous vacation simply if you identify the song about to be played. The radio DJ will play a 15 second snippet, and you have 30 seconds to identify this song. He asks if you’re ready, and then he presses play…

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Alright, 30 seconds to think, don’t panic… the first few second sound like some random trumpets, but that drum beat in the middle – you know that beat! You’ve heard it everywhere, hundreds of times. That “dum-dum-tish” break has driven itself into your brain, but you’ll be damned if you can remember where it’s originally from.

Is it “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA?
You can definitely hear part of it in the Powerpuff Girls theme song.
It sounds like it’s in the beat of Slipknot’s “Eyeless“.

But it’s originally from none of those. Not David Bowie’s “Little Wonder“, not Oasis’ “D’You Know What I Mean“, not Maestro Fresh Wes’ “Bring it On“, not Orbital’s “Satan“, nor Nas’ “Hip Hop is Dead” – but instead the song “Amen Brother” from funk and soul outfit The Winstons recorded in 1969.

Hip Hop and Sampling

The song “Amen Brother” was initially recorded in 1969, but it took until the late 1980s and early 1990s for it to be begin to be revived as an integral part of pop culture. This was the time when samplers, machines which allowed short bits of music to be recorded and played back at will, finally became affordable to the hip hop artists of the streets. Short bit of drum beats that could be stored in a sampler were called “break beats”, or simply “breaks”. No one is certain who was the first to sample the Amen Break, but its use became ubiquitous in early nineties hip hop. Eventually the beat became overplayed, and the Amen Break seemed to be a flash in the plan, something brought up for nostalgic value if anything on new tracks.

Jumping the Pond

But as “Straight out of Compton” was selling millions in the US, the rave scene was exploding in the UK. This was a scene with little money, little social support, and was a subculture by any definition. But it was growing rapidly, and it demanded new music. The Amen Break was adopted as a foreign son, and the very basis for an entire genre and hundreds of songs. The break was sliced up into tiny pieces, each high hat, each snare, each bass drum hit cut into a tiny piece of audio. These pieces could be saved in a sampler, and played back in any permutation or combination. At first the variations were homages, but quickly the variation and volume spread. A sampler was cheap, the breaks were freely passed along, and flimsy acetate records of your new track could be written in the morning and played at the rave in the evening. This organic creativity caught the attention of the art scene, and effectively undanceable constructions were born, a fusion of the fundamentalism of the Amen Break homage and the polymeter and highbrow musical structure of the new creators who now went to art school. A prime example of this new wave was Tom Jenkinson, known as Squarepusher, who created multiple albums worth of songs all based on chopping and mixing the Amen Break.

The Rewards of Sampling

But what of the Winstons, the creators of the oft-sampled beat now so widespead that Fortune 500 companies use it in their ads? Did they blow the royalties on the fleeting rewards of fame, or have they hidden themselves and their fortune away? The staggering fact is that despite a recent Supreme Court ruling that even three notes can be considered a sample and subject to royalties, the Winstons haven’t received a single cent. Instead of property, the Amen Break now appears to be a part of the popular collective unconscious, ever-present and unownable.

For more detail, check out this great video by Nate Harrison from 2004.

About the Author

lives and works in Ontario, Canada.

One Response to “The Amen Break”

  1. Dear Geoff,
    You are correct when you announce that I have not received a penny from my copyright ownership of the famous break.Richard Spencer

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