By Kristen Bialik
What do Amy Winehouse, N.W.A., David Bowie, a Jeep 4x4 commercial, and the cartoon Futurama all have in common? Believe it or not, they all share six seconds of drum music. But these aren't any drums, they're the drums of the "Amen Break," a break beat many believe to be the most sampled loop in music history. It helped spur the creative use of samplers and spawned an entire musical subculture. The "Amen Break" has become so ubiquitous that Nate Harrison, creator of the sound art installation "Can I Get An Amen?" argues it has "entered into the collective audio subconscious." Have you ever heard it? Whether you realized it or not, the answer is yes, of course you have.
So where did it come from? The "Amen Break" gets its name from The Winstons song "Amen Brother," a track on the B-side of their 1969 record Color Him Father. While the album saw some success on the charts and earned the funk and soul group's composer, Richard Lewis Spencer, a Grammy for Best R&B Song, it could have ended there. But it didn't. In his fascinating audio documentary, Nate Harrison traces the incredible history of the "Amen Break" over the last 40 years -- from its appearance on Straight Outta Compton to the near cult-like status it attained in the 1990s U.K. rave scene. Jungle music DJs began experimenting with the solo, slicing and retooling each kick and each crash "beyond a point of dance-ability and syncopation into a realm of pure fetishization and self-indulgence." Hundreds and potentially thousands of tracks were created using the "Amen Break" and yet not a single member of the Winstons was ever paid for the use of their song. In fact, Richard L. Spencer claims the drummer behind the storied cymbal crash, Gregory C. Coleman, died homeless and poverty-stricken.
Nate Harrison's 2004 video is a meditation on the ownership of culture, the nature of art and creativity, and the history of a remarkable music clip.
Here's where things get really interesting. The success of the "Amen Break" can be attributed to several factors: its raw and driving energy, the technical invention of the sampler, and the rapid demand for break beats by hip-hop and electronic artists. To fill this demand, record companies created compilation albums featuring songs with great break beats for convenient scratching and mixing. "Amen Brother" was included in the first Ultimate Breaks and Beats by Street Beat Records and on other sampling collections by third-party companies such as Zero-G Limited. Why, with all the other breaks on such construction kits out there, artists and rave crowds latched on to the Amen with such fervor is a mystery. The U.K.'s DJ Fabio believes the "Amen Break" carries a religious power and some hidden, universal meaning. Michael Schneider, a writer and educator, analyzed the waveform of the "Amen Break" and discovered that the peaks of the waves correspond remarkably to the Golden Ratio. Schneider observed that when the wave was turned vertically, the "Amen Break" peaks aligned with the Golden Proportions of the ideal human body, as if the music represented the ideal human harmony in audio form.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that third-party companies such as Zero-G were selling the appropriated "Amen Break" as their own copyrighted material. By the early 2000s, multiple copyrights existed for the same treasured drum loop. On the one hand, this prevented the original artists from receiving a dime for their work. Yet at the same time, freer access to their music sparked decades of musical innovation, the effects of which are still being seen in music today.
The history of the "Amen Break" is layered with ironies. Despite Richard L. Spencer's outcry over what he sees as violation of his music, "Amen Brother" is itself a re-contextualization of a past musical creation. The drum solo may be one of a kind, but "Amen Brother" is an upbeat, funkified rendition of Jester Hairston's gospel classic "Amen" from the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field. In other words, just as jungle music would not exist as we know it without "Amen Brother," the existence of "Amen Brother" was contingent upon material that came before it.
But the larger ironies, and the ones worth paying close attention to, deal with copyright law. As Harrison points out in his installation, companies such as Zero-G Limited attempted to regulate and secure the reign of copyright laws in order to profit from music like "Amen Brother." And yet, without a lack of strict copyright control on break beat sampling, the company would have never succeeded in the first place. Contrary to the belief of stringent copyright advocates, the "Amen Break" shows that when copyright is flexible, innovation and culture grows along with market and capital.
Of course, history is nothing if not consistent. When Thomas Edison wanted to commandeer the motion picture industry, he fought his battles with copyright law. Using his financial resources as leverage, Edison waged a war of petty court battles intended to overwhelm or tap out any smaller movie company that competed with his monopolistic movie empire (any of this sound familiar?). By persuading rivals and film distributors to join his Motion Picture Patents Company, Edison controlled all aspects of motion picture production and licensing. He had it all, except one thing -- innovation. When a little company called the Independent Picture Company (IMP) came along and refused to work within Edison's rigid system, Edison didn't stand a chance. Not because he didn't have the financial or legal resources to fight the tough fight, but because IMP was offering something his pictures couldn't compete with -- creativity, a broader vision, and dramatic stories with recognizable actors. Viewers flocked to IMP's movies because they were well, better, and that growth was created on the fringe of the system. That is -- until IMP, better known today as Universal Studios, became the system where it would go on to vehemently protect copyrights using their own massive system of financial and legal resources.
The problem is that the entertainment industry's response to threat by innovation has been to try to stifle change through copyright and legislation for the past 100 years, and that these tactics feed on themselves, growing increasingly draconian and restrictive. When copyright first began as a government-regulated entity, the law prescribed a standard copyright term as 14 years. Granted, that was way back in 1710 in Great Britain with the Statute of Anne. Still, copyright provisions in the United States have been regularly expanded to the point that now, thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, any work created since 1978 is under copyright protection for 70 years after the death of the author. For work that was created for hire (read: wealthy corporations), copyright protection can last for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication before the material hits the public domain. The long-standing hold this puts on creative development is especially absurd if you consider that copyright as a government-regulated concept is intended to strike a balance between encouraging creativity by protecting the rights of authors and encouraging creativity by allowing a free flow of information for the public good. I would argue we're in a state of imbalance.
When looking at media history, the threat of corporate entities seeking control over media they've laid claim to is practically ceaseless. As the latest creative sampler in the digital age, the Internet faces onslaught by proposals like SOPA and ACTA. As that happens, it will become more and more necessary to monitor the difference between copyright that protects the public good and copyright that advances private gain. But the SOPA and ACTA protests remind us of another thing -- that audacious and dogged little trait called creativity and its remarkable ability to come out on top. If the survival of the creative arts against all regulatory odds isn't proof enough, the use of the "Amen Break" alone is a striking example of the human ability to make creative work under strict confines. The self-imposed standard of jungle music to work within the "Amen" could have been its downfall, and yet to the DJs, each individual snare, each hi-hat, each bass drum was an open and limitless space for creation. And if six seconds of drum music can unfurl into an entire subculture, just think what we can do with eight.
BBC Radio 1Xtra, "Story of the Amen Break" May 22, 2011
The Economist, "Seven Seconds of Fire," December 17, 2011
Wired, " Take Heed, Tech Giants: Edison's Failed Plot To Hijack Hollywood " by Matthew Lasar, September 4, 2010
"The Amen Break and the Golden Ratio," by Michael S. Schneider
Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity by Lawrence Lessig, February 22, 2005
Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars by William Patry, September 3, 2009
Infographic : Why the Movie Industry Is So Wrong About SOPA by Anne Rhodes at Matadornetwork.com, January 17, 2012