Ear Candy Musicology Vol. 11 - The Amen Break

The story of an obscure B-side instrumental, a bootleg DJ, and early hip hop.

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In 1969 a funk and soul outfit from Washington D.C. named The Winstons released a B-side called "Amen Brother" featuring Gregory Sylvester "G.C." Coleman on the drums. The song was an uptempo rendition of the Jester Hairston track "Amen," which appears in the Sydney Poitier film Lillies of the Field. 

Amen Brother, an obscure B-side, languished in near-anonymity for 17 years, when a record store employee at Manhattan's Downstairs Records, a young man named Break Beat Lenny, discovered Amen Brother and put in on his Ultimate Breaks and Beats bootleg series. Breakbeat Lenny had stumbled into the audio equivalent of finding Steve McQueen's Mustang Fastback in a garage. His discovery would ultimately reroute the course of hip hop and subsequently popular music. 

Why? The four-bar drum solo G.C. Coleman laid down nearly two decades prior. 

In 1974, DJ Kool Herc invented a technique of extending a track's beat by switching between two copies of a record on two separate turntables while ignoring the rest of the song. By '77 Grandmaster Flash heard the technique and the idea took off. By 1987 E-mu released their SP-1200 sampler and boom, the Amen Brother drum solo would provide the ideal break for this, like an idea who's time had finally come. Breakbeat Lenny hired Louis Flores to re-engineer the break and slow it down, and the revolution would soon follow. 

The success of hip hop's early DJs with the Amen Break, and also quite notably the Incredible Bongo Band's Apache, gained huge attention, and like any good music wave, it broke across the Atlantic and landed firmly in the UK and European dance scenes. The Amen Break found its way into rave culture, and it began to appear in hundreds of breakbeat hardcore records - an aggressive sound that drew heavily from hip-hop pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and early acid house cuts. A hearty reggae and ragga influence showed up by '91 and piano melodies were introduced. These breakbeats were then cranked up to a frenzied 150 to 170 beats per minute. Jungle music had arrived. As it progressed the term Drum and Bass began appearing in music magazines and in clubs. 

The break never left the hip hop community, however. It's firmly entrenched in Dr. Dre's production throughout Straight Outta Compton. Tyler the Creator and Jay-Z, Salt n Pepa, Lupe Fiasco, Bel Biv Devoe, The Game, 2 Live Crew, and Eric B and Rakim have all made use of the sublimely funky break beat. The website whosampled.com lists the track as having been sampled more than 2,400 times. 

Despite the incredibly pervasive influence of the break, the Winston's, the originators of the song, hadn't seen a dime. Sampling, in its earliest years, didn't require financial recompense. Winston's frontman Richard Spencer lamented in a 2011 interview with the BBC that Coleman, the drummer on the kit for the break, died penniless. 

To that end, British DJs Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald started a Go Fund Me page to get some of that loot back to the surviving members of the band. To date, they've raised $25, 958 for the band. The initial page was so successful that Webster and Theobald have started a new page.

That's the story of the Break Beat Lenny, the dawn of early hip hop, and six seconds of drums that changed everything. 

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