This fascinating, brilliant 20-minute video narrates the history of the "Amen Break," a six-second drum sample from the b-side of a chart-topping single from 1969. This sample was used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music, and became the basis for drum-and-bass and jungle music -- a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures. Nate Harrison's 2004 video is a meditation on the ownership of culture, the nature of art and creativity, and the history of a remarkable music clip.
This is really well done and well worth the 20 minute indulgence. It opened up a couple of thoughts for me:
1) I don't know if I'd consider the Amen Break the most important or even the most influential one. I'd consider the riff from James Brown's Funky Drummer to be far more influential and certainly one could argue that it's more important. Oddly enough, they were both in 1969, and so that's not just a coincidence that they both have that snappy highly compressed timbre to the sonic makeup of the beat. PS - they just don't record drums like they used to back then.
2) The way this essay is done is actually the way I wished they'd teach classes for things like music theory, composition, harmony, and production. When I was a RIM major in college, we would talk about stuff like this, but when you can actually hear it, compare and contrast it, and analyze it, you get a much richer experience. Unless it's CBT, I've not seen this technique used appropriately in classrooms or labs for major programs. This is a shame. If you're not using your ears, what are you using?
3) The author asks the question "what was it about this 6 seconds in 1969 that made it stick?" but never really answers that question. As a former professional drummer, I can tell you that this beat is much older than 1969. It's modern origins are probably more rooted in swing drummers from the 20's and 30's like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Panama Francis. These are the people who probably influenced GC Coleman and who he was probably trying to emulate during the break. This is a very 'natural' swing beat, because you are syncopating, but you're doing it with a paradiddle between your foot and your left hand (if you're a righty). Most junior high school drummers would learn this riff if they spend any time on a trap kit. Another reason why it sticks as a beat is because there's lots of space around it to fill. You have almost a full count of space on the 1 and the 4, and dragging the snare on the 2 opens it up even more for syncopation and right hand fills. It's just a fun beat to play around with and it lends itself easily to almost any tempo. Interestingly enough, it does not emulate a heart beat or sexual activity, which is where most 'sticky' beats come from.
4) Which brings me to why I think this beat has stayed ultimately and germinated so prolifically. It's easy to dissect in a sampler because of the space between the hits, but because it's swinging, it brings itself back to where it probably originated from. I loved the reference to the IDM guys like Squarepusher and Vibert because they always evoke these maniacal swing drummers who just happen to grow 16 arms and legs and play like Animal from the Muppets with this beat. So in a way, the Amen Break isn't the origin, but maybe the most purest zenith of this. It likely started as a much more noisy and filled up pattern in the 20's, got reduced in the 60's, and then rebuilt back up for the crazy breaks in the 90s. The real lesson here is that everything in our existence is recycled. I'm sure the tribesman who came up with this beat on the plains in Africa would like his royalty check now.
5) The narrator's voice sounds processed. It's hard to tell with YouTube's fantastic sound quality, but that doesn't sound like a naturally recorded voice. It sounds a lot like Keanu Reeve's Officer Fred from A Scanner Darkly. Which actually might just be part of the joke.
6) Yes. Copyright law as it stands today and IP law in general is bad for your health. Literally. Ironically, there was more diversity and innovation in experimental music in the 80s and early 90s when the laws hadn't stifled things, even though they were actually lifting from old recordings. Now, everything is 'produced from scratch' but it all sounds the same. If I hear one more 'black keys' synth riff from a Proteus in a hip hop song, my head will explode. But this goes beyond music. If you cannot allow people to reinterpret or recontextualize old works into new forms, then you are robbing humanity of the single greatest engine of change. This applies to music, culture, business, technology, and society.
RE: YouTube - Video explains the world's most important 6-sec drum loop