The Amen Break

If you had to name the most influential drummers in contemporary music, who would you pick? If you’re a rock fan, you might go with Ringo Starr, John Bonham, or Keith Moon. A jazz fan might talk about Max Roach, Elvin Jones or Tony Williams. You probably wouldn’t think to name Gregory Cylvester Coleman. He was the drummer in a sixties soul band, The Winstons. His claim to fame is a five and a half second break in an obscure song called “Amen, Brother,” the B-side to the minor Winstons hit “Color Him Father.” That doesn’t sound like much of a case for Coleman’s importance. But his short drum break is widely considered to be the most-sampled recording in history, ahead of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache” and “Cold Sweat” and all the rest of the classic breakbeats.

Here’s “Amen, Brother.” The famous drum break comes at 1:27.

“Amen, Brother” is an uptempo adaptation of “Amen” by Jester Hairston, written for the movie Lilies of the Field, and made famous by The Impressions (with Curtis Mayfield, before he went solo.)

“Amen, Brother” didn’t get much attention until crate-digging hip-hop producers started sampling the drum break in the 1980s. Breakbeat Lenny included it in the first volume of Ultimate Breaks and Beats. Since then, the break has become ubiquitous not just in hip-hop, but in every style of dance music. It almost single-handedly spawned entire genres of electronica, particularly especially drum ‘n’ bass and its various offshoots. The Amen shows up in rock and pop songs ranging from Oasis to Nine Inch Nails. It’s in TV theme songs and commercials. Casual music listeners have probably heard it in dozens if not hundreds of recordings. Here’s a family tree showing the most noteworthy usages.

As is so often the case in sample history, GC Coleman never got a dime from any of these uses beyond his union scale for the original recording session. He died in 2006, so there’s not much we can do for him now, but I think he at least deserves some recognition.

Inside the break

Here’s the Amen break, looped four times:

Amen break by ethanhein

Wikipedia has handy drum notation and drum machine tablature for the break.

Here’s how the break looks in the sampling program Recycle:

The Amen break

Each blue spiky blob is a drum hit. The vertical lines are slices I added using Recycle. Once you’ve sliced up the loop, you can play the slices back in any order and any combination using a MIDI keyboard or drum pads. You can generate an infinite variety of new loops this way.

Two documentaries on the Amen break

The usual reference for the Amen break is this twenty-minute video by Nate Harrison.

Here’s an hour-long podcast on the break by Crissy Criss:

Noteworthy Amen break samples

I’m not attempting anything resembling completeness here; these are just tracks I like or find interesting. Starting in the eighties with the old skool, here’s “King Of The Beats” by Mantronix.

In “I Desire,” Salt N Pepa mixes the Amen with drums from Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and the synth line from “Daisy Lady” by 7th Wonder.

Maybe the best-known hip-hop usage of the Amen is NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” (very, very NSFW.)

The break appears in pitched-down form at the very beginning of “Informer” by Snow. What the heck is he saying in the chorus, anyway?

As I said above, the Amen is most closely associated with drum ‘n’ bass, for example “The Angels Fell” by Dillinja.

Luke Vibert did an album under the pseudonym Amen Andrews where just about every song uses a variation on the Amen break.

An artsier take on the Amen: “Girl/Boy” by Aphex Twin.

Even artsier: Amon Tobin’s “Nightlife.”

David Bowie uses the Amen for his foray into the world of drum ‘n’ bass, “Little Wonder.” It’s not one of his strongest tunes but he gets huge points for trying.

The most current hip-hop song I could find that uses the Amen is Lupe Fiasco’s “Streets On Fire.”

Many, many more examples can be found on the Amen Break Database and Whosampled.com.

The Amen break on TV

As the Nate Harrison documentary points out, the Amen pops up in quite a few TV commercials. It’s made its way into some theme songs, too, most notably the one from Futurama:

The Amen also shows up in the Powerpuff Girls theme song.

Do you still think that sampling is stealing? I don’t mean monetarily, I mean artistically. Do you think that there’s something unoriginal in all these uses of the Amen break? Do you think that the way Aphex Twin or Lupe Fiasco recontextualizes the break is somehow a lesser creative act than getting out a drum kit and playing something? You can probably guess where I stand.

Why is the Amen break so magical?

Producers talk about how funky and passionate the Amen is, how compressed and dirty the drum sounds are, how much hip syncopation it uses in its second half. But what if there’s a mathematical explanation for the break’s popularity? Michael Schneider has a theory that the Amen Break sounds so good because it’s structured around the golden ratio.

Is there anything to this theory? You be the judge.

Try it yourself

Here’s my mashup of many of the above tracks, with heavy processing of the Amen break in Recycle and Reason.

Amen Brother megamix by ethanhein

If you want to play too, the internet is full of resequenced and reshuffled variations on the Amen break available for your downloading pleasure. Here are a hundred fifty Amen loops. Here’s another forty and yet another twenty. Stick them in your favorite audio editor and have fun!

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