THE AMEN BREAK - HOW A FOUR-BAR LOOP CHANGED DANCE MUSIC FOREVER
August 10th 2021
Oh lord, this week I’d like to talk about the origins of the amen break, perhaps one of the most recognisable drum loops in the history of music.
So where did it all start? Well, in 1969, funk soul band 'The Winstons' released a record called ‘Color Him Father’ and the B-side contained a track called ‘Amen Brother’. About one minute and 25 seconds into the track you can clearly hear the amen break in all its glory.
Like a sleeping giant, the break remained hidden on this B-side for over a decade, until it was released on an album called ‘Ultimate Breaks and Beats’, which was a compilation album consisting of drum loops for producers and DJs alike, released by legendary New York DJ, Breakbeat Lou, in 1986.
Before long, hordes of hiphop producers had their hands on the sample and you can hear it on countless records from this era, but most notably it’s used at the start of NWA's, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, which was released in 1988.
In the early 90s, British producers got their hands on the break too, by speeding up the loop to around 170 to 180 beats per minute, they effectively created drum and bass and jungle music for the very first time. Some of the earliest examples of this include DJ Hype’s ‘The Trooper’ (1993) and the ‘Sour Mash E.P’ from Andy C (1992).
Other early pioneers of drum and bass included Goldie, Fabio, Grooverider, Doc Scott, Shy FX, Dillinja, Roni Size, Bad Company, Ed Rush and many more, all of which you could expect to see on a Drum ‘n Bass line-up even today, almost 30 years after they helped the genre come to life.
One of my personal favourites from the early 90’s that showcases the amen break in all its glory is ‘Demons Theme’ by the criminally under-rated LTJ Bukem. Released in 1996, the track is 9 minutes long and in my opinion is probably one of the most beautiful and atmospheric tracks containing the amen break that I’ve ever heard.
The break featured heavily in dance music throughout the 90’s, you can hear it in ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ by Baby D (1996), ‘I Want You (Forever)’ by Carl Cox (1991) and ‘Poison’ by the Prodigy (1994). However, the break isn’t just exclusive to dance music, you can also find it in Slipknot’s ‘Eyeless’ (2000) and in ‘Little Wonder’ by David Bowie (1997).
According to whosampled.com, ‘Amen Brother’ has been used in over 5000 songs, making it the most sampled track of all time. Second place goes to 'Think (About it)' by Lyn Colins which has been sampled over 3000 times, and in third place having been sampled over 2000 times, is Change the Beat by French electro band, Beside.
So you would think The Winstons would be living it up on a private island, eating caviar and driving around in lamborghinis? Well, apparently not. Unfortunatel, it’s a little known fact that The Winstons never received a single penny in royalties for ‘Amen Brother’.
The lead singer for the Winstons, Richard L Spencer (pictured below on the left), was unaware how much the break had been sampled until 1996 when he received a phone call from a record label who were looking to get hold of the masters.
Due to American copyright laws, cases must be filed within 36 months of the song being published, hence they struggled to take legal action. Tragically, the drummer who played the break, Gregory Coleman (pictured above on the right), died in 2006, penniless and homeless on the streets of Atlanta.
However, some justice was delivered in 2015 when £24,000 was raised in an online fundraiser for Richard L Spencer, who unfortunately passed away at the age of 78 in December 2020.
Even though they are both gone, the musical legacy they have left behind is immeasurable, their drum loop has been featured in over 5000 songs and was essential in the creation of drum and bass and jungle music, amen brother!