It’s been called the most important six second drum loop, it’s virtually spawned an entire genre, it’s subject to much debate in all corners of the internet from the legal ins-and-outs to how best to chop it up. In-fact it’s so famous it’s probably entered the unconscious musical vernacular like the Wilhelm scream did with foley, yes it’s the Amen break.
The track this ubiquitous drum break was lifted from was entitled ‘Amen, Brother’, and was recorded by The Winstons in 1969. It’s actually as a b-side to their single Color Him Father released on Metromedia. The song was actually a cover of Jester Hairston’s Amen, written for the 1963 Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field. The break kicks in around 1.26, listen below:
With over 1882 listed citings on Who Sampled that’s not even scratching the surface of how many records have plundered their record boxes to samples this six seconds of drumming history. Here’s an excelled documentary on the history of the amen and its usage, which I won’t be able to cover all of. It’s probably the most comprehensive one out there, so really worth watching it:
High profile uses of the Amen include Shy FX and UK Apache, the Futurama theme music, Mantronix, LTJ Bukem, Oasis, N.W.A, David Bowie, The Prodigy, Primal Scream, Renegade, Tinie Tempah, Squarepusher, Egyptian Empire (which is also sampled in The Prodigy’s Climbatize), and hot off the press – Meridian Dan.
Without diving into the legalities of drum break sampling, it’s fair to say there has been some tension with its liberal usage in hip hop and jungle with little monetary compensation. Recently however, Long live beautifully crafted Jungle! user Martyn Webster started a campaign to remunerate The Winstons for their recordings (sadly the drummer Gregory C. Coleman died in 2006) initially setting out to raise £1000. Without high profile support they smashed their target and raised £24,000. You can read about it here.
*update* I have just discovered this quote from Richard L. Spencer, the sole surviving member of the group (who holds the copyright to the recording) told the BBC:
I felt as if I’d been touched somewhere where no one is supposed to touch. Your art is like your children, it’s like a part of you. I felt invaded. I felt like my privacy had been taken for granted. And as a historian, as a social scientist, I also felt like the history of African-American music from the 1800s to the present is basically carted ff by other people who became very wealthy and rich and we’ve usually been left out. [sighs] You almost have to do like we did when we gave up Africa and just go… well, that’s the way it is. I’m flattered that you chose it, but please make it a legal interaction here and pay me. The young made that played that drum beat died homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia around 1996.
[quote via 20jazzfunkgreats]
The break has seen unparalleled popularity within jungle and drum’n’bass, being a cornerstone of the genres. In this article we’re going to have a look at some approaches of chopping, processing, resampling, layering and hopefully doing something fresh with it.
Why Does the Amen Sound so Awesome?
Good question. I spoke to recording techniques and vintage production extraordinaire Hal Ritson of Replay Heaven and The Young Punx about how the Amen was recorded and what about it that attracts us to it like moth to light:
The main characteristic of the Amen break is the harmonic intensity and sonic character it brings to any track. Recorded on only one or two mics at some distance from the kit and hence capturing a lot of the sonics of the room, and with quite loosely tuned kit leaving toms to ring sympathetically with the snare hits etc, the sound is much looser and more ambient than either more contemporary close mic drum sounds, or most programmed beats. This means its addition to any track immediately adds a space and depth to the sonic soundscape. While this is true of many vintage break beats the Amen break seems to have a uniquely appealing ‘colour’ to it that adds enough ‘darkness’ to the sonics to make any music sound cool and edgy, without becoming too depressingly dark.
Its almost infinite usability appears to stem from many elements in the break being perfectly balanced for practical use: It has just enough organic groove to add life and vibe to a beat, while being close enough to a straight 16 grid to not clash with straight programmed elements.
The balance between the transient impact of the hits, and the ambient space of the room seems to strike the right balance between being punchy enough to stand on its own as the sole drum beat in a track, while being soft and spacey enough to sit on top of or within programmed elements without fighting with them in the mix.
It is a regular enough pattern to lay down a hypnotic looping groove, but also has small variations in the playing (particularly the end of the phrase) that enable it to be used with variations in the pattern, or in new creative ways, particularly when heavily edited and re-triggered. (Some sub genres of DnB seem to consist almost entirely of people finding more and more intricate ways to trigger Amen into complex patterns!)
And the balance of weight between the most important loud hits, and the more subtle grace notes in between is very well composed, and in particular seems to sound good whether its played slowly as a hiphop break, mid paced as house or breaks, or sped up fast to jungle speeds.
The above elements are probably true of all the real classic breaks, but seem peculiarly well balanced in Amen.
Hal has made a plethora of vintage breakbeat sample packs for Sample Magic which I would thoroughly recommend.
The earliest example I could find of Amen, Brother being sampled was in two hip hop records, Salt N’ Pepa’s I Desire from 1986, taking both the drum break and more uncommonly the horn section turnaround leading into it.
…and the other was from the same year is Stetsasonic’s Bust That Groove, also sampling the horns.
Responsibly Sourced Amens
It also turns out where you get your Amen from has a big impact on the sound of it, due to mastering and various other sonic considerations. I spoke to producer, journalist, DnB trainspotter and friend of the family Tim Cant about sourcing your Amen:
There are tons of places to source Amen breaks, but they’re not all equal. The CD compilation DJ Pogo Presents Block Party Breaks 2 seems like the most obvious place to grab it from, especially if you don’t own a turntable, but for some reason I never got on with it. Maybe it’s how it’s been mastered but I could never get it to sound right, though I’m certainly not dismissing my lack of ability as the culprit. Likewise, I ended up never using Amens I sampled from Mantronix’s King of the Beats (available on various CD compilations) either. I don’t use it personally, but Renegade’s Terrorist is an easy to track-down jungle Amen with the crash and everything, and you can buy a .wav version from Beatport if you need it in a hurry.
My personal recommendation for a digital Amen source is the awesome and super cheap Simon Harris sample CD Broken Beaten Scratched, which includes a couple of fantastic-sounding second generation Amens and loads of other classic breaks. For me these versions beat out anything else from Zero-G Datafiles to Jungle Warfare.
You can check Tim’s music on his SoundCloud and his words in Computer Music and Music Radar. To learn more about the Amen’s history, musicality and usage, have a read of Ethan Hein’s blog and this Resident Advisor article.