- The ‘Amen break’ is the most sampled drum break in music history, appearing in over 6,000 songs.
- The 20-second break was part of a song by the Winstons, a multiracial soul band.
- Despite the Amen break’s seminal popularity across music genres, the Winstons never received royalties.
Nobody suspected that the Amen break would become the most sampled break in music history, not even the band that wrote it. The four-bar drum break — a smattering of rhythmic beats punctuated by a skip, then early crash cymbal — was added to lengthen the song it was part of.
In 1969, the Winstons, a multiracial soul band who played throughout the southern United States, recorded the single “Color Him Father.” For its B-side, they recorded “Amen, Brother,” an instrumental song loosely based on an old gospel song.
Composing the song took just about 20 minutes, according to the band’s frontman Richard Lewis Spencer. The Winstons’ drummer, Gregory “G.C.” Coleman, “didn’t care for it,” but picked up his drumsticks and knocked out the six-second drum break, Spencer told the Financial Times.
“Color Him Father,” the A-side of the record, became a 1969 top 10 R&B hit in the US and snagged a Grammy the following year. But “Amen, Brother” — and its drum break — went largely unnoticed for more than 15 years. The Winstons themselves, struggling to secure gigs in the South, disbanded the same year in 1970.
It wasn’t until Coleman’s drum solo appeared in the early hip hop compilation album “Ultimate Breaks and Beats” in 1986 that the “Amen break” took on a life of its own, influencing a new generation of musicians across genres.
Sampling the Amen break
The resurgence of the drum break that became known as the “Amen break” is closely tied to the rise of hip hop in the 1970s and 80s.
Sampling became a popular practice in the late 1970s, when DJs used turntables to mix records, isolate, and loop breaks to create backdrops for raps, according to Stephen Collins, professor and chair of Macquarie University’s department of media, communications, creative arts, language and literature. Sampling became a way for artists to pay homage to other songs and other artists.
“When it is used, the Amen break rarely sounds the same twice; it is sped up, slowed down, pitched up and down, chopped up and rearranged,” Collins told Insider.
The Amen break “provided the foundations for a lot of early hip hop releases,” and showed “how a single drum break could be manipulated and creatively re-used,” Collins said.
Female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa’s 1986 single “I Desire” had one of the earliest uses of the break: “The beat is bad / The beat is pro / We’re gonna bounce this beat all over the place,” they rapped.
NWA’s legendary “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988 catapulted the Amen break into the mainstream. In the 1990s, the break became the bedrock of British dance music, particularly drum and bass and jungle music.
Countless other artists have since incorporated the break into their songs, including David Bowie, Oasis, and Amy Winehouse.
A mixed legacy
The Amen break is the most sampled track in history, appearing in more than 6,000 songs, according to WhoSampled, a website that catalogs samples based on user contributions.
But despite the break’s widespread popularity, the Winstons never received any royalties for its use, according to Spencer, the bandleader. After the Winstons disbanded, Spencer was working in the Washington DC transit system in 1996, when he got a call from a record label asking for a copy of the master recording, according to the Financial Times.
“I felt as if I’ve been touched somewhere that none should touch. I felt invaded upon,” he told the FT.
Spencer said in later years he felt more at peace with the break’s use.
“It’s not the worst thing that can happen to you. I’m a Black man in America and the fact that someone wants to use something I created — that’s flattering,” he told the BBC in 2015.
Coleman, the drummer behind the Amen break, died unhoused and destitute in 2006. Spencer told the BBC it was unlikely he was aware of the impact he’d made on music.