A reposting by the blog Retro Thing drew Squally’s attention to this 2004 short video by Nate Harrison. Harrison looks at the history of the “Amen Break,” a four-bar drum solo which was found on the B-side to the Winston’s 1969 hit “Color Him Father.” With the advent of sampling technology in the 1980s, the break became widely disseminated. Slowed down and sped up, the breaks can be heard on tracks like Third Bass’s “Words of Wisdom,” NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” and even Oasis’s “D’You Know What I Mean.” The break has also been sliced up into its individual drum beats, which were then rearranged to form the rhythm beds for countless hardcore techno, ragga jungle and drum ‘n’ bass tracks.
Harrison’s documentary is a minimalist essay. The soundtrack consists of his reasoned voiceover and musical selections that demonstration the break’s various permutations. Harrison notes how the beat has gone from ’60s obscurity to appearing on radio advertisements for Jeep. The visuals consist of close-ups of a record player and a white gallery space containing an exhibition devoted to the Amen Break.
“To trace the history of the Amen Break,” says Harrison, “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.” He briefly wonders where the Winstons are now, but none of the members are interviewed. Harrison instead endorses the dissemination of the beat through what would now be illegal means, while noting the hypocrisy of companies which included the break on copyrighted compilations, without actually paying a license fee to the band. Ownership is a key theme and an ironic one. Harrison later mentions that the Winstons are indeed touring, although with none of the original members.
Since 2004, recording artists have had to pay for every sample they use. It’s a legal decision which hinders the use of something like the Amen Break to make new art. To Harrison, this is a bad thing. New combinations, he says, create new meanings and lead to a richer culture. However, the notion that the culture is richer for the ubiquity of the Amen Break is undercut by his sneering attitude towards a “chin-stroking art crowd” who made the break a cornerstone of “a realm of pure fetishization and self-indulgence” and its appropriation by corporations to sell product. Are those six seconds really art? Or has it simply retained its identity as a feature on a marketable piece of plastic?