Knowledge Magazine Awards

Forever And Ever Amen
Knowledge casts an affectionate eye over the 35-year history of the undisputed king of the beats - the mighty Amen...

All junglists have had that moment. You're in a crowded club and the sound system's firing on all cylinders, with the best tune of the night so far tearing through the crowd on a wave of rudeboy bass and militant two-step drums. Suddenly, the track breaks down, and starts slowly, slowly building again for a second drop. There's a split second of silence, and then the whole shebang smashes back in again, this time with a firing Amen loop in tow. The crowd roars, the energy levels double and everyone goes apeshit. Probably for not the first or last time that night, Amen has reared its gloriously ugly head and sent the whole place into orbit.

Since its birth, jungle has always had a handful of sonic elements on standby that have never gone out of fashion. There's the sick whine of Mentasm, for example, or the menacing growl of the Reese bass sound. But no other sound tool has been as rinsed out by d&b; producers as much as Amen has. It's been used to add bouncy, bug-eyed energy to jump-up tunes; it's provided a graceful, rolling undercurrent to slinky liquid tracks; it's rattled abstractly over ragga and hip-hop samples; and it's given darkside tunes a threatening, feral edge.

It's not just drum & bass producers who have harnessed Amen's wildstyle energy. Its metallic roll can be heard crashing through hip-hop tunes, gabba tracks, TV theme tunes (Futurama) and even pop records - listen closely to Whigfield's super-cheesy 90s pop-dance hit 'Saturday Night' and you'll hear Amen rolling away in the background. It's fair to say, though, that no other genre has taken the break to its heart in the way that d&b; has. "I love Amen," says veteran break-spotter Equinox. "It's the king of the beats. I've been hunting for years to find a break that has the same impact as Amen; some have come close, but nothing can touch it."

Amen first found its way onto vinyl an astonishing 35 years ago, as the four-bar breakdown on 'Amen Brother', the B-side of six-piece funk group The Winstons' 1969 single 'Color Him Father'. A man by the name of G.C. Coleman was the genius on the drum stool. Little information is available on the group, and if it weren't for the adoption of 'Amen Brother' as the junglist's break of choice, they'd probably have remained sadly forgotten outside of funk trainspotter circles. Were they able to claim for royalties for the many thousands of times that 'Amen Brother' has been sampled, they'd undoubtedly be made far richer than they ever were through their own recorded output. As music publishing law currently stands, however, you cannot, unfortunately, copyright a drum break.

It wasn't until 1988 that The Winstons made a real impact on the public consciousness, when the crushing drums of 'Amen Brother' found their way onto two of the year's key hip-hop tunes. Recognising the thugged-out power of the break, then-fledgling producer Dr Dre sampled it for use on 'Straight Outta Compton', the fierce, fiery calling card by gangsta rap pioneers NWA. Perhaps even more important in terms of junglist history, however, was 'King Of The Beats' by Mantronix. A siren-powered monster of an instrumental hip-hop track, it boasted the first example of the Amen break being 'chopped' - crudely so by today's standards, perhaps, but chopped nonetheless.

It was during the hardcore / rave era of the (very) early 90s that Amen really started to come into its own, however. As a new generation of producers began to move away from the dreamy, four-four pulse that had characterised the acid house movement of the late 80s, they looked to combine a much harsher palette of sounds with pitched-up hip-hop and funk breaks for a bone-rattling, roughneck effect - and the super-compressed, ultra-grimy Amen break suited their needs perfectly. A whole raft of Amen-powered hardcore tunes followed, including Lennie De Ice's 'We Are IE', 2 For Joy's 'Let The Bass Kick' and - probably the most celebrated of them all - LTJ Bukem's classic 1991 roller 'Demon's Theme'.

As the joyous rush of hardcore gave way to the minimal, often nightmarish stylings of darkcore and breakbeat, Amen remained the producer's break of choice. Tracks like DJ Distroi and Boykz's 'Darkside' used Amen more aggressively, and at greater speed, than it had ever been deployed before. By 1993 this brave new sound had passed the 160bpm mark and become known as jungle, jungle techno or drum & bass by its followers, and Amen had cemented its position as the don gorgon, the daddy, the king of the pitched-up beats. Tracks such as 'Scottie' by Subnation, 'Warpdrive' by DJ Crystl and 'Terrorist' by Renegade (aka Ray Keith) were taking those ferocious drums into uncharted territories, making them tear, twist and roll as never before.

"I just stuck the break in the Akai sampler, processed it till it sounded better and then got a four-bar loop out of it," says Ray Keith of the aforementioned 'Terrorist'. "A lot of people were using Amen in the early days of jungle, but 'Renegade' was one of the first tunes to use it 'clean' - I took it off a breakbeat compilation, whereas a lot of people were lifting it from that Mantronix track ['King Of The Beats']. Then people started lifting it off 'Terrorist'. Now you can just drop it into Recycle or whatever and chop it into a hundred pieces, but in the early days we had to chop it manually."

'Terrorist' remains one of the best examples of the sheer bruising power of an Amen loop when it's kept simple, thugged-out and rolling. Elsewhere, though, other producers were looking to see just how far they could twist, dice and bend the break before it became nonsensical. For many, the king of the super-technical Amen mash-up sound of the mid 90s was Remarc (whose finest moments from the era can be found collated on 'Sound Murderer', a compilation released last year on Planet Mu). On tracks like 'Ricky', 'Thunderclap' and 'R.I.P.' he shattered Amen into a thousand pieces and then put it back together in utterly alien but weirdly instinctive new shapes. "There was definitely an element of 'top that!' to my Amen programming at the time," says Remarc now, "not to other producers, but to myself. If you listen to all of my tunes in chronological order that progression becomes obvious. I used to like it when people listened to 'em and went, 'What the fuck happened there?' That's when I knew the track was twisted enough!"

The arrival of Alex Reece's seminal 'Pulp Fiction' in 1995 signalled the point at which many producers left Amen - and breakbeats in general - behind in order to concentrate on clean, two-step drum patterns. Many of the leading lights of the tech-step era that ushered in around this time still sought to harness the power of Amen in their super-harsh, futuristic productions, however. "Amen's the best break in the world, provided it's processed, EQ-ed and used properly," says Technical Itch, the undisputed master of the skull-crushing darkside Amen pattern. "There are so many ways you can use it. It can be used as the main beat for a track, or just left running away in the background to give another break a more 'live' feel."

In recent times Amen's stock has been on the rise again, as a new generation of break fiends seeks to reinstate it as the king of the beats. Labels such as Bassbin and Inperspective, club nights such as Technicality and producers such as Breakage and Equinox have breathed post-millennial new life into The Winstons' finest moment. "It's the power, the energy and the rhythm - no other break has it," says Rohan, head of Ireland's Bassbin imprint. "Jungle was founded on breakbeats and the mixing of breaks to create energy, and the effect of Amen on top of other breaks creates a sound that just smashes it. Nobody wants to hear Amen all night, but dropped in the right place it just twists it up."

Equinox - whose 'Ital Tuff Lion Head' track on Intasound is one of the finest Amen workouts of recent times - concurs: "It's the energy of the break, man. It just hypes the dancefloor no matter what style of d&b; is being played. Go to Metalheadz, Valve, Fabric, Technicality, One Nation or a Renegade Hardware event and you can see the crowd go proper lively when an Amen tune comes on."

So what does the future hold for the seemingly evergreen Amen? Will there ever come a day when it loses its impact and has to be put out to pasture? "No," says 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: "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: "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."

To hear Amen in its original, unadulterated form go to

WORDS Joe Madden

  <<Back to Features