I’m following on from our series of breakdowns and styles to talk about one of the most famous and arguably one of the ‘Adam’s Ribs’ of sampling and electronically produced music; The Amen Break. Those not familiar with the name of the break will undoubtedly know it once they hear it. But its place in the sampling hall of fame firmly plants it near the top.
The Amen Break is a 6 second (4 bar) drum solo performed in 1969 by Gregory Cylvester “G. C.” Coleman in the song “Amen, Brother” performed by the 1960s funk and soul outfit The Winstons. The full song is an up-tempo instrumental rendition of Jester Hairston’s “Amen,” which he wrote for the Sidney Poitier film ‘Lilies of the Field’ (1963) and which was subsequently popularised by The Impressions in 1964.
It gained its popularity during the eighties and made its way onto spawn several whole genres of electronic music and making its way into several high profile artists’ repertoires; due to homage or lack of producer creativity. The song itself achieved fame within the hip hop and subsequent electronic music communities when a former Downstairs Records employee known as Breakbeat Lenny compiled it onto his 1986 ‘Ultimate Breaks and Beats’ bootleg series for DJs. Lenny hired Louis Flores to edit four bars of the drum break at a much slower speed than the remainder of the song. Although it created a jarring difference in tempo in the center of the song, it allowed hip-hop DJs to extend the beat by switching between two copies of the record on two separate turntables at a danceable tempo while ignoring the rest of the song (this technique was created by Kool Herc in 1974 and became a trend at large in 1977 with the efforts of Grandmaster Flash).
By 1990, at the height of British rave culture, the Amen break began to appear in an increasing number of breakbeat hardcore productions. Hardcore emphasised a unique, harsh, aggressive sound that drew strongly from hip-hop and early acid house. It added a hip-hop influence with the addition of breakbeats and increased the tempo. A strong reggae and ragga influence emerged in 1991 and 1992, with uplifting piano melody loops or Jamaican reggae samples used at normal speed layered on top of frenetic 150 to 170 BPM breakbeats. This sound quickly evolved to a point where sliced and diced drum breaks in conjunction with low frequency bass lines became the important features of many tracks. This style was initially referred to as Jungle but later, as it progressed and rhythmic elements were refined, the term drum and bass became more common.
It is also in many hip-hop tunes, such as N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. The first Hip-Hop producer to dismember the drum sounds of the Amen break and reprogram them into a new pattern was Mr. Mixx of 2 Live Crew on their 1987 song “Feel Alright Y’all” from the Move Somethin’ album, followed by the Mantronix sample-heavy track “King of the Beats” in 1988. The Amen break has also been used by rock music acts including Oasis (‘D’You Know What I Mean’), Nine Inch Nails (“The Perfect Drug”), Rammstein (“Sehnsucht”) . It can even be heard in the background of car commercials and television shows such as The Amazing Race, and Futurama. One other recent example can be found on rapper Lupe Fiasco’s 2007 album, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool in a song titled “Streets On Fire”.