A History of the Amen Break: From The Winstons to Futurama and Om Unit

The history of sample-based music is intertwined with a 1969 funk instrumental track by the name of “Amen Brother.” The seemingly innocuous B-side by The Winstons gave birth to the most important drum break in history: the amen break. You’ve likely heard the name before, you’ve definitely heard the sample before, hell you may have even heard its history before. It’s the story of how a 6-second drum loop became the most sampled piece of music in history.

So what’s so appealing about the amen break? How did a six second drum sample go on to inspire entire sub-genres of music? Technically speaking, the amen break is notable for a few things. The sample features a steady ride cymbal to keep time rather than a constant hi-hat. The delayed snare in the third bar adds to the rhythm while the beat-gap in the third bar is famously jarring. The flavor of the sample is perhaps the break’s most coveted feature next to its one-of-a-kind rhythm. As a live recording from 1969, it harbors a certain crispness to it that you don’t get with computerized drums. Not to mention, when pitched up or down, the snare in the sample takes on plenty of desirable characteristics that makes for a damn good addition to any drum ‘n’ bass or hip hop track.

To utilize the amen break, you can of course just drop it directly into your DAW and warp the sample to correct timing. To replicate its rhythm, you can use Ableton Live and right-click on the sample to “Convert Drums to New MIDI Track.”  Read on to learn more about the incredible history of this drum break.

In 1969, Richard Lewis Spencer, the tenor saxophonist for The Winstons, received a Grammy for his compositional work on “Color Him Father.” The B-side to the track was a little number by the name of “Amen Brother” which went largely unnoticed at the time. Flash forward twenty years: samplers are gaining widespread traction in music production. Hip hop artists are making full use of the hardware for back-tracks and instrumentals. Sample-based music is flourishing and lo-and-behold, that catchy 6-second drum loop has become the basis for many a hip hop beat.

Courtesy of Ethan Hein

Courtesy of Ethan Hein

Mantronix’s “King of the Beats” is often cited as one of the earliest examples of the sample, yet perhaps the most well-known is N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” from 1988. Creating a clean two-bar loop of the sample and pitching it down to a comfortable hip hop pace, “Straight Outta Compton” used the amen break as the foundation for their entire song.

Listen to the Amen Break at normal pace, slowed down, and sped up:

Around this time in the UK, rave culture was blossoming and genres like ragga jungle and breakbeat hardcore were incorporating the amen break to new creative lengths. Chopping the break into individual hits on a sampler, artists began manipulating the tenacity and intensity of the break and creating new rhythms altogether. Shy FX’s “Original Nuttah” from 1995 is one such example, while Squarepusher’s 1997 “Vic Acid” represents the near-fetisization of the technique.

Throughout the 2000s, the amen break continued to play a defining role in drum ‘n’ bass while also breaking into pop culture by way of advertisements and TV shows. Matt Groening’s Futurama famously used the break in its original theme song. Nowadays, the sample is just as pervasive, having been resurrected by way of a UK revival.

Paul Woolford is one such artist keeping the sample alive. Having made a name for himself in the techno world, Woolford proceeded to launch his jungle-oriented project, Special Request. Bringing the amen break back into the modern sphere, Woolford revitalizes it with plenty of interesting sampling techniques. Check out his VIP of Sub Focus’s “Turn Back Time” for evidence:

Of course, you can’t talk about the break’s revival without mentioning Om Unit. The former turntablist / hip hop DJ-turned jungle and footwork extraordinaire is perhaps one of today’s most biggest Amen proponents. His contribution to the tongue-in-cheek jungle war this summer is convincing evidence of his brutal amen abilities.

Beyond this, the break has even crept into the corners of EDM. Back in August, Oliver Heldens and Gregor Salto remixed the latter’s “Can’t Stop Playing.” 45 seconds in, we get a wonderful fluid amen fill to transition into the drop. Once again, in the second half at 2:38, a pitched down amen provides another ear-catching fill.

November 20, 2014

Michael Sundius Michael Sundius is a producer and music journalist based in Los Angeles, recording music under the name Rinzen.