Can I Get an Amen?

December 11, 2009

Amen Brother

It began as a conversation about that awful Tommy Seebach video (which I refuse to embed here – you have been warned). I told a friend that it was a cover of The Incredible Bongo Band’s cover of “Apache” by The Shadows. The IBB version has been called “hip-hop’s anthem” due to the frequency with which it has been sampled in other songs.

When vinyl was still the source of hip-hop beats, the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series was released to provide DJs with new breaks. Most of the tracks released in the series spawned dozens of new hip-hop records, but there are three building blocks upon which the majority of hip-hop was built: “Apache,” “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, and “Amen, Brother” by the Winstons.

“Amen Brother” – the B-side of “Color Him Father,” a song that earned the Winstons a Grammy award in 1969 – was an instrumental version of “Amen” from the movie “Lilies of the Field” (Sidney Poitier’s voice is dubbed by Jester Hairston, the song’s composer). The drum break, performed by G.C. Coleman, was rediscovered by crate-digging DJs and released on Volume 1 of Ultimate Breaks and Beats. This is the UBB version, remixed from the original:

 

The Amen break may be the most sampled break in the history of popular music, described by artist Nate Harrison as “a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures.” Even I couldn’t resist sampling it when I was playing with a parakeet training record:

http://blog.belm.com/belmblog/audio/hello_baby_loop.m4a

The drum pattern is a sped-up Amen break. Speeding up the break was the conceptual breakthrough that formed the backbone of dance subgenres jungle, breakbeat hardcore, and drum-and-bass (DnB). But rather than tell you more, I leave your further musical education to Nate Harrison in his installation “Can I Get an Amen?”:

http://ia301526.us.archive.org/2/items/NateHarrisonCanIGetAnAmen/NateHarrisonCanIGetAnAmen.mov

The current litigious musical environment created by the last of the major record labels has made it nearly impossible to create sample-based music. Hip-hop classics like De La Soul’s “Three Feet High and Rising” (the subject of one of the first sample use lawsuits), the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” and Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” could never be made today due to the cost of sample licensing. As Harrison puts it:

To trace the history of the Amen break is to trace the history of a brief period of time when it seemed digital tools offered a potentially unlimited amount of new forms of expression, where cultural production – at least musically – was full of possibilities by virtue of being able to freely appropriate from the musical past to make new combinations, and thus new meanings. The story demonstrates, that a society “free to borrow and build upon the past is culturally richer than a controlled one.”

Is it possible to litigate an art form out of existence?

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