This show was written and produced by James Introcaso.
There’s a sample of music that’s been heard around the world in over 2,000 songs. Odds are you’ve heard it many times and didn’t even realize you were listening to the same breakbeat. The amen break might be the most sampled piece of music in history. Where did it come from? This episode features interviews with artist Nate Harrison and Grammy-winner Richard Louis Spencer.
MUSIC IN THIS EPISODE
Umber - Aether
All I Know - Stray Theories
Tell Me A Story - Chad Lawson
Smooth Talk - Phillip Cuccias
AMEN BREAK EXAMPLES
Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A.
I Desire - Salt-N-Pepa
Futurama Theme - Christopher Tyng
Can't Knock The Hustle (Desired State Remix) - Jay-Z feat. Mary J Blige
Eyeless - Slipknot
In for the Kill (Skream's Let's Get Ravey Remix) - La Roux
Pigs - Tyler, The Creator
King of the Beats - Mantronix
Tundra - Squarepusher
Fear - Amen Andrews
Feel Alright Y'all - 2 Live Crew
Compton - The Game feat. Will.i.am
Red Eye - Big K.R.I.T.
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View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: Amen break at normal speed]
You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor.
[SFX: End Amen break]
What you just heard is called the amen break, or ah-men break depending on how you say it. Anyway, It’s likely the most sampled piece of music in the world. You’ve definitely heard it a million times, but you might have a hard time remembering from where. So, let’s hear those six-second again. This time, see if you can remember where you’ve heard it.
[SFX: Amen break at normal speed]
[SFX: Straight Outta Compton (radio edit)]
[SFX: I Desire]
[SFX: Streets on Fire]
[SFX: Futurama Theme]
The amen break has also been sped up.
[SFX: Can’t Knock the Hustle]
[SFX: Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites]
And it’s been slowed down.
[SFX: King of Beats]
It’s been used in commercials.
[SFX: Jeep Commercial]
The amen break is sampled in over 2,000 songs and counting. If you search Amen Break you’ll find examples and curated playlists everywhere. But, where did this beat come from?
Nate: It is a about five or six second passage in the middle of a song called “Amen Brother” that was recorded by a band in the late 1960s called The Winstons.
That’s Nate Harrison, an artist and professor from Tufts University. Nate did extensive research on the break for an audio art project called, “Can I Get An Amen?”
Nate: In the middle of the song, there's a drum breakdown where all the other instruments drop out.
[Music drops out to amen break]
The drummer, GC Coleman, does his thing for like five or six seconds.
He syncopates them in this interesting, weird way.
Imagine like a… four to floor standard beat, like a one, two, three, four.
[SFX: Standard Beat]
A breakbeat, has a little bit more syncopation on it the down beats would happen on maybe in between sort of beats, and what not. It gives it a little bit of a funkier vibe to it.
A break is just short for a breakbeat. There's the tighten up break...
[SFX: Tighten up break]
… and there's the funky drummer break...
[SFX: Funky drummer break]
… and there's the apache break.
[SFX: Apache break]
All of these breaks were taken from old records, just like the amen break.
[SFX: bump out Apache break]
More than a decade passed after The Winston’s recorded “Amen Brother” before the break began to show up in hip hop tracks. That’s mainly because sampling music didn’t really come into vogue until the 80s.
Nate: Samplers were actual, physical boxes, machines. They were about the size of a DVD player. Nowadays It's all software on a computer.
Think of the golden era of hip hop music in the mid to late 80s and early 90s, that whole 10, 12 year period is predominantly a period in which hip hop music, particularly, is lifting samples, drum samples (SFX), guitar riffs (SFX), center horns (SFX), all that kind of stuff, from older records.
Samplers became popular around the same time musicians were starting to use drum machines and synthesizers. At first, it was kind of a novelty.
Nate: Sampling was new and interesting. It produced sounds again in contrast to the kind of synthesized, artificial sounds (SFX). Early electro music, early breakdance music, had a very robot kind of sound, futuristic kind of sound to it. To introduce sampling into it was to sort of recover the aesthetics of an earlier moment.
Sampling also had one other powerful element that made it desirable - nostalgia.
Nate: When producers get their hands on samplers they realize they can start borrowing the sounds of records that they had grown up listening to.
A record company called Street Beat Records put out a series of albums called Ultimate Beats and Breaks. These compilations included songs perfect for sampling.
Nate: That included a bunch of different breaks, including the amen.
The amen wasn’t the only breakbeat feature, but it did become the most sampled. In the US, it was big in hip hop, while in the UK it was used for jungle and drum and bass. But, of all the breakbeats to choose from, why did the amen become the most popular?
Nate: The first thing with that break is that it's really long. It's like a six second sample, so there's a lot of material to play with.
Six seconds might not seem like much, but in the early days of sampling, it was a ton of time.
Nate: People digging through the crates of vinyl records at used record stores looking for samples. If they come across one clean bar of a drum sample, they're happy. That's why the amen break is such a treasure.
In addition to its length, the amen break has variety.
Nate: In the course of those five or six seconds, there are a few different snare drum hits. Each one of those snare drum hits is slightly different than the others, because GC Coleman hit the drum a certain way, and slightly differently than he did the second before he did the previous hit.
You can choose between snares. You can start chopping up the amen break and rearranging the individual beats into other configurations. Pretty soon, you start getting into some really interesting patterns and textures.
[SFX: Cymbal crash from the amen break]
In addition to rearranging the break, a musician sampling it can speed it up...
[SFX: Fast amen break]
Slow it down…
[SFX: Slow amen break]
Or even play it backwards.
[SFX: Backwards amen break]
The amen break’s length and versatility made it so prolific among electronic musicians in the UK that finding new ways to use it became an intellectual pursuit.
Nate: It branched out even farther into so called IDM music, or intelligent dance music, which was kind of the response to the rave and dance culture in the UK. They would call it like electronic music dance music that you can't dance to a lot of that music also used the amen break. Tom Jenkinson, also known as Squarepusher, used it thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly.
Squarepusher’s indulgent use of the amen break can be heard in his track “Tundra.”
[SFX: Tundra from 6:00 to about 6:10]
Nate: Luke Vibert was one of the first people to do really beyond weird things with it. He recorded under the name Amen Andrews.
[SFX: Fear from 3:30 to about 3:40]
Obviously, this intellectual use of the amen isn’t limited to the UK. Tons of American artists have used it too.
[SFX: Feel Alright Y'all - 2 Live Crew]
[SFX: Compton - The Game feat. Will.i.am]
[SFX: Red Eye - Big K.R.I.T.]
When it comes to the amen break, and sampling in general, there’s a lot of legal and moral questions.
Nate: The entire aesthetic of the 'Amen Break,' and I would say breakbeat culture generally is an aesthetic of copying.
In some respects that goes against current copyright laws. It's kind of legally contentious practice.
That's definitely a strange, bittersweet part of sample-based music is on the one hand, it's kind of revivifying old forms and maybe generates some interest in those older forms. But, it's also a taking, too.
GC Coleman, the drummer, didn't make any money certainly not any royalties, or any residuals, or anything from all that sampling.
GC Coleman passed away in 2006, but a surviving member of The Winstons named Richard Louis Spencer wrote “Amen, Brother.” He still holds the copyright to the song. Like GC, Richard was never paid royalties from the massive sampling of the song. We’ll hear from him after this.
“Amen, Brother,” the song from which the amen break is sampled, was recorded by The Winstons in 1969. They had no idea their song would make such a cultural impact.
Richard: It was just a throwaway piece.
That’s Richard Louis Spencer, a Grammy-winner and former member of the Winstons. He’s the one who wrote “Amen, Brother.”
Richard: We were a group of young men in Washington, D.C., during the club scene in the '60s.
We were a bar band. We played in places and played all the hits, and we were very good at it.
I was the tenor saxophone player in the group. I ended up writing and singing the song that became a hit for us, but I was a tenor player.
The Winstons performed as the backup band for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions.
Richard: We played with them for about six or seven months, and Curtis and I became very good friends. He was a very nice guy. He's probably one of the pure people I met.
He was a very, very straight up guy.
It was he who encouraged me to write, cause he always said oh, you got some good ideas.
After some encouragement and advice from Curtis, Richard composed a song that won him the Grammy Award for R&B Songwriter of the Year in the late 60’s. It wasn’t “Amen, Brother.” It was a song called “Color Him Father.”
Richard: When I wrote the words for “Color Him Father”. I tried to call my dad, my dad left us in 1958, my mom was having children, and I ran up on him in New York.
We began talking and stuff over the years and so then one morning, I tried to call him and his phone was disconnected and the first thing came to my mind, wow, this guy is gone again. I wrote this song, kind of this letter to him.
So I took it to rehearsal and recorded it and it became a hit.
When the Winstons recorded the single for “Color Him Father,” they needed a B side. As a band that played mostly covers and back up, they didn’t have a lot of options.
The only other original the Winstons had was a chaser - filler music that engages a live audience as the announcer introduces the band. You still hear chasers today, mostly in late night talk shows whenever a new guest is introduced.
Richard: You have some music to bring them on. It was very short and when they went off, [SFX: sings the instrumental] amen, brother.
The Winstons made their instrumental chaser their B side and called it, “Amen, Brother.”
Richard: During that time everybody had drum breaks and we had been doing songs where Greg would play these drum beats.
Richard asked his drummer, GC or Greg, to play a breakbeat during “Amen, Brother.”
Richard: I said that just sounds too much like so and so, so and so, because I was kind of the leader of the band at that time. I said why don't you take the piece from blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I told him two or three pieces he was going to put them together, and he did.
It was just another drum break, only this one was a composite of a couple that Greg played.
That became the Amen break.
It was a filler. A throwaway as they call.
[SFX: Amen Break]
With a hit single and a Grammy-winning frontman, the Winstons were about to make it big time.
Richard: The Winstons were flown in to New York, our manager had signed us and they had set up this big 38-week tour opening for Credence Clearwater, and it was just like the answer of prayer. We were going to make pretty big money.
Then we had this big meeting, I call a signing party, on the 126th floor over on Avenue of the Americas. It was a beautiful thing.
But what Richard didn’t know was that the rest of the Winstons weren’t in it for the long haul. They were planning on quitting the band.
Richard: They brought the contract around for us to sign and they took that contract and said well, we have to take them to our lawyers. I said well no, this is not a negotiation. And it was pretty obvious right then that they had intended to quit.
The guys said well, you can bring them back in the morning. These New Yorkers, they've been through this before. They knew the group was finished.
After the Winston’s broke up, Richard left the music industry and had an eclectic career.
Richard: I sat around for about two and a half years feeling sorry for myself.
I got a job working at a liquor store, delivering liquor in Georgetown. The same clubs I used to hang out and spend $200 and $300 a night on booze, here I was pushing liquor up in there.
Then I got the job at the transit system driving a bus, and I absolutely loved it.
It was such a great thing for me because it's a people thing. Then I went back and enrolled in a university, and so I was working and attended university at the same time.
I worked in the transit system for 28 years. I had done my BA and my master's and I came back and I was in town here where I am now, I was only 58 years old.
I wasn't ready to call it quits. Plus I had a son. I had an 11-year-old son I brought home with me, so I went to teaching. I taught from 2000 to 2008 and I loved it.
Richard was busy. He was working, going to college, and taking care of his son. This was all in the 80’s and 90’s before the internet. He had no idea that “Amen, Brother” was being sampled in all of these songs.
Richard: I had no idea about the whole Amen break thing until almost the early 2000s. I realized after I learned how to use the computer, it was one of the most sampled pieces of music in history.
I was just amazed NWA had used it...
[SFX: Straight Outta Compton (radio edit)]
[SFX: Futurama Theme]
I just looked at the list, and it was just kind of heartbreaking because I realized my publisher had just really just robbed me. I spoke to it about a lawyer and he said well, it's been 10 years, and this, that, and another.
There's a wine in Australia called the Amen break, and here I was sitting around eating sardines and drinking sodas and feeling sorry for myself and somebody was getting paid.
Richard tried moved on with his life, but people kept bringing up the amen break.
[SFX: Phone vibrating]
Richard: I started getting calls from these young men from Great Britain and they almost worshiping that thing over there and it was into that whole jungle and drum and bass thing.
Some guy showed up with television cameras and they did an interview, they said it was for the BBC or something.
They start saying to me, man you should be worth about $30 million.
Nate agrees with that estimate.
Nate: He'd be certainly a millionaire if he would have gotten just a few pennies from every time somebody used the 'Amen Break.
But Richard wasn’t a millionaire. He hadn’t collected anything from the thousands of songs that sampled “Amen, Brother.” For years he was asked to speak about his influential break and acknowledge he was never paid. Then a few years ago, he got an email from a UK-based DJ named Martyn Webster.
Richard: It was seemed like he was suggesting that some of these people felt badly and they wanted to take up some money for me. I had never heard of a GoFund, to tell you the truth.
Martyn asked Richard if he could set up a GoFundMe page. The page allowed musicians around the world who sampled “Amen, Brother” to donate money as a thank you to Richard.
Richard: I said well fine, I had no idea what that meant. They started sending money around.
To date, the GoFundMe efforts have raised over thirty thousand dollars for Richard.
Richard: It was very nice of them, too, because these are young people who probably weren't even alive when “Color Him Father” and amen break and stuff came about.
Richard has never officially been paid royalties for the over two-thousand known samples of the amen break, but when he looks back on his dynamic life, he’s also got a lot to be proud of.
Richard: It was amazing even when I retired, there were people at Metro who never knew that I had a record out. Not that I was trying to hide it but it wasn't anything to talk about. It was great, I enjoyed it, move on.
I've been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame and I'm also in the D.C. Legendary Musicians Hall of Fame
I published two books.
Mostly proud because I raised a young black down south by myself. He graduated from Pfeiffer University. I’m very proud of him and now he's coaching soccer at Georgetown Visitation in D.C., and he works with kids with special needs. And he also is the head coach varsity girls at Langley High School. Very proud of that.
I'm proud of that than anything.
It's been a good, good life, man.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. If you do anything creative that also uses sound, go check out defactosound dot com. And don’t forget to reach out. We’d love to know who you are.
This episode was written and produced by James Introcaso… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Colin Devarney.
Thanks to our guest, Nate Harrison. You can checkout Nate’s project, “Can I Get An Amen?” and all his other work at nkhstudio.com.
Thanks also to Richard Louis Spencer. Please consider showing him some monetary love for his contributions to the music industry. You can do that at amen dot 20 kay dot org. That’s amen dot 20 kat dot org. We also put this link in the show description. Also, I hear there’s a few celebrities in the music business that listen to the show. If that’s you, show your respects by sending some money Richard’s way.
The music in this episode is from of our friends at Musicbed. Having great music should be an asset to your project, not a roadblock. Musicbed is dedicated to making that a reality. That’s why they’ve completely rebuilt their platform of world-class artists and composers with brand-new features and advanced filters to make finding the perfect song easier and faster. Learn more at musicbed.com/new.
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