It’s the best-known sample of all time. It might be the most-heard six seconds of sound in modern recording.
But before it became the “Amen break,” the signature riff was part of The Winstons’ song “Amen, Brother.”
And so, how much did the artists who actually produced the original sound earn from their “success”? Well, that’ll be … nothing, apart from the original revenues from the 1969 release. Nothing in royalties from its use … well, seemingly everywhere. (N.W.A.? Oasis? Futurama? Check.)
Zip. Zero. The drummer, Gregory Coleman, died homeless in 2006. Richard L. Spencer, the vocalist and sax player you hear on the classic cut, owned the copyright but never got a cent from its reuse. Forget Searching for Sugarman. BBC tracking down Richard L. Spencer (picture, top) may be the even bigger story of a lost and unsung musical hero, all but disappearing after 1971.
So now, one crowd funding project wants to right the wrong, doing through donations what the international intellectual property system couldn’t do for an independent musician.
The project is the brainchild of Martyn Webster, a 42-year old DJ from the UK. Webster fits the MO of the whole Amen break-sampling scene, making electro, hiphop, and rap in the 80s and 90s. So, he’s just a DJ who loved this musical gesture and wanted to give back. The plan: raise money, then give it to Richard L. Spencer to make up for years and years of success given to other artists.
Mr. Webster writes, simply:
If you have ever written or sold any music with the amen break, or even just enjoyed one of the countless hundreds and hundreds of tunes that contain it over various genres and styles of music, please donate towards the good cause of the worldwide music community giving something back to the man behind the legendary breakbeat.
That message seems to have resonated. In just five days, the project has blasted past its original £1,000 target to net a whopping £10,529 in funds – not bad for what amounts to little more than “passing the hat.” It’s a perfect case in which small funds add up: 940 people contributed to that big number. And it’s getting attention; I saw it via Facebook on a German blog, but the mighty Rolling Stone has also taken notice.
There’s even one bloke who has a tattoo of the sample on his arm (as posted to the project’s Facebook group, in solidarity – I wonder if anyone ever recognizes it):
Here’s the immortal original song, worth hearing in its entirety:
And the sample, as you’ve likely heard it:
And a 20-minute documentary on the whole affair:
Really, someone should take a 6-second sample from the narration of that film. Just sayin’.
“Can I get an Amen, brother?” indeed. No more fitting headline for crowd-funding.
Now, next question – how are we going to go beyond the grave and give back to Jester Hairston, composer of “Amen”?
Donate, too, if you like:
The Winstons Amen Breakbeat Gesture [gofundme]
And join the project on Facebook (actually, surprised the Facebook page hasn’t gotten more attention yet – will watch that count after this story):
Postlog: As several people have pointed out to me, there is a fairly essential flaw in the goals of this project which none of the coverage so far seems to have addressed. The essence of the “Amen break” isn’t the song – it’s the drum solo. You can’t hear Richard L. Spencer (sax and vocals) in the actual sample. Yes, technically speaking, Richard L. Spencer owns the copyright – but copyright law here has utterly failed to be meaningful in the usage of the sample, let alone enforceable. I wonder why, for instance, the crowd-funding project doesn’t at least split the money between Mr. Spencer and Gregory Coleman’s heirs. Under copyright law, the publishing rights to a sample would absolutely belong to Mr. Spencer; Mr. Coleman’s role as a drummer was work-for-hire and he would never get royalties unless he had a writing credit. But we’re not talking about copyright laws or royalties; this is just a donation project. I’ve asked the project for their take on this, even though I think that it’s still admirable to give money to the surviving member of The Winstons.
Answer: for now, it all goes to Richard. One issue is, he’s the one they can find. Martyn explains:
As above, all money raised will go to Richard.
Some people have said some should go to the daughter and step-daughter of Gregory Coleman (the drummer).
If we are able to get in contact with them then it is definitely something that could also happen.
That conversation for now remains between Martyn and Richard.