by wjw on March 29, 2015

We have here three versions of the “Amen Break,” as originally recorded back in 1969, on a song called “Amen Brother,” by a group called the Winstons.  (There was a time, as George Clinton of Parliament recalls, groups were either named after cigarettes, cars, or birds.)  “Amen Brother” was the B side of the Winstons’ hit “Color Him Father,” and was recorded in maybe 20 minutes, not because the Winstons were enamored of the song, but because they needed a B side to their single.

“Amen Brother” pretty much vanished into obscurity— as did the Winstons, who as a mixed-race group in the American South were not fated to prosper— but you’ve heard that drum beat, right?  You’ve heard it a lot.  You’ve heard it so often, and in so many contexts, that it probably never occurred to you that someone actually invented it.

The reason it sounds so familiar is that the drum beat has been sampled no less than 1500 times, by the likes of Salt N Pepa, Oasis, David Bowie, NWA, Mantronix, Amy Winehouse, and, well, at least 1494 other bands.

The person who created the beat was either drummer GC Coleman or lead singer Richard Spencer, and neither of them ever saw a penny in royalties.  Most of the samples occurred during a period when sampling was in a kind of legal limbo, and I’m not sure even now that a four-bar rhythm track counts as something that you have to pay royalties for.

GC Coleman died homeless and drug-addicted some years ago, but Spencer is still alive, a 72-year old novelist and retired teacher who is— given those career choices— not likely to be rich.

A couple British DJs have started an online campaign to raise money for Spencer, and it’s currently brought in 18,000 pounds.  If you’ve enjoyed the break beat in any of its incarnations, you might send them a bit of green.

TRX March 30, 2015 at 11:37 am

I have the proverbial tin ear, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard that beat before. My musical interest is fairly narrow, though.

Farrell McGovern March 30, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Good pointer! I first ran across this famous “break” about five or six years ago, when I came across a brilliant documentary that charts it’s history. Here is the link:

Michael Grosberg April 3, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Huh. Sounds very sijmilar to a basic beat you’ll find in many 980’s rock songs, such as this one:

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