The Amen break is a drum break that has been widely sampled in popular music. It comes from the 1969 track "Amen, Brother" by the soul group the Winstons, released as the B-side of the 1969 single "Color Him Father". The drum break lasts about seven seconds and was performed by Gregory Coleman.
With the rise of hip hop in the 1980s, the break was widely sampled; in the 1990s, it became a staple of drum and bass and jungle music. It has been used in thousands of tracks of many genres, making it one of the most sampled recordings in history. The Winstons received no royalties for its use; bandleader Richard Lewis Spencer said it was unlikely Coleman, who died homeless and destitute in 2006, realized the impact he had made on music. Spencer condemned its use as plagiarism, but later said it was flattering.
The Winstons were a multiracial soul band from Washington, D.C., who played throughout the southern United States. They were led by Richard Lewis Spencer. In early 1969, the Winstons recorded the single "Color Him Father" in Atlanta. For the B-side, they recorded an instrumental based on the gospel song "Amen" and a guitar riff Curtis Mayfield had played for Spencer. The result was "Amen, Brother", which took 20 minutes to compose.
Though "Color Him Father" became a top-10 R&B hit and won a Grammy Award, "Amen Brother", received little notice at the time of release. The Winstons struggled to secure gigs in the South with their multiracial composition and disbanded in 1970.
At about 1 minute and 26 seconds into "Amen, Brother", the other musicians stop playing and drummer Gregory Coleman performs a four-bar drum break. For two bars, he plays the previous beat; in the third, he delays a snare hit; in the fourth, he leaves the first beat empty, following with a syncopated pattern and early crash cymbal.
The drum break was added to pad the length of the track, which had been too short with just the riff. Spencer said he directed the break, but Phil Tolotta, the only other surviving member of the band in 2015, credited it solely to Coleman.
In the 1980s, with the rise of hip hop, DJs began using turntables to loop drum breaks from records, which MCs would rap over. In 1986, "Amen Brother" was included on Ultimate Breaks and Beats, a compilation of old funk and soul tracks with clean drum breaks intended for DJs.
Salt-N-Pepa's 1986 single "I Desire" saw one of the earliest uses of the Amen break. A number of releases in 1988 took it into the mainstream, including "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A and "Keep It Going Now" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. In "King of the Beats" by Mantronix (1988), the Amen break is "chopped up, layered and processed so that the drums became central to the track rather than simply a rhythmic bedding".
The Amen break was widely sampled in British dance music in the early 1990s, especially in drum and bass and jungle. It has since been used on thousands of tracks, making "Amen, Brother" one of the most widely sampled tracks in history. It has been widely used across genres, including rock music by acts such as Oasis and television themes such as that of Futurama. According to WhoSampled, a user-generated website cataloging samples, the Amen break is the most sampled track in history, appearing in over 5000 tracks as of 2021.
The copyright owner of "Amen, Brother", including the Amen break, was Winstons leader Richard Lewis Spencer. Neither he nor drummer Coleman received royalties for the break, and Spencer was not aware of its use until 1996, when an executive contacted him asking for the master tape. Spencer condemned the sampling as plagiarism, and said in 2011: "[Coleman's] heart and soul went into that drum break. Now these guys copy and paste it and make millions." However, in 2015, he said: "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."
Coleman died homeless and destitute in 2006. Spencer said it was unlikely he was aware of the impact he had made on music. In 2015, a GoFundMe campaign set up for Spencer by British DJs Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald raised £24,000 (US$37,000). Spencer died in 2020.
- "Amen Break musician finally gets paid". BBC News. November 11, 2015. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
- Otzen, Ellen (March 29, 2015). "Six seconds that shaped 1,500 songs". BBC News. Retrieved March 29, 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.
- "Seven seconds of fire". The Economist. December 17, 2011. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved March 20, 2019.
- Dave Turner (November 20, 2018). "The 20 best tracks that sample the Amen Break". Mixmag. Retrieved December 8, 2019.
- 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.
- Otzen, Ellen (March 29, 2015). "Six seconds that shaped 1,500 songs". Retrieved March 20, 2019.
- Holbrook, Emma (May 5, 2021). "The Greatest Samples in Music". TheFortyFive. Retrieved August 8, 2021.
- Staff, WSOCTV com News. "Family remembers Grammy winning singer/songwriter Richard Spencer". WSOC. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
- Ryan Alexander Bloom (2018). Live Drum & Bass written. New York: Hudson Music.
- Gerwin Eisenhauer (2005). Welcome to the Jungle (in German). Germany: Dux.
- "A Tutorial on Cutting Up a Breakbeat Using a Tracker". PedagoNet.com. Retrieved August 16, 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