A couple years ago, we brought you a post on the history of the “Amen Break,” six seconds of sampled drums from a gospel instrumental that—since sampling began in the 80s—has became a ubiquitous rhythmic element in virtually every popular genre of rhythm-based music, from hip-hop, to drum and bass, to EDM. While the technology that enabled the “Amen Break” may be unique to the digital era, the sample’s endless iterations show us something timeless about how music evolves.
Picking up on Richard Dawkins’ 1976 coining of the term “meme,” Susan Blackmore argued in The Meme Machine that “what makes us different” from other animals “is our ability to imitate…. When you imitate ssomeone else, something is passed on. This ‘something’ can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own.” In this theoretical schema, the meme is a fundamental unit of culture, and the “Amen Break” is indeed a perfect example of how such units guide cultural evolution. So is another very widely imitated melodic element in jazz and rock and roll. Variously transcribed as “Doo Ba Doo Pee Dwee Doo Ahh” or “Doo ba dih bee dWee doo daah” or other nonsense syllabic sequences, it is just as often referred to simply as “The Lick.”
Licks are, in general, part of the standard vocabulary of every musician. They come in all forms, writes saxophonist, composer, and music theorist Joe Santa Maria—“Cool, Skanky, Soft, Crunchy, Salty, Dirty, Screamin’, Sultry, Tasty”—and they get repeated again and again. But there is one lick in particular, as you can see and hear in the supercut above, that—like the “Amen Break”—has managed to seed itself everywhere. “The Lick,” it seems, “pervades music history.” It shows up in Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Christina Aguilera’s “Get Mine, Get Yours.” Writes Santa Maria, “Everyone from Coltrane to Kenny G has put this hot lick to the test.” It even has its own Facebook page, where users submit example after example of appearances of “The Lick.”
Unlike the “Amen Break,” which can be definitively traced to a single source (the B-side of a 1969 single called “Color Him Father”), no one seems to know where exactly “The Lick” came from. At some point, its origin ceased to matter. While certain licks are played very self-consciously, Santa Maria admits, “to wow and mystify,” or “entrance groupies like the pied piper,” the archetypal, definitively named “The Lick” seems to have worked itself so deeply into our musical unconscious that many players and composers likely have no idea they’re reproducing a musical quotation. For whatever reason, and your guess is as good as mine, “The Lick” has become a genuine musical meme, a “unit of imitation” that propagates musical culture wherever it lands.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness