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The Amen Break

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The 'Amen break' is a sampled drum loop, extraordinarily prevalent in modern electronic music. It can be used to provide a rhythmic background for another instrument to solo over.

The Origin

In the year 1967, an American soul group called The Winstons released a seven-inch single called 'Amen, Brother'. Little did drummer GC Coleman know that the eight-bar drum 'break' in the middle of the track would far surpass him in fame and acquire an identity of its own. Coleman's lack of foresight in this matter is easily excused, as sampling technology was then in its infancy and the idea of 'lifting' a section of audio from one tune and using it as the basis for another would have been anæthema to recording artists at the time.

The Emancipation of the Loop

It was not until digital sampling became efficient and widely available in the 1980s that the idea of sample-based music and the wholesale plagiarism of the recorded sound of others became commonplace. With its advent came a paradigm shift in the nature of music itself. The sanctity of the song as the atomic unit of music was forever violated and the reign of the sample1, the riff2, the hook3 and the loop4 began. Initially, samplers were used cautiously and with respect for the intellectual property of others. Few experimented beyond the simple novelties of playing melodies scored for barking dog or unrealistic choral 'ahs'.

The big change came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the emergent rave scene caused cataclysmic changes in the musical landscape. Feeding a counterculture many times as populous that of late-1960s America, the bards of the second summer of love, without the luxury of recording facilities, had to steal their sounds from wherever they could. Rave music, illegal to its class A drug-fuelled, squat-inhabiting core was hardly going to baulk at petty theft of a few drums. DJs and producers would spend hours excavating the crates in the backrooms of vinyl shops for old funk records. They were looking out for solo drum breakdowns, which have long been the staple of American hip-hop DJs. These would then be sped up and given additional beef by doubling with electronic drum machine patterns. They could then form the basis of the amphetamine-paced new musical styles. Certain drumloops, due to cleanliness of recording and tightness of metre, gained extraordinary prevalence in the music. Among them were loops from James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' and, you've guessed it, The Winstons' 'Amen, Brother'.

One Loop and Its Scene

While the Amen loop had been popular even in the early rave days, the coming of age of Jungle music (a fusion of reggae rhythms with the hardcore rave sound), established it as a cliché. By the mid-1990s, Jungle was the quintessential British urban music and its characteristic rinses could be heard coming from cars and tenement blocks throughout the inner cities of the UK. Rinses — gymnastically stuttering drum rhythms evocative of rounds being reeled off from a semi-automatic handgun — were the hallmark of a Junglist's skill and the equivalent of a guitar solo. The Amen break was especially popular as the source material for rinses, due to the diversity of its different percussion hits and its pleasing tone when pitched up to the breakneck pace of jungle5.

Today, the Amen break has fully come of age and, like the Moog synthesiser and Atari computer, acquired a cult status. Amen break T-shirts can now be bought from fashionable urban clothing suppliers, and the average clubber in the street will refer erroneously and with great confidence to all sampled drumloops as 'amens'.

Such is its success as a memetic unit that the Amen break is recognised acontextually in rave tunes by many thousands of people who would probably not even notice it in its original setting. The fact that Coleman and the Winstons have never made a brass farthing from their sampled offspring's subsequent success is testament to the ever increasing gap between information technology and information control.

Further Listening

  • The Winstons – 'Amen, Brother'
  • Shy FX – 'Renegade Terrorist' (classic jungle record which makes heavy use of the Amen break)
  • Remarc's album Sound Murderer - an excellent example of mash-up jungle, with some inspired Amen rinsing
  • Amen Andrews vol 1 - 5 – electronic musician Luke Vibert's series of 12-inch singles unified by their heavy use of the Amen Brother loop
  • James Brown – 'Funky Drummer' (another heavily-used drum loop)
  • Lyn Collins – 'Think About It' (the origin of the 'Think' break, another much-mangled loop)
1A slice of digitally encoded sound and can be used to refer to any length of audio thus encoded, from a single dot on an amplitude/time graph to three hours of Wagner.2A short melodic sequence, usually in the pentatonic scale, which is repeated regularly throughout a piece of music.3An oft-repeated, memorable feature of a tune, which may be anything from a riff or vocal melody to a distinctive drum roll or sample.4A repeated section of audio, often a drum break.5The traditional method of speeding up audio, known as re-sampling, had the side effect of causing a comparative increase in the pitch of the sound, similar to the increase in pitch that comes with speeding up a record or cassette.

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