A 6-second drum sample has influenced modern music beyond comprehension. Artists from NWA to Skrillex, Oasis to Pendulum, Bowie to Big K.R.I.T, and just about every drum n bass DJ ever have all sampled the Amen Break, a loop taken from a little-known 1960s soul record. But how did it gain such influence, and what happened to the artists who made the original?
In 1969, Washington D.C.-based funk & soul band The Winstons released an album titled Color Him Father. The LP’s title track was a Top 10 R&B hit, and won a Grammy the following year for Best R&B Song. What had gone mostly unnoticed, however, was the B-side to this Winstons vinyl. A track named Amen, Brother adorned the reverse of the record, rounding out the album. 1 minute and 26 seconds into the track, drummer Gregory “GC” Coleman performs a drum solo - the 6 seconds of audio that would change music forever.
At the time, however, Amen, Brother wasn’t hailed as anything more than a B-side, and so The Winstons’ aforementioned LP went down in the books as ‘just another soul album’. Like many funk and soul artists of the 60s, by the mid-70s their art had been drowned out commercially by the glitz and glamour of disco music. It was in the Bronx park jams where hip hop was born that funk was still being played - or, rather, looped - for breakbeats. A young hispanic man named Louis Flores got his start in these underground block parties in 1973, bboying to the sounds of Grandmaster Caz and DJ Kool Herc.
By 1986, Louis Flores was an established deejay who went by the name of BreakBeat Lou. Lou began producing compilation records designed for use by other DJs for breakbeats - something like an analogue sample pack. Titled Ultimate Breaks & Beats, the first volume of the series featured The Winstons’ Amen, Brother as track #3. The middle 8, or ‘breakdown’ of the song, starts at 1:26 and can be looped to form a ‘breakbeat’. From that point forward, the Winstons’ drum loop was as omnipresent in hip hop as The Honeydrippers’ 1973 Impeach The President.
Gregory “GC” Coleman’s drum sample became a mainstay of dance music as well, and set the foundations for hardcore house which later developed into what is now known as drum n bass music. As of 2021, whosampled.com recognise the ‘Amen Break’ to have been sampled in 5345 songs. However, GC Coleman received little credit for the sample’s usage and received no royalty payments - despite his creation’s prominence and influence. The musician behind what the Financial Times dubbed “the most sampled song in history” died in September 2006 at the age of 61, homeless and unknown.
9 years after his death, in 2015, a pair of British DJs started a GoFundMe to raise money in honour and appreciation of The Winstons’ contribution to music; a sample used cross-genre from hip hop to dubstep, from jazz to DnB. The GoFundMe’s initial target was just £1,000, but eventually raised £24,000 - around USD $33,000. As drummer GC Coleman was already deceased, the cheque was handed to The Winstons' frontman Richard Spencer. This stirred conflict where Spencer was not the musician who actually played the Amen Break, but rather the lead singer of the group for which the drummer who created the sample played.
“This serves as a reminder of how little removed we are from segregation in the timeline of Western history”
Spencer, who received the only bit of monetary credit for the Amen Break sample, was documented by the BBC for claiming to have directed the break. Contrarily, however, the one other living member of The Winstons at the time of the BBC’s coverage on the matter in 2015, organ player Phil Tolotta, disputed Spencer’s self-accreditation - being quoted by the BBC to state that the drum solo was “pure GC”. The Winstons’ frontman Richard Spencer died at the age of 78 in December 2020.
Interestingly, the same year that Color Him Father won a grammy, in 1970, the group split up. It has been noted that - despite their commercial success at the time - the group had problems booking venues in the Bible Belt, which is where they would often play their gospel-informed soul music. The Winstons were a mixed-race group, and racial tensions in the Southern states were too high for club owners to allow the black cats in with the white cats, and vice versa - even as recent as 1970, after Jim Crow laws had been scrapped. This serves as a reminder of how little removed we are from segregation in the timeline of Western history.
GC Coleman’s Amen Break lives on in music - today, most notably in DnB. It begs the question of whether all samples should have to be cleared first, and royalties paid to the sample’s creator or masters owner. After all, the 6 seconds that changed music were played by a man who died broke, homeless and unknown.