The Legend Of The Amen Break

It’s a spring day in 1969, a band named ‘The Winstons’ are tirelessly working away in a studio in Atlanta, Georgia. They’ve just cut their new single ‘Color Him Father’ and are struggling to come up with a B-Side. The band settled on an instrumental based around an old gospel song called ‘Amen, Brother’ but didn’t have enough material to flesh out a whole track, so, they decided to pad it out with a 4 bar drum solo from drummer Gregory C. Coleman.

They left glad to have got the job done but not massively inspired by the track. Little did they know they had just created what would go on to be the most sampled (and arguably most important) piece of music in history...

The A-side, ‘Color Him Father’, gained success with a top 10 R&B hit in the US, winning a Grammy award the following year, however the B-side, ‘Amen, Brother’, never picked up much attention. As a mixed-race group in the Deep South, the band struggled to get bookings and subsequently broke up in 1970, leaving their historic recording to lay dormant for the next decade.

6 Perfect Seconds...

As the sampling culture blossomed in the early 80s, producers were digging for solo’d snippets from songs to use in their own tracks. Finding a clean drum loop was always great, but there was something about the Amen Break (as it became known) and the way Coleman played 'in the pocket', that made it stand out.

One of the reasons why the break became so popular, could be due to it adhering to the 'Golden Ratio’ principle. The ‘Golden Ratio’ can be found throughout nature and derives from the Fibonacci Sequence, it’s a ratio that maintains balance which involves each segment space being added to that of the one next to them to form the next, and so on. The peaks of the Amen Break happen to align with the Golden Ratio standards; now, this could be over-intellectualizing this, but other enduring works of art that adhere to the same principals include the Mona Lisa, Bathers at Asnières and The Last Supper, to name but a few, so there could be something in it.

Back to The Story: The Discovery

A vinyl series compiled by ‘Breakbeat Lou’ called ‘Ultimate Breaks and Beats’ (one of the first ‘sample packs’?), was a 25 album compilation that ran from 1986-1991 and featured drum breaks for DJ’s, including the Amen Break, which provided the ultimate fodder for up and coming producers.

The first major act to use it was Salt’n’Pepa with their track ‘I Desire’ where you can hear it’s been slowed down a touch:

But the biggest track to come out of that time was N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton’, hard-hitting, powerful and cementing the Amen in Hip Hops legacy:

The Birth of Jungle

At some point, by the early 90s, Breakbeat Lou’s vinyl compilations made their way across the Atlantic and into the hands of UK ravers. Artists such as Grooverider, took the Hip Hop influence, sped it up to Acid House tempos and essentially birthed the entire Jungle movement, as well as its successor Drum & Bass, from this one sample, a perfect example of a fusion of cultures.

Since then the break has been the backbone of countless rave tunes which eventually fed its way into mainstream culture with artists such as The Prodigy, Oasis and even David Bowie sampling it!

The Most Sampled Track

According to popular, The Amen Break has been sampled 4600 times! Unfortunately for ‘The Winstons’ they had no idea of the scale of usage of their drum solo; until around 1996, when Richard L Spencer (lead vocals and sax player), who also wrote the arrangement, got a call from a record label looking to get hold of the masters!

‘Color Him Father’ sold over a million copies at the time, so Richard did some research and it dawned on him just how much his song had been sampled and how much he may be missing out on in royalties! Unfortunately, the statute of limitations meant he couldn’t pursue most people anymore and the laws with regards to sampling were still pretty muddy, so he had no recourse, just left frustrated and eventually accepting of what had happened. Sadder still, Coleman, who played the beat, died homeless and destitute, unaware of the impact of his playing.

Fast forward to 2015 and a DJ from the UK named Martyn Webster set about making reparations for Richard. He set up a go fund me, aimed towards anyone who as ‘ever written or sold any music with the amen break, or even just enjoyed one of the countless hundreds and hundreds of tunes that contain it’, asking them to contribute as a way to give back in some form. The first campaign raised £24,000 which went straight to Richard and there is now a second, ongoing campaign still receiving regular donations as well.

Check out the video below to see just how far and wide, in terms of genre, the beat went:

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