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April 16, 2024

Amen Break: Granddaddy of Music Samples

By ALEX HUROWITZ | November 2, 2012

For the past 30 years or so, musical sampling has attained a significant role in the music industry. What is sampling exactly? According to Wikipedia, music sampling is taking a portion of one recording and using it as an instrument in a different recording. Through samples, one can create an entirely different song from the origin of said samples. An example of this is Endtroducing… by DJ Shadow. Released in 1996, it has been cited by the Guinness Book of Records as the first album ever to be created entirely with samples. If you were to listen to the original material the samples come from, you would see how they do not sound anything like the instrumental hip hop and trip hop feel that DJ Shadow falls under.

That being said, how important is music sampling today? The use of music sampling led to the birth of hip hop and helped with the development of electronic music. Out of all the genres of music, these two in particular revolve around sampling. Even today, there are countless songs that are sculpted entirely with samples. In all actuality, it was one sample in particular that led to such developments in the music industry. It’s called the Amen Break.

The Amen Break is a 5.2 second long drum solo in the song “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons, a 1960’s funk and soul band from Washington DC. “Amen, Brother” was a B-Side to the song “Color Me Father,” the Winston’s most well known song.  It reached number 7 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. Its composer, Richard Spencer, the saxophonist of the Winstons, won a Grammy in 1970 for best R&B song. “Amen, Brother” was just an updated funk version of an old gospel standard and there isn’t much of anything that makes it more special than the hundreds of other records released during that time. At around the one minute, twenty second mark, all of the instruments drop out except for the drums for four bars. The drummer, Gregory Coleman, maintains the previous beat for two bars, then subtly changes the third and fourth bar leading into the band’s reentry. This would become the most used sample in the history of music.

Obviously it didn’t happen immediately. “Amen, Brother” lay dormant for more than a decade while the Winstons broke up shortly after “Color Me Father” and faded into obscurity. But then in 1986, the drum break showed up in the first volume of “Ultimate Breaks and Beats,” a bootleg compilation of drums-only tracks. Why were they only drum tracks? DJ’s and producers, starting with people like Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc in the late 70s and early 80s, had used drum breaks from old funk songs because those breaks where people’s favorite part to dance to and such drum breaks were good backing material for rappers to rap over. It was DJ Kool Herc who saw this and then found ways to isolate and prolong the drum breaks, especially the Amen Break. This would become the blueprint to what would become hip hop. A new piece of digital equipment called the sampler made it much easier for producers to create loops and tracks with samples as well as set the tempo.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, in the rapidly changing electronic music scene of Britain in the early 1990’s, the sampler helped electronic producers combine their American house, techno, dub and reggae influences all together. Producers found drum breaks that suited their sound and such beats became used so much that fans recognized them and started to look at how each producer manipulated them. The main drum break used was the Amen Break, which many British producers first heard on the “King of Beats,” a six minute long track of hip hop beats and other samples released by Mantronix, a producer from New York. This time though, the Amen Break was chopped up, layered, and processed, making the drum the central track as opposed to a rhythm like in hip hop. The Amen Break spread and as music technology advanced, the break was further manipulated to the point where the original sample was unrecognizable.

So why did the Amen break become the most used sample out of any other sample? It was easy to sample and manipulate and by a certain point, people tended to use it because everyone else was using it. In addition, the loose sound Coleman, the drummer, created using a ride cymbal filled the sound of the sample and the “crunchiness” of the recording was an appealing quality to producers.

Now, neither the performer, Coleman, nor the copyright owner, Spencer, has ever received any royalties from the use of the sample. Even though the copyright laws concerning sample use have been made more clear, the Amen Break has been used so much for free, that it is practically part of the public domain. If it was not for this sample, hip-hop and electronic music would still exist, but it wouldn’t be the same as what we know.


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