The Amen Break & Musical Innovation

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Take a listen to the clip below.

Whether you recognize it or not, you have heard it before. The six-second long break beat, known as the “Amen Break,” is claimed to be one of the most sampled loops in music history. It has appeared in such diverse settings as Oasis’ D’You Know What I Mean, car commercials, and the NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. Some claim its inherent popularity is due to the loop’s waveform aligning with the mathematical Golden Ratio. Regardless of why it is so ubiquitous, the history behind it is a valuable lesson for the innovator.

The Amen Break originally appeared in the song Amen Brother by the Winstons in 1969. The track itself was the B-side to their single Color Me Father, recorded more out of necessity than anything else.  Though the Winstons won a Grammy for Color Me Father, the band had already split up and the record faded from the public eye. It wasn’t until almost twenty years later, with the advent of the sampler and hip-hop, that the Amen Break rose to prominence. The sampler allowed producers to record and loop music to provide backing for a rapper’s performance.  Amen Brother appeared on a compilation album of break beats for easy sampling, and took off from there.

However, while the Amen Break was used considerably in early hip-hop, its influence was even larger in the UK. Producers began to experiment with the break sample; rather than simply looping it, they chopped and layered it to create an entirely new sound. The genres of jungle and drum-and-bass were essentially born of this manipulation, with producers participating in an “arms race” [1] of sorts to see who could do the most with the sample. Sometimes they pushed the envelope too far and made tracks that were impossible to dance to. Though the popularity of these genres waned, the Amen Break continued to live on in countless productions, and has become such an integral part of the modern audio landscape that it’s often taken for granted.

So what can we learn from the Amen Break? I’d say the first thing is never to throw out something just because it isn’t immediately useful. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective, or new technology, to truly make the most of an idea. Hip-hop artists looking through old funk tracks rediscovered it, and along with the sampler, utilized it to meet their needs. Furthermore, innovation isn’t necessarily coming up with new ideas, but adapting existing ones. Using the same building blocks, producers were able to create completely different tracks. Though there is an entire debate over copyright law pertaining to this sample (that I won’t get into here), the fact is that sampling created entire genres of music through a mere six second loop. And if that’s possible, think of what you can do with even more time and resources.

[1] http://www.economist.com/node/21541707

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