Back in the early days of mixing and breakbeat music, DJs would sample a number of records to build a song. With melodic and rhythmic elements coming from different records, these early DJs stitched together with incredible music, but one drum break, in particular, has made an outstanding impact on the music we listen to today. The Amen break. The Amen break is an eight-second clip from the song “Amen, Brother” by the Winston Brothers and performed by drummer Gregory Coleman. On the other hand, it is most widely known as the most sampled piece of music in history. Although the original piece would not gain much recognition, “Amen, Brother” found its way into two worlds, the UK’s garage/drum n’ bass underground and the American hip-hop scene.
In the US, the Amen break found its way into early DJ sets through the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series of albums which compiled several breaks for producers and DJs alike. The producers will take the break and splice it together with melodic samples to produce famous hip-hop tracks such as NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “I Desire”, and Snow’s “Informer.” With its widespread use in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the hip-hop scene has also captured producers from the generation who look to throw it back to older boom-bap styles or connect themselves to the realm of dance music through the break. For example, Tyler the Creator uses the Amen break on his song “Pigs.” The break’s lo-fi sound along with the slowed tempo help create the dark sound Tyler builds on the track. While on Deko’s “Midnight Tokyo” he uses the break to add drum-n-bass-like energy to the intro of the track.
Back over in the UK, the Amen break became the go-to rhythm for breakbeat electronic genres such as jungle, garage and drum n’ bass. Producers within these genres would take the break and turn it to eleven by greatly increasing it’s tempo and applying it to tracks such as “Firestarter” by The Prodigy and DJ Carl Cox’s “Let the Bass kick”; which cranked the tempo from 130bpm all the way to around 170bpm. The now sped-up Amen break helped bring rhythm and energy to the bass-heavy drum-n-bass and jungle tracks which were gaining popularity in the UK underground scene. Today, the Amen break is still a staple in the back pocket of many producers and DJs whether it makes up the main drum section of the track or is used to accent certain parts of a build-up such as DJ Snake’s and Zomboy’s “Quiet Storm.”
Today the break is considered one of the most important building blocks of these genres and it can be hard to find a lot of songs within older hip-hop and UK breakbeat music that don’t use the Amen break or chopped versions of it. The sample has even penetrated other genres such as rock and pop with the break appearing on Oasis’s “D’You Know What I Mean” and Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”
Outside of listening to music the Amen Break has also been adapted into TV with it appearing the themes of shows such as Futurama and The Powerpuff Girls. Sadly, Coleman, who performed and apparently wrote the break, never controlled the sample and therefore never received royalties for its widespread use. Instead, it was controlled by the Winston’s bandleader, Richard L. Spencer, who also never received any royalties for its use as US patent law required him to file any claims only 36 months after any song using the break had been released. He also stated in an interview with the BBC in 2011 that he was unaware of its influence on modern music until a British record label contacted him in 1996 for its use. He also revealed that Coleman had sadly passed away in 2005 and according to Spencer had been experiencing houselessness throughout his life and may never have known about the impact he made on music around the world. However, in 2015, a GoFundMe was started by British DJ Martyn Webster to raise money for Spencer as a way to compensate him for the use of the break and ended up raising around 24,000 pounds for the bandleader.
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