We are in 1969 and the summer of love is in full swing. Across the country, young Americans are trying to shed the legacy their parents left them. On the manicured grass of Atlanta’s parks, reclining figures debated the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, and the new Richard Nixon. But in a smoky downtown recording studio, a very different piece of history is being made.
A little-known band called The Winstons are set to spend 20 minutes writing a “throwaway song” that would define two decades of popular music. I’m talking about the most sampled song in the history of music, ‘Amen Brother’.
The Winstons were a soul group who made their living touring the southern states. The group was led by Richard Lewis Spencer, a talented saxophonist and teacher who, at the time, was also part of the backing band of Otis Redding and Cutis Mayfield. Spencer, however, was keen to be successful in his own way, and in 1969 he traveled to Atlanta to record the single ‘Color Him Father’ with The Winstons.
The track was working well and Spencer was convinced it would be a success. What he was less confident about was what his band was going to use for the B-side. In 20 minutes, the Winstons released ‘Amen Brother’, an improvised jam based on a guitar riff that Curtis Mayfield had shown to Spencer while playing with The Impressions. But, though hastily rushed, “Amen Brother” would capture the imaginations of countless musicians over the following decades.
With the proliferation of hip hop and electronic music in the 1980s, breakbeats became an important commodity. Breakbeats were sections of soul, funk, disco and R&B tracks in which the drummer played an elaborate 4/4 fill that allowed listeners to dance without interruption. In the 1980s, hip hop artists began manipulating vinyl records to isolate these drum fills, then using them as a focal point for their own songs. Drummer Gregory Coleman’s break on “Amen Brother” caught the attention of many of these artists and has become a staple of casual classic hip-hop sound.
But, for Coleman, the break was just something he had invented to “fill the time” in a track dominated by Spencer’s brass section. Apparently, Spencer gave Coleman an idea of what kind of sound he wanted, but remembers his drummer “didn’t care”.
Colemon was eventually persuaded and made music history, although he didn’t know it at the time. For nearly two decades, ‘Amen Brother’ went unrecognized. That’s until DJs start to slow down filling its original 135 BPM tempo to around 90 BPM – a great place for that hip hop sound. The fill was later popularized by pioneering rapper Salt-N-Pepa, who sampled the break “Amen” in her 1986 track “I Desire”. Later, NWA used the break as the basis for her song ‘Straight Outta Compton ‘.
After defining the sound of American hip-hop, the ‘Amen’ Break then crossed the Atlantic and found itself in the hands of British electronic artists. The break was the catalyst for an explosion of dance music including drum n ‘bass, jungle and house. In the hands of artists such as The Prodigy – who used the “Amen” station wagon in their track “Firestarter” – the station wagon was sped up to around 170 BPM and quickly defined the sound of the British rave scene throughout. long 1990’s.
The split quickly became part of the very fabric of music culture and can be found in everything from “D’You Know What I Mean?” From Oasis to Amy Winehouse’s classic track “You Know I’m No Good”. People have even gone so far as to have the break waveform tattoo their skin and today there are countless aging DJs who would be too happy to show you off.
So why has the “Amen” break turned out to be so appealing? Well, like Michael Schneider, author of Beginner’s Guide to Building the Universe pointed out, if you analyze the waveform of Coleman’s breakout, you can see that it fits perfectly with the ancient Greek beauty standard known as the golden ratio. Remember those photographs of drunken revelers that seemed to match the perspectives found in Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork?
Well, it was said that these were also composed according to the golden ratio. Basically, it’s all about proportion and harmony in the structure. Neoclassical architecture? Gold number. Debussy? Gold number. The “Amen” break? Gold number. You get the picture.
Sadly, Spencer and his band never saw any of the royalties owed to them and he lived most of his life believing that the only success the Winstons ever got was with ‘Color Him Father’. What is even more tragic, however, is the thought of drummer Gregory Coleman, in 2006, who passed away homeless and homeless in Atlanta, Georgia – that same year, Amy Winehouse released “You Know I’m No Good. “.