So much of what enters the popular lexicon depends upon small happy accidents: chance encounters, misreadings, gaffes, extemporaneous bursts of inspiration. Artists attuned to the strange in the mundane pick up on odd moments of beauty and weirdness and redeploy them in new works. And in the dawn of the digital age, that redeployment accelerates to such a degree that one such moment can spawn whole movements in months.
This is sort of what happened with the so-called “Amen Break,” perhaps the most sampled six seconds of music in digital history. As the brief 2004 video above—from artist and writer Nate Harrison—explains, the Amen break “has been used as the rhythmic backdrop in everything from late 80s gangster rap to corporate America’s recycling hip-hop forms to sell things like Jeeps and blue jeans to suburban America.”
The Amen Break originated in humble circumstances, as the drum break on a B-side recording from DC-based soul group the Winstons. Having run out of material, the Winstons decided to record an instrumental of gospel standard “Amen, Brother” on the obverse of their now-mostly-forgotten, but once Grammy-winning 1969 R&B hit “Color Him Father.” It’s possible you’ll recognize the tune of “Amen, Brother” (above), but I guarantee you’ll know the “Amen Break” (below, in three speeds), performed by Winstons’ drummer G.C. Coleman. It’s everywhere.
Long before the Amen Break’s crude use in advertising, it was a keystone in such diverse cultural moments as black nationalist group Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”—from their ferocious 1988 groundbreaker It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” to the theme song of Matt Groening’s Futurama. And as this Economist article explains, the Amen break also underlay the 90s British rave-culture phenomena known as jungle and drum & bass. (BBC radio even produced an hour-long segment on the Amen Break, interviewing pioneers and mainstays of the rave scene). The re-use of the Amen Break began in the 1980s with the sampler, which gave DJs and bedroom producers the ability to create new soundscapes from old records, usually as backing tracks for rappers (such as New York producer Mantronix’s “King of the Beats”).
As the Amen Break became more popular, and hip hop DJs more organized and in-demand, it worked its way onto the first official release of a compilation specifically for rap DJs called Ultimate Breaks and Beats, a series that collected classic rhythm tracks of rock, funk, and pop songs stripped of their vocals. And as its use evolved in a British context, says Nate Harrison in his history at the top, “Amen tracks” reached levels of “highbrow posturing” in which the speed and lack of syncopation lead to undanceable “absurdities.” No doubt jungle purists would sneer at Harrison’s contention, but take a listen to the track he references, UK artist Squarepusher’s 1997 “Vic Acid” (below) and decide for yourself. (Other Amen jungle tracks, like Shy FX’s “Original Nuttah” crash along at even more jackhammer speeds).
However, while the Amen Break was clipped and re-sequenced into greater levels of abstraction by IDM experimentalists like Squarepusher, one particularly fascinating effect of its meme-ification is its passage from original live drum break, to ubiquitous sample, then back to a part played again by live drummers, such as YouTube “Hi-Hat Master” Ydna Murd below.
It may be the case that almost every drummer who came of age in the late eighties and nineties plays some version of the Amen Break. But just what constitutes the endless appeal of this snippet of sound, and how did the looping of a few bars of drumming help lay the foundation for several new genres of music in the late 2oth century? The author of The Economist piece on the Amen break speculates it’s drummer G.C. Coleman’s individual style as well as certain qualities of the recording:
Amen also has certain sonic qualities that set it aside from its rivals. Rather than keeping time with a hi-hat, Coleman uses the loose sound of the ride cymbal, filling out the aural space. And the recording has a “crunch” to it, says Tom Skinner, a London-based session drummer: “That quality is appealing to beatmakers.” The pitched tone of the snare drum is particularly distinctive; as any junglist will tell you, a snare can be as evocative as a smell.
Author Michael S. Schneider, however, has a more rarified answer: he speculates that the Amen break has the properties of the geometric golden mean, that ancient Greek proportion that supposedly describes the shape of truth and beauty.
Is this likely? Was Winstons’ drummer Coleman channeling Apollonian ratios from the collective unconscious, or was he just doing his thing, playing his heart out? If Coleman himself had some insight into why the Amen Break exploded, we will never know; he died in 1996. And for all of the creative recycling of the Amen Break, neither Coleman nor Winstons’ bandleader Richard L. Spencer ever received a dime in royalties, a fact that has left Spencer—who calls the use of the break plagiarism—somewhat bitter. But British music journalist Simon Reynolds puts it this way: “It’s a bit like the man who goes to the sperm bank and unknowingly sires hundreds of children.” Hundreds of children, he might have added, beloved by millions of music fans across the globe.
a big h/t goes to @kirstinbutler
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness