THE WINSTONS / “Amen, Brother”
Source: 7-inch Single
So what does the future hold for the seemingly evergreen Amen [break]? Will there ever come a day when it loses its impact and has to be put out to pasture? “No,” says [drum ‘n bass producer] Remarc, firmly. “I’ve heard so many producers say ‘I ain’t using Amen no more,’ but it remains as strong and as important as ever.” Equinox [another d ’n b producer]: “Amen will always be there, no matter what happens. Even if the scene goes pure two-step, someone out there will be using Amen.” And for the final word on the matter, Ray Keith [AKA d ‘n b artist, Renegade]: “People will never get bored of it. It’ll just keep changing with the times. It’ll still be used long after we’re all dead and buried.”
—From “Forever And Ever Amen” by Joe Madden
In this post, we’re going to trace the evolution of a breakbeat. Let’s begin with the break itself. Whether you know it or not (and I’ll admit, until recently, I didn’t), you’ve already heard the Winstons’ 1969 cover of the traditional gospel number “Amen,” which they re-title “Amen, Brother.” Let me be more specific: you’ve already heard drummer G.C. Coleman’s ten-second drum break from “Amen.” Taken as a whole, the Winstons’ funky reworking of “Amen” is interesting, if not exactly classic. It sounds like the type of thing the J.B.’s might’ve played to hype the crowd as Brother James made his way to the stage. Of course, the Winstons aren’t nearly as tight a band as the J.B.’s are (but then, what band ever was?), but the hyper-speed interplay between the bass, horns and drums is still hip. But, oh that break! At exactly 1.26 and with no warning whatever, everyone but Coleman drops out. Coleman doesn’t solo, rather, in the manner of that famous and relentlessly-sampled moment from “Funky Drummer,” Coleman ‘don’t have to no soloing; [he] just keeps what [he’s] got, ‘cause it’s a mother!’ The instant the other instruments fall out, something magical happens. The drum licks sound suddenly buoyant, ready to leap from the wax; you can practically hear sparks flying.
Two things about this break. First, it’s interesting that Coleman—as in the case of Stubblefield’s break from “Funky Drummer”—doesn’t change his drum pattern at all. This isn’t a solo. Just as optical illusions trick the mind into ‘seeing’ something that isn’t there, the aural illusion created by the rest of the band suddenly dropping out tricks the mind into ‘hearing’ the drum pattern more specifically and precisely. Listen carefully to the rest of the song—Coleman maintains that famous pattern throughout. The other interesting thing about the “Amen” break is the infamous missing beat. More on this later, but I believe it’s the missing beat that is responsible for “Amen’s” eventual immortality. (If you don’t ‘hear’ it, try counting the beats. The “Amen” break is four bars long—or sixteen counts. The missing beat is—or should be—at the end of the third bar. Count out loud. When you reach 11, you’ll feel a fleeting, weightless effect as your brain tries to ‘hear’ the drumbeat that isn’t there.)
Fast-forward almost twenty years. A hip-hop DJ named Kurtis Mantronik (real name Kurtis Khaleel) releases a hip-hop instrumental called “King Of The Beats.” Befitting the title, the track is a mini-compilation of manually-manipulated R&B and Soul breakbeats, including G.C. Coleman’s break from the Winstons’ “Amen, Brother.” “King Of The Beats” was initially released as part of Kurtis’ band Mantronix’ third album In Full Effect. The year was 1988, and although sampling was still in its infancy, the “Amen” break had been used before. But what makes “King Of The Beats” significant is the way Kurtis chops up the beat, separating the piece into smaller pieces, then rearranging the new pieces to create new rhythms. In other words, when you listen to other early hip-hop samples of “Amen” (like NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” or, my favorite example, Eric B. & Rakim’s “Casualties Of War”), you’re hearing a basic loop. The DJ or producer lifts a segment of the break and simply repeats it. The rhythm pattern of the resulting loop is identical to the rhythm pattern played by the original drummer. On “King Of The Beats,” Mantronik showed that he could free the break not only from its original context, but also from its own sonic identity. By chopping the break into smaller pieces, and rearranging said pieces, the break becomes something significantly, if not completely, different.
Another decade passes. Mantronik has disappeared. His hard-to-find recordings are fetishized; the man himself is considered an underground legend. Under the influence of his now-seminal track “King Of The Beats,” hundreds of young sound manipulators, working under the rubrics of ‘jungle’ or ‘drum ‘n bass,’ have succeeded in isolating each individual kick drum, snare drop and hi-hat of Coleman’s four-bar break. In the musical equivalent of mapping the human genome or splitting the atom, these young producers now have at their disposal not a drum break, but rather the individual drum sounds that comprise the break. The jungle and d ’n b mixologists could have gone in any direction they wanted, I suppose. They could’ve created drum patterns that were fast or slow, complex or basic, funky or mellow…anything. Instead, they all went for variations on a theme, that theme being the same hyper-hesitancy of the original, thirty-year-old “Amen” break.
The two most defining characteristics of drum ‘n bass are seeming contradictions. The first is the way the snare drops come at you fast and hard, pounding relentlessly, even randomly (or so it may sound). The second defining characteristic is the consistent pausing effect, seemingly mid-beat. It is this contradiction between the relentlessness of the pounding and the suddenness of the ‘missing’ beat that creates the powerful intensity of a good drum ‘n bass record, one that sends dancers into a frenzy. Of course, this ‘addition by subtraction’ is nothing new. The break itself works via the same principle. When the band drops out, the drum (and sometimes the electric bass) ‘free’ the rhythm from its primary role as the underpinning of the groove, as the time-keeper. The rhythm becomes ‘the thing’ itself. For the duration of the break, it feels as if time, along with the text of the record, has been temporarily suspended. Hip-hop fans didn’t want the song at all—they wanted only that suspended something, the break. To this end, hip-hop DJs learned to extend the breaks by manually manipulating turntables and later by creating sample loops. Drum ‘n bass fans took things a step further out. They didn’t even want the break. They wanted bits and pieces of the break, their own thing, something newer, faster and wilder than hip-hop. Strangely enough, no matter how ‘out’ the mixes become, it seems that G.C. Coleman’s ghost lives on. Listen to a track like 4Hero’s remix of Goldie’s “Inner City Life” and although the drum patterns are more complex than anything Mantronik dreamed of, you can still hear that same swing-pause-swing effect that Coleman laid down nearly forty years ago.
One last note. Although we’re posting the Goldie/4 Hero track as an example of how the usage of the “Amen” break has developed, I’m not even sure that 4Hero is using the “Amen” break. And that’s partially the point. Digital sampling technology has progressed to the point that a good mixologist can use virtually any sound source, any combination of snares, kicks and hi-hats (in the case of a drum loop), then digitally and sonically manipulate the drum elements so that they sound similar to what we think of as the “Amen” break without having ever actually using the “Amen” break. In fact, due to its rarity, it’s rumored that many a drum ‘n bass producer has never actually managed to get their hands on an actual vinyl copy of “Amen.” Often, the producers simply sample other drum ‘n bass tracks, or easier still, they sample the track that some consider the forerunner of drum ‘n bass, Mantronik’s “King Of The Beats.” Which accounts for the ‘dirty’ sound of some of the mixes—these are digital copies of an analog copy of a vinyl record. And, I’m convinced that most hip-hop producers (who don’t care about manipulating the beat anyway, they just want the loop) who use “Amen” also lift it from “King Of The Beats.” Ironically, it may be that many of the supposedly thousands of records that we say are sampled from “Amen” are actually sampled from “King Of The Beats.” Still, whether a hip-hop producer or a drum ‘n bass mixologist literally samples “Amen” or not, the aesthetic, the overall ‘feel’ remains the same.
The Winstons – “Amen, Brother” – 7” single (Metromedia, 1969)
Eric B. & Rakim – “Casualties Of War” – From Don’t Sweat The Technique (MCA, 1992)
Mantronix – “King Of The Beats” – From In Full Effect (Capitol, 1988) (Out of print); Available on Hip Hop Don’t Stop – The Ultimate Selection (Warner UK, 2003)
Goldie Presents Metalheadz feat. Diane Charlemagne – “Inner City Life” (4 Hero Remix) – 12” single (FFRR/Polygram, 1994); Available on 4Hero’s The Remix Album – Volume 1 (Raw Canvas, 2004)
—Mtume ya Salaam
When one becomes two
Mtume, you done gone and done it again, stepped off into some deep water when you said you wasn’t doing nothing but just watching the ducks. I’m adding the 4Hero remix of “Inner City Life” because it illustrates in spades your point about the “Amen” beat. But guess what? I don’t intend to bite on that Goldie bait at this point—next week I’m going to get deep into Goldie and “Inner City Life,” and drum ‘n bass. So consider 4Hero’s remix a prelude. Meanwhile let’s go back to the sources and do a bit of historical investigation.
“Amen, Brother” was the b-side of the Winstons’ 1969 mega-hit “Color Him Father,” which won a Grammy as R&B song of the year. This is probably how some-rap-bodies got to it in the first place. Just in case you are not familiar with that cut, here it is, so that we can pick up the next thread: Curtis Mayfield.
But before Curtis, I’ve got to mention that two of the Winstons’ band members, Mattison and G.C. Coleman were former members of the Otis Redding band. The Winstons had signed to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label before the label had a distribution deal and left the label before they had their big hit. But before, during and after their Curtom label days they were also the back up band for Mayfield’s group, The Impressions.
Mtume, when you hear “Amen, Brother” you hear the gospel song “Amen,” well, it’s not just a generic “Amen,” instead this is the 1964 Curtis Mayfield version sped up. When I heard “Amen, Brother,” I immediately heard the 1967 “We’re A Winner” (also sped up). In fact the Winston’s version opens and closes quoting “Winner.” Listen to the two versions and you will immediately hear the correlation. Mayfield’s fingerprints are all over this even though Mayfield is not usually thought of as a funk artist. (Yet, that Superfly album was so funky it defined funk for a year or more, but that’s another story.) What I really want to call to your attention is the syncopation of the drum patterns on “We’re A Winner.” You want to talk about some dope-ass phat beats, come get to “Winner.”
By the way, “Amen” is often thought of as a Mayfield song, but it was actually written by Jester Hairston, who was born “Jestie” and as legend has it, nicknamed “Jester” by his elementary school teacher. He was a brilliant man who ought to be better known.
Born in 1901, the grandson of enslaved forbears, Hairston was a cum laude graduate in music from Tufts University and also studied at Julliard School of music. He served as director of the Hall Johnson Negro Choir for over a decade and worked on Broadway. He went on to work in Hollywood and became one of the first Black actors in the Screen Actors Guild. He composed and/or arranged over 300 gospels and spirituals. His most famous composition, “Amen,” was used in the movie Lillies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier.
Any appreciation of Black music invariably reveals the interconnectedness of the music. In this case, a beat that became the foundation for drum ‘n bass, as well as the source for numerous rap samples, came from a song that was itself a reworking of a gospel number, a gospel number that was written by one of the early giants of our music and had a life and fame of its own in gospel circles.
Now, Mtume, let’s rewind a second and re-visit our contemporary track in which you correctly point out the acapella tradition and how deft ARC Choir is in that vein. However, it is a deep tradition and they are far from the only one’s doing it in 3D. Allow me to drop two other a cappella versions of “Amen,” one by a male group, Take 6, and one by a female group, Sweet Honey In The Rock. Both are choice cuts and are important to understanding where ARC is coming from in using voices as instruments.
Allow me this bit of speculation: the a cappella tradition is closely related to rap in that the essence is in the voice and the flow of the singers to compensate for the intentional lack of instruments. Almost all a cappella in the Black tradition has an exceedingly strong beat underneath that is palpable. It seems to me that rap borrows that emphasis on the human voice and mixes it with the use of palpable rhythms. Unlike a cappella, which usually has a strong harmonic element and a soaring melody, rap borrows from jazz in that the lyricism is contained in the flow of the lead voice.
Ok, so my point is two-fold. 1. “Amen, Brother” is a cover that spawned not only hundreds of samples, but also, as you correctly point out, is the foundation for drum ‘n bass, a whole sub-genre of contemporary music. 2. To fully appreciate the fruit we need to be aware of the root, which is why we focus on the antecedents this week, the gospel and funk background of drum ‘n bass. Tune in next week and we will get deep into drum ‘n bass via the music of Goldie. To be continued….
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. the seed for this week’s BoL was planted a month or so ago when I came across a video that broke down the sampling of “Amen, Brother.”(This video is essential viewing for those who would like to understand sampling beats.) When Mtume got hold to the video, he did his Sherlock Holmes thingy and ended his investigation by mentioning Goldie’s “Inner City Life.” Which put the ball back in my court because I’m a big fan of what Goldie accomplished as a contemporary composer/producer. I was not aware of the “Amen, Brother” connection to “Inner City.” I can hardly wait until next week to unleash Goldie on BoL.
This entry was posted on Sunday, March 12th, 2006 at 12:59 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
7 Responses to “THE WINSTONS / “Amen, Brother””
Leave a Reply
| top |