There’s a fascinating (nay, essential) documentary available for just six more days via the BBC iPlayer that all (especially the more geeky) DJ/Producer’s should check out. It maps the history and importance of a relatively simple drum break that has found its way [sampled] onto literally thousands of dance music productions. It’s called ‘The Amen Break’ and is just a six second section of an obscure, 7″ vinyl B side by a band called The Winston’s. The full story of drum sample usage, what technology instigated the trend and the artists plundered would be far beyond the scope of this news article, but we can grab a piece of the history and its relevance to this ubiquitous, all-dominating drum break.
The Amen break was originally played by Winston’s band member, drummer G.C. Coleman (now deceased). Although it’s not clear who was the very first DJ producer to sample and use this break in their own productions, the awareness for DJ’s that there was creative inspiration to be gained from taking the funk and feeling from an artists drum performance, and placing it within their own tracks, was a pivotal moment in dance music history. This happened around the mid 80s.
The advent of affordable sampling technology (Akai S-series hardware etc) in the late 80s then further blew this art-form into the mainstream with radio friendly hip-hop adopting the organic drum playing of bygone artists, and fully embracing that soul and spirit. Innovators in the dance music scene (both in studios, behind the decks and in the retail sector) began to see that ‘break’s could be big business.
Visitors to renowned record stores in New York and London began noticing a series of bootleg albums called, ‘Ultimate Breaks and Beats’. The series of albums eventually spanned around twenty volumes and encompassed full tracks of sometimes rare, sometimes obscure and occasionally not obvious tracks in their entirety. The key to inclusion was that each track had some form of usable and inspirational break. If the original work didn’t hammer the message home firmly enough, the album compilers re-edited said break section to be an extended version that DJ’s could in fact use.
The Amen Break was therefore getting some major exposure appearing in a vast amount of tunes coming from the States and soon after, heavily adopted by UK producers as the 90s dawned. The ‘rare groove’ trend here on our shores made supreme use of the Amen Break (and of course, most of the James Brown catalogue too), but it was the emerging UK drum ‘n bass and Jungle scene that sent it into orbit with a reborn sensibility. Continued use of Akai samplers carried into a faster, more manic territory but it was Propellerhead’s software ReCycle that amplified even that. All of a sudden the actual slices of the Amen Break could be split up even better, and with more control, enabling DJ’s to re-pitch, speed-up/slow down, re-arrange and generally mash up the original source material.
As the 90s continued, and even into the new Millennium, popular artists brought this break into their songs – Amy Winehouse, Oasis and The Prodigy showed that mainstream music too loved the mystical qualities of this six second wonder. With artists such as current radio and festival favourites, Chase and Status using it in some of their tunes, it seems like the Amen Break can endure any falling in and out of popularity as generational shifts cause it to be reborn over and over again.
I’d especially encourage you to stick with the full documentary we link to above as we get an actual insight into the recording of the original track from the sole surviving member of the Winston’s, Richard Spencer. Now the full copyright holder for any royalties due on the sale of the record, it becomes apparent how little Richard and his band members have been paid for this continued use of those few seconds of drumming. It’s a sad to hear that the band itself and their families have received literally zero in the way of dollar income for use of the Amen Break. It’s doubly sad to hear also that original drummer, G. C. Coleman died homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia.
Coleman has of course been immortalised already in dance and popular music history. The Amen Break will no doubt survive every reader of this particular article too. But wouldn’t it be nice if Coleman’s family or children picked up their mail one morning and found a cheque for tens of thousands of dollars – “Gettin’ Paid in Full” was maybe just a dream?
Here’s my personal choice for the Amen Break usage: