The Origins of the “Amen Break,” The Most Sampled Piece of Recorded Music Ever

You may not find the ref­er­ence eas­i­ly in a Google search. But hang around elec­tron­ic musi­cians, DJs, or pro­duc­ers long enough, and you’ll prob­a­bly hear some­one talk about an “Amen song.” They don’t mean gospel, not direct­ly, but the famed “Amen break,” a six-sec­ond drum loop sam­pled from a 1969 soul instru­men­tal record­ing of the gospel song “Amen, Broth­er” from the B‑Side of a Gram­my-win­ning record by Wash­ing­ton, DC-based group The Win­stons. Played by drum­mer G.C. Cole­man, who died in 1996, it has like­ly become “the most sam­pled piece of record­ed music ever,” as the Great Big Sto­ry video above points out.

We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the more exten­sive doc­u­men­tary his­to­ry of the Amen break below by writer Nate Har­ri­son. The Great Big Sto­ry video is not that, but rather a short, 4‑minute tour through the sample’s ori­gins by way of Bronx DJ Lou Flo­res, “Break­beat Lou,” who includ­ed “Amen, Broth­er” on a com­pi­la­tion of songs made specif­i­cal­ly for DJs.

If you’ve nev­er under­stood what’s so cap­ti­vat­ing about this beat, lis­ten to Flo­res describe its son­ic qual­i­ties. It’s “prob­a­bly one of the most organ­ic, larg­er-than-life, big pres­ence style of drums… there’s so many depths to this par­tic­u­lar track,” he says, list­ing the spe­cif­ic effect of each piece of the drum kit.

There real­ly is “noth­ing else like it.” And, para­dox­i­cal­ly, it exists every­where, slowed down as the back­beat of ear­ly hip-hop, sped up to inhu­man speeds in drum ‘n’ bass; appear­ing in some form or anoth­er in the reper­toire of almost every con­tem­po­rary artist, pro­duc­er, and drum­mer. The Amen break has popped up in over 3,000 songs, from David Bowie to Slip­knot to Skrillex to Pub­lic Ene­my to N.W.A. to… well, it may be eas­i­er to name pop­u­lar musi­cians of the last thir­ty years who haven’t been at least Amen-adja­cent at some point in their lives. Like cer­tain stan­dards in jazz or move­ments from clas­si­cal hits, every­one knows it, even if they don’t know they know it.

What’s refresh­ing about the brief explain­er is that, rather than try to cov­er this kind of musi­co­log­i­cal ter­ri­to­ry in a few min­utes, it focus­es on the break’s first pop­u­lar­iz­er, Flo­res, who was drawn out of his retire­ment from music because of the viral phe­nom­e­non of the Amen break. He’s an affa­ble guide to the most famous sam­ple in his­to­ry, hap­py that his cor­ner of the Bronx con­tributed so much to the cul­ture by help­ing turn sam­pled music into an orig­i­nal and inven­tive art form. Learn much more about the his­to­ry of the Amen break in the doc­u­men­tary above and at our pre­vi­ous post here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

A Brief His­to­ry of Sam­pling: From the Bea­t­les to the Beast­ie Boys

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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