Lessons To Learn From Amen Break

21 February 2015
Zara Maria Olsson

When it comes to sound, the technology of today gives us the opportunity to create anything out of almost nothing. Yet many musicians of today still continue to experiment with pieces of the past, not to mention the Amen Break — the world's most sampled 6 second drum loop. 

It was recorded in 1969 in Washington, D.C. by the funk and soul group The Winstons and started appearing in the hip hop scene 20 years later in the shape of a sample. Picked up once again by the club scene in the UK in the 1990's, the Amen Break drum loop laid a foundation to genres such as jungle, drum'n'bass and breakbeat. This piece of unintentional music history raises some very interesting points.

Innovation out of interpretation

The re-use of the amen break began in the 1980s with the sampler. This new, creative technology worked towards a democratisation of music production — it gave musicians and DJ's around the world the luxury of having any sound or instrument they wanted.

To live up to the new technology, record companies started releasing compilation albums with breaks for mixing and scratching. In the beginning of this era the Amen Break responded to a need — it was very easy to manipulate. Because of it's crisp recording and sonic qualities it allowed producers within different genres to experiment with great achievements through less effort and equipment. According to Urban Dictionary, "the amen break is cool because it is so heavily compressed and it doesn't sound like banging on a tin can when you speed it up". 

Perhaps every drummer who came of age in the late eighties and nineties played their version of the amen break, interpreted into countless new musical creations. Ironically enough, the original song "Amen, Brother" is also a re-interpretation of a musical piece of the past — a funkified translation of Jester Hairston's gospel classic "Amen" from the film Lilies of the Field.

Mutation due to commercialisation

The transformation of the UK rave scene in the 1990's grew out of commercialisation. The speed increased from 120 bpm up to 170 bpm and the four-on-the-floor beat was replaced by chopped up drum samples. Because of the growing enthusiasm for hip-hop, reggae, dancehall and dub, the scene was mutating and the amen break laid it's new foundation. 

Recycled and modified into countless new drum beats it became the spine of genres such as jungle, drum'n'bass and breakbeat as well as the roots of dubstep that emerged in the early 2000's. In 2007 a track by Britney Spears included some dubstep elements and by now, a genre named post dubstep is already emerging - again through the commercialisation of its origin.

Copyright governed culture vs. public domain

For all of the creative and commercial recycling neither The Winstons' bandleader, Richard L. Spencer nor the drummer, G.C. Coleman, ever received any money for the use of the sample. Neither did any of them pursue legal action, perhaps because none of them realised it's commercial potential. In the glory years of sampling, electronic music makers where not moneymakers but simply artists, attempting to create something new out of something old. 

While technology grew faster copyright holders struggled with maintaining the law, and the amen break managed to enter into a somewhat of public domain. In the beginning mostly harbouring an underground appeal, the amen break was eventually appropriated and commercialised, heard in TV commercials and shows.

Luring nostalgia

In 2014 Aphex Twin releases S950tx16wasr10 which, according to whosampled.com, is one out of 45 released tracks that year sampling the Amen Break. Present throughout contemporary music history the amen break is by now deeply rooted in our musical unconsciousness, which might be one explanation to it's immortality — or perhaps nostalgia is luring in the back of the producer's heads, for a time when things were a little bit more analog, a little bit more underground, simply a little bit more real.

The first time I experienced jungle music was at a rave party in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2006. The small squared room was vibrating from the heavy bass of Shy FX & UK Apachi's Original Nuttah, still recognisable kilometres away. It was as real as it could be. Perhaps nostalgia has been luring in the back of my head too ever since, for a time I was not even there to experience but wish to understand.

Culture is restless. It seems like everyone is always searching for the next big thing, for something fresh and new. We get bored and seek new experiences, intrigued by new interpretations, new relations and new perspectives. In fact, our brains are made to be attracted to novelty. In the early 1990s, jungle music was novelty, it was the next big thing - but was it really new? To interpret things and create meaning without getting lost in confusion we need a certain amount of recognition, a small piece of the past to hold on to.

Zara Maria Olsson

Zara Maria Olsson

Rotterdam / Gothenburg
Zara Maria Olsson is an animation student from Gothenburg with a passion for people, coffee and heavy bass. She is currently based in Rotterdam but wishes to eventually explore every single corner of the world. She works best during late nights and prefer neon colour to any other colour.