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The Story Behind The Sample: Jay-Z, N.W.A. and The Winstons' 'Amen, Brother' break

There are some samples in the history of hip hop that deserve more acclaim than others. While there’s a good case for applying a scientific theory to the chances of every single song being sampled in another track somewhere on the ether of the internet. However, some of those samples have gone on to help define the careers of established stars such as Jay-Z, N.W.A. and Tyler, The creator. Not all samples were created equally and The Winstns’ ‘Amen, Brother’ is one of the true greats.

In truth, samples are the rocksteady foundation on which hip hop was born. Ever since MCs began to rhyme over records, DJs have been searching for drum breaks with which they can loop for rappers. The search for old soul records has led to a competition to find the most obscure samples, but oftentimes, the classics are classics for a reason. It helps to embolden the tracks at hand and give us all an earworm to follow.

Last week we covered the ginormous drum break from James Brown and his band, the wonderful ‘Funky Drummer’. Below, we’re looking to another all-star drum break and how it has helped shape the course of hip hop from the very beginning to the present day

Along with the drum break for James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’, the “Amen break” featured in soul group The Winstons is the go-to drum break in hip hop. The Washington D.C. band needed a B-side for their single ‘Color Him Father’ and simply recorded an instrumental they had devised a short time earlier. That was all there was to it until hip hop DJs began searching for uninterrupted drum breaks from which they could loop and have their MCs rhyme over.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the first use of the “Amen break” was, but N.W.A.’s ‘Straight Outta Compton‘ was the catalyst for taking the beat worldwide. The song would signal a change of attitude towards hip hop and gangster rap was born amid the glorious beat. Slapping the mainstream across the face, the track would become a beacon of defiant creativity.

Now the list of sample uses has grown beyond hip hop and into more experimental waters. However, you can still expect to find the break on songs from Tyler, the Creator, Jay-Z, Skrillex, Oasis, the theme song for Futurama. If you’ve sampled drums, chances are you’ve used the “Amen break” before.

So why has the ‘Amen’ break proved to have such enduring appeal? Well, as Michael Schneider, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe pointed out, if you analyse the waveform of Coleman’s break, you can see that it perfectly matches the ancient Greek beauty standard known as the golden ratio. Remember those photographs of drunken revellers that seemed to match the perspectives found in Leonardo Da Vinci’s artworks?

Well, those were said to be composed according to the golden ratio as well. Basically, it’s all about proportion and harmony in structure. Neoclassical architecture? Golden ratio. Debussy? Golden ratio. The ‘Amen’ break? Golden ratio. You get the picture.

Sadly, Spencer and his band never saw any of the royalties they were owed and he lived most of his life thinking that the only success The Winstons had ever achieved was with ‘Color Him Father’. What’s even more tragic, however, is the thought of drummer Gregory Coleman, in 2006, who died broke and homeless in Atlanta, Georgia — the same year Amy Winehouse released ‘You Know I’m No Good’.