The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sampling Revolution

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 Backto 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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

The His­to­ry of Music Told in Sev­en Rapid­ly Illus­trat­ed Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • mel says:

    “We’re a win­ner” by the impres­sion is quite sim­i­lar..

  • Joe Bloggs says:

    Ok arti­cle, few things not quite right. To say that sam­plers were used by “bed­room” pro­duc­ers in the 1980’s is not right, ear­ly sam­plers cost around $10,000 hard­ly afford­able for “bed­room” pro­duc­ers. Also as Amen Broth­er is a cov­er ver­sion, nobody in the group has any song writ­ing cred­its on it, and the Win­stons record­ing was owned by the record label so they are not due any roy­al­ties or fur­ther pay­ments from any sam­ples of the record­ing.
    Also sam­pling in some form or anoth­er has been around since the 1940’s. Its the hip hop move­ment and not the amen break that real­ly gave sam­pling life.

  • Bhomas Trown says:

    Frank Zap­pa — The Return Of The Son Of Mon­ster Mag­net 1966

    Yes it’s fun­ny how the drum bit shows up three years ear­ly. Oooooh.

  • Makoto says:


    I added the Nate Harrison’s18 min long video into which extracts all the amen break remix­es, divides into 14 steps, 3 min long, then loops each remix auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Amen Break all the way!!

  • Jaryd Fletcher says:

    Thank you for this.

  • pingpong says:

    Dear Nate, When I was in grade school one of my favorite art projects was col­lage. Our teacher would gath­er the news­magazines of the day,equip us with scis­sors and glue and we would get artis­tic. Now I rec­og­nize that many of the pho­tos we cut out were pro­duced by the great­est pho­togs of their time. I always got an “A” but nev­er con­sid­ered my work to be more esthet­ic than the orig­i­nals. In time I learned that the orig­i­na­tors of collage,Picasso and Braque, thought of it as a minor adjunct to the main theme they were pur­su­ing. Yet this approach is dom­i­nant in much of our culture,especially mod­ern music crit­i­cism. Any actu­al working,creating,practicing ‚recording,studying musi­cian I know will tell you that this is lazy bull­shit on your part. No one would begrudge some­body’s right to repur­pose this or that for their own ends but it will nev­er be more than a minor craft, the true art,as always,in the act of a mas­ter drum­mer play­ing his or her ass off.

  • SJBurton says:

    Dear ‘ping­pong’, Andy Warhol ‘sam­pled’ the design of the Camp­bel­l’s soup can, and a pho­to of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s face. This is no dif­fer­ent from re-pur­pos­ing a sound in a musi­cal piece. Are you say­ing that Andy Warhol was not a real artist? Because I’m pret­ty sure most peo­ple who have any clue about art would dis­agree…

  • pingpong says:

    Dear SJBur­ton, It’s a flawed metaphor but let’s go with it. Warhol’s work was about iden­ti­ty and celebri­ty, val­ues bor­rowed from adver­tis­ing in the 60’s. It was just one part of a gen­er­al world­view and right­ly belongs in muse­ums not only because of its’ mer­it but also its’ age. Can you imag­ine what pop music would sound like if these Warho­lian val­ues con­tin­ued to exert a pow­er­ful influ­ence 60+ years lat­er? Oh,wait, I’ll bet you can imag­ine that…The lap­top with Pro­Tools is the real rea­son for our cur­rent aesthetic,not admi­ra­tion for Warhol.

  • blub says:

    Prob­a­bly because Amen Broth­er is a cov­er of Amen by The Impres­sions

  • djMarmoset says:

    Left out of this sto­ry was the fact that artists that used the break did give back in the end…

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