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The Amen break is a 6- to 7-second (4-bar) drum solo performed by Gregory Sylvester "G. C." Coleman in the song "Amen, Brother" performed by the 1960s funk and soul outfit The Winstons. The full song is an up-tempo instrumental rendition of Jester Hairston's "Amen", which he wrote for the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field (1963) and which was subsequently popularized by The Impressions in 1964. The Winstons' version was released as a B-side of the 45 RPM 7-inch vinyl single "Color Him Father" in 1969 on Metromedia (MMS-117), and is currently available on several compilations and on a 12-inch vinyl re-release together with other songs by The Winstons.
It gained fame from the 1980s onwards when four bars (6 seconds) sampled from the drum-solo (or imitations thereof) became very widely used as sampled drum loops in breakbeat, hip hop, breakbeat hardcore, hardcore techno and breakcore, drum and bass (including oldschool jungle and ragga jungle), and digital hardcore music. The Amen break has been sampled frequently from 1985 to the present day, in hip-hop, ragga, drum'n'bass, jungle music and various other forms: "a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures." Because of the Amen break, "Amen, Brother" is by far the most sampled track in the history of music, having been sampled at least 2,239 times.
Neither the performer, drummer G. C. Coleman, nor the copyright owner Richard L. Spencer have ever received any royalties or clearance fees for the use of the sample, nor has either sought royalties. Spencer considers musical works based on the sample to be at the same time "plagiarism" and "flattering".
Use in music
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The song itself achieved fame within the hip hop and subsequent electronic music communities when a former Downstairs Records employee known as Breakbeat Lenny compiled it onto his 1986 Ultimate Breaks and Beats bootleg series for DJs. Lenny hired Louis Flores to edit four bars of the drum break at a much slower speed than the remainder of the song. Although it created a jarring difference in tempo in the center of the song, it allowed hip-hop DJs to extend the beat by switching between two copies of the record on two separate turntables at a danceable tempo while ignoring the rest of the song (this technique was created by Kool Herc in 1974 and became a trend at large in 1977 with the efforts of Grandmaster Flash). By 1987, E-mu released the SP1200 sampler, altering hip-hop production techniques from drum machines to sampled loops. Many producers began to sample from the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series, causing the Amen break to gain a massive amount of fame in the late '80s hip-hop community, crossing over to the U.K. and European dance music scenes shortly afterwards. Eventually, the song was reissued in its original form at a higher quality sound, and since most contemporary electronic music producers were speeding up the sample, the bootlegged slower edited version fell out of favor.
By 1990, at the height of British rave culture, the Amen break began to appear in an increasing number of breakbeat hardcore productions. Hardcore emphasized a unique, harsh, aggressive sound that drew strongly from hip-hop and early acid house. It added a hip-hop influence with the addition of breakbeats and increased the tempo. A strong reggae and ragga influence emerged in 1991 and 1992, with uplifting piano melody loops or Jamaican reggae samples used at normal speed layered on top of frenetic 150 to 170 BPM breakbeats. This sound quickly evolved to a point where sliced and diced drum breaks in conjunction with low frequency bass lines became the important features of many tracks. This style was initially referred to as Jungle but later, as it progressed and rhythmic elements were refined, the term drum and bass became more common. Around the mid-1990s a number of IDM producers, who had been influenced by the Jungle/DnB sound, began to focus on the style and started exploring it in the context of electronica. Making "danceable" club oriented tracks was not a prerequisite. In fact, the more outlandish and obscure the manipulations, the more aesthetically pleasing the records were to aficionados—a trend that continues to this day in the form of breakcore. The Amen break can still be found in many productions and there has been a renewed interest in the "old-skool" Jungle style in recent years. Luke Vibert, one of the many IDM producers who has explored this break, has released several records under the moniker Amen Andrews, using the Amen on nearly every track, heavily sliced and edited, yet recognizable.
The Amen break is also used in many hip-hop tunes, such as N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton. The first hip-hop producer to dismember the drum sounds of the Amen break and reprogram them into a new pattern was Mr. Mixx of 2 Live Crew on their 1987 song "Feel Alright Y'all" from the Move Somethin' album, followed by the Mantronix sample-heavy track "King of the Beats" in 1988. The Amen break has also been used by rock music acts including Oasis ("D'You Know What I Mean?"), Nine Inch Nails ("The Perfect Drug") and Slipknot ("Eyeless"). It can even be heard in the background of car commercials and television shows such as The Amazing Race, and Futurama. One other recent example can be found on rapper Lupe Fiasco's 2007 album, Lupe Fiasco's The Cool in a song titled "Streets On Fire".
Drumming tabs and notation
The four bars of the break written in musical notation:
In drum tablature:
C |----------------|----------------|----------------|----------X-----| R |x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|x-x-x-x-x-X-x-x-|x-x-x-x-x---x-x-| S |----o--o-o--o--o|----o--o-o--o--o|----o--o-o----o-|-o--o--o-o----o-| B |o-o-------oo----|o-o-------oo----|o-o-------o-----|--oo------o-----| |1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |
On 6 March 2011, BBC Radio 1 broadcast an hour-long documentary as part of the Radio 1 Stories series about the Amen break, presented by Kutski. The influence of the Amen break was also featured in The Economist calling it a "short burst of drumming [that] changed the face of music".
- Butler, Mark J. (2006), Unlocking the groove: Rhythm, meter, and musical design in electronic dance music, Indiana University Press, p. 78, ISBN 978-0-253-34662-9,
Even more common, especially in jungle/drum 'n' bass, is a break ... which fans and musicians commonly refer to as the 'Amen' break.
- The Amen break's impact on history. YouTube video.
- Goldenberg, David. "It Only Takes Six Seconds To Hear The World's Most Sampled Song". Retrieved 23 September 2016.
- Harrison, Nate. "Can I Get An Amen?". YouTube. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
- "Musical history: Seven seconds of fire". The Economist. 17 December 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
- Otzen, Ellen (29 March 2015). "Six seconds that shaped 1,500 songs". BBC News. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
'It's not the worst thing that can happen to you. I'm a black man in America and the fact that someone wants to use something I created — that's flattering,' he says.
- "N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton sample of the Winstons's Amen, Brother". whosampled.com. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- "BBC Radio 1's Stories: The Amen Break". BBC. 6 June 2011.
- "A Tutorial on Cutting Up a Breakbeat Using a Tracker". PedagoNet.com. Retrieved 16 August 2012.
The tempo for the Amen, Brother breakbeat is approximately 136 BPM.
- The Amen break on freesound.org
- Video of an audio installation about the Amen break's history by Nate Harrison (archive.org mirror, Youtube mirror)
- Amen break on whosampled.com