Can I Get An Amen? The World’s Greatest Drum Loop Reaches Radio 4

For those of you who missed it on either The World Service’s ‘Weekend’ and ‘Newshour’ programmes, or Radio 4’s ‘PM’, here’s my report on ‘Amen Brother’, the rapidly snowballing fundraising campaign by British DJs Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald to give something back to the surviving member of the group that one day in 1969 inadvertently created arguably the most influential six seconds in the history of recorded sound – The survivor is Richard Spencer, the group The Winstons and the track… Well, if you’re reading this you probably don’t need much of an introduction, but here’s a potted history:

In further developments, the World Service’s feedback programme Over To You has now dedicated half of its most recent edition to listener’s reactions to the report and the campaign, largely because, as the producer informed me, ‘Twitter went mad over it’. Respect is also due to redoubtable presenter Rajan Datar for choosing this as his own favourite amen track of all time.

I’m pretty certain I’ve written before in these pages on the subject of my great affection for so-called ‘oldskool’ hardcore and jungle music, so much of which is based on the sampling and reinterpretation of this most crunchy and distinctive of all the so-called ‘breakbeats’. It was the first music I truly loved and early exposure to labels such as Reinforced, Strictly Underground, Suburban Base and Movin’ Shadow proved a genuine future shock to my tender teenage ears. In unguarded moments I’ve even commented that jungle was just about as funky and futuristic as machine music ever managed to get, and that the early work of artists such as Shy FX, a pre-jazzy 4Hero and a pre-Strictly Come Dancing Goldie were often as unwittingly avant garde as anything dreamed up by other more lauded pioneers of 20th century musics, your Schaeffers, your Ras and your Moondogs. While I admit that that last sentence will probably have made quite a large number of people surprisingly angry (and acknowledging that coming of age in that period is bound to have clouded my judgement on the subject), I do sometimes feel it was the last time music and technology took a genuine step forward together into the unknown. And to those who might sneer at some imagined lack of sophistication in tracks such as ‘Original Nuttah’ or ‘6,000,000 Ways 2 Die’ (and such people are surprisingly legion), I can only point out that, whatever your thoughts on hardcore and jungle, it’s one hell of a gateway drug to all kinds of weird and wonderful music. To debate this further, send a heated email to the usual address.

To the uninitiated, the 2004 documentary on the Amen Break by Nate Harrison is still essential viewing, providing far greater historical context and critical theory than I could offer here. For my own part, news of a campaign intending to give something back to the surviving member of a group responsible for the backbone of so much music over the past three decades struck a huge chord, as it clearly has to thousands of others if £22,000 worth of donations (at the time of writing) is any kind of yardstick. Online sampling database ‘Who Sampled‘ lists over 1,500 individual tracks that have “officially” used ‘Amen Brother’ in whole or part, but as someone with a personal collection of amen-sampling tracks in the hundreds (at least), I would wager that’s a conservative estimate – it could be two or even three times that figure. And the original band never saw a bean. A worthy cause indeed.

For added value, I’ve included a slightly truncated transcript of my Nate Harrison interview below. I started by asking him for his own take on the cultural impact of sampling:

Nate Harrison: In the late 70s/early 80s and definitely throughout the 80s sampling technology was developed. And this is not something even per se to do with pop music, but just in terms of technology, it became possible to record any sound and essentially play it back as an instrument. You could take somebody’s voice or banging pots and pans together. You could really take any sound and kind of ‘musicalize’ it if that’s even a word, by mapping it across a keyboard and playing it like an instrument. One of the first things that sampling allowed for is the re-use of older recorded material, so for example in the case of the amen break, you could sample the drums and then re-play them as if they were your own drums. And so, voilà – you would have your own drum beat under your song. Sampling really took off in the 80s, you can absolutely hear [it] in the first instances of hip hop music.

RTF: There are so many breaks to choose from and many by much more famous and ‘visible’ artists. What could have made this break, taken an obscure B-side of a lesser-known soul group such a phenomenon? 

That’s a really great question – why did it become so popular, why did the Amen break become such a lynchpin? I think there’s no real right or wrong answer I would say the sample itself is very long, as compared to funky drummer, the tighten up break or the apache break, there’s a lot of material to work with in the amen sample itself. And it is not only long, but the rhythm itself is kind of syncopated, so there’s lots of variations on the drums you can derive from sampling the original break and then sort-of chopping it up and re-arranging it. One of the sort characteristics of the other breaks is that they are just one bar [in length]. You can loop it but you can’t do a whole lot [more] with it, other than get really specific and chop up just the snare and what have you. But the amen is really conducive to chopping and rearranging. It also sonically just has this kind of punch to it that I think really makes it unique. There’s something just about the groove of that break and especially the way people chop it up, of course, but there’s just something about the way the drums hit and the funkiness of it – but also the robotic-ness of it. For me, it’s this perfect blend between very organic sounding and very robotic-sounding at the same time.

Your documentary on the break is still getting a huge amount of attention over a decade later – what inspired you to first make it?

I had come from a musical background so I actually had made a bit of music myself. I was very much into UK drum ‘n’ bass culture – although I didn’t live in the UK, I lived in the US – but I was very much into that kind of music. But at the time I was also in graduate school and I was working on various projects, and I just thought an interesting project was to talk about the intellectual property issues of this particular break. I knew of the break already, I knew that it had come from a band called The Winstons, but that’s really all I knew. So I set forth and spent several months just doing as much research as I could about it. But that was back in 2004, youtube didn’t exist at that point, Wikipedia wasn’t what it is today, it wasn’t as easy as it might be today to do some of that research.

When I mention the break to people, that documentary is usually the first thing they refer to! It seems to have had a huge impact in spreading awareness of the history of the amen and where it comes from. 

That’s really humbling and nice to hear, it’s also I feel a little bit uneasy about it in the sense that I think it’s really The Winstons that should, especially G.C. Coleman, the drummer, who unfortunately passed away some years ago. [I]t’s really them that should be getting the spotlight, I’m just some geeky white kid from New York! I don’t consider myself to be part of that history at all, but I definitely think it’s a history that should be known.

Apparently [Winstons frontman] Richard Spencer was completely unaware of the break’s seismic impact until the late 1990s?

Yeah, I haven’t spoken to him directly, though we did email one another many years ago about this and by that point he was aware of it and he wasn’t exactly happy about the situation, you know, he felt a little bit bitter and I can’t say I blame him. I think he was – a lot of people were – just caught off-guard as to the novelty but also obviously the economic viability of sampling. You know, it’s really the backbone of so much music. And hip hop, as an example, makes a lot of money, drum n bass music made a lot of money. So to have one of your old records blow up – anywhere from Goldie to Squarepusher to Trent Reznor to Dr. Dre, to everybody you can think of has used the amen break at one point or another, and yet you haven’t really seen any money from that, it’s a little strange.

We’re talking potentially thousands and thousands of tracks. You’ve talked about entire scenes being based almost solely on this drum loop. I think it’s that aspect that fascinates me particularly

Yeah, in terms of how the scenes developed around the amen, it’s a really amazing trajectory, where we have rave music in the mid to late 80s, then the tempos of the music start getting faster, and then gradually breakbeats, again because of sampling technology get introduced, so rave music kind of morphs into what you might call hardcore techno or hardcore breakbeat music, then the amen is introduced and that kind of morphs into early jungle, then that gets maybe a little bit sanitised, some people might say, and turns into drum ‘n’ bass music, and then that splinters off into all sorts of places like drill n bass and breakcore and even today’s dubstep. There’s so many permutations at this point, it keeps subdividing into little genres.

I was trying to think of other examples of this phenomenon in modern culture, the only one that sprung readily to mind (more so, even, than other breakbeats) was The Wilhelm Scream?

Absolutely – it’s the Wilhelm Scream of breakbeat music!

To the extent that it’s became almost expected of any contemporary producer, a sort of tipping of the hat?

One of my favourites is Luke Vibert’s alias Amen Andrews. [The name] is obviously a take on [erstwhile This is Your Life presenter] Eamon Andrews, but it’s nothing but music composed with the amen. And he made those [records] later, a few years ago, but they reference early rave music, they sound like they should like they should be from the early 90s, when in fact they’re from the early-mid 2000s. But he’s intentionally making this kind of old, nostalgic amen rave sound. So there’s definitely this kind of self-consciousness about it. The US musician Keith Whitman aka Hrvatski made an entire album basically with nothing but the amen, Squarepusher, I would say, about 80% of his music incorporates the amen in some way. So there’s definitely this sense of – on the one hand, maybe, over-use, but on the other such an over-use that it becomes this right of passage, you have to if you’re serious electronic musician, you have to do an amen track if not an amen record.

What are your thoughts on this campaign to give something back to the surviving original member of the band?

I think it’s great! When I saw it – a friend of mine forwarded it to me – I kind of kicked myself for not having the same idea! I think it’s really great, I think it’s awesome that they’ve raised … what is it, over £16,000 now? [NB – currently over £22,00] As much as that’s awesome, I think it’s super awesome, that’s really pennies compared to how much the track has been used. And if Richard Spencer and the rest of The Winstons had actually collected royalties in the first place, it would have gone way beyond that. But at the same time, it’s this kind of paradoxical situation, it’s precisely the lack of control over the amen that allowed for it to spread and mutate and to develop into all these sub-genres. That’s the argument for this kind-of ‘copy-left’ argument, that if you regulate all this stuff, if you make it so you have to get permission all the time, that kind of impedes the progress of culture. And in some ways the amen story bares that out, it’s precisely because no-one stopped anybody from using it that it grew so much and it’s become such a huge thing in culture today.

It appears that a lot of DJs and producers who achieved success using the break have also been helping to spread the word and also donated themselves. 

Absolutely – as they should!

I was also going to include a longer interview with Steve Theobald aka DJ Deluxe, the campaign’s co-founder, but we ended up talking for over an hour on the subject, and I was hoping to have this cranked out by teatime. Besides, actions speaking louder than words, I thought it might be a better idea to share a couple of his own productions with you, released on legendary hardcore label Knite Force and – of course – with chopped up amens proudly in place. Ear goggles at the ready:

Pretty banging, right? Have another: With so many hundreds and thousands of tracks out there, picking the ultimate ‘amen roller’ would leave even the most devout junglist scratching their head, but here’s my personal favourite – Shy FX’s ‘Simple Tings’ from 1995, in which Andre Williams slices G.C. Coleman’s legacy into ribbons before recombining and twisting it into wild yet intricately syncopated patterns without losing any of it’s robotic funkiness. Play loud:

And finally, if you haven’t donated to the campaign yet, might I urge you to visit http://www.gofundme.com/amenbrother and just do whatever feels good and right?

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