Monday, January 29, 2007

Amen, Brother

I'd always vaguely wondered why Drum and Bass had that out of control drum thing going on. I assumed it was in honor of Animal. Apparently not. It's a sample that got way outside its comfort zone.

Some things proliferate beyond their natural lifespan, out of control and getting more massive and disorganized with every generation. One such runaway element is the hundreds of pounds of collagen, originally from the foreskin of a California boy, now living on in thousands upon thousands of plumped up lips, according to cosmetic surgery author Alex Kuczynski. Another modern neoplastic element, apparently, is the Amen Break.

This is the sound of a short drum break from "Amen, Brother", the B-side of a 1969 single called "Color Him Father" by The Winstons. It lasted 5.2 seconds in the original and, I hereby guess at random, if now laid end-to-end would last for several hours. It was originally sampled onto a record called Ultimate Breaks and Beats in such a way that it was easily cut out by club DJs from the surrounding music, like a transposon, a so-called Jumping Gene, and like the genetic equivalent, found itself living on inside new material and taking on different characteristics as its surroundings changed. It's been everywhere, even more places than that sample of John Bonham's drums on When the Levee Breaks that you hear all over the place. You can hear it in NWA's Straight Outta Compton and in 3rd Bass' Wordz of Wisdom. There's even a Slipknot track that uses the sample.

Then it mutated, as the individual elements of the break – the snare and hi-hat – were pulled apart by samplers and put back together in new ways, faster and faster, ultimately producing the classic percussion sounds of Drum and Bass (a style of music I admit I find unlistenable, but at least I now know how it got to be what it is). There's a list of the many songs that sample the Amen Break here .

To follow up, I recommend a strange 18-minute video on YouTube that breaks the bounds of video by actually being a more-or-less unbroken shot of a tone arm playing a white-label acetate of the video's narration, which is a man talking about the Amen Break, with occasional forays into copyright law. It's called Video explains the world's most important six-second loop, and is as dry as the title. But strangely fascinating nonetheless.

If you really catch the sampling bug while watching this video, you can grab the progress dot at the bottom of the video picture and drag it backwards and forwards. The tone arm then zooms back and forth over the record like a disk read head. It makes me feel like a DJ scratching an LP. And that is all I have to say about that.

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