Can I Get An Amen, Brother?

words by Desmond Williams | Friday, June 20th, 2008

breakOriginally published in Verbicide issue #24

Composers of music tailor its amorphous fabric into melodies that suit listeners of varying and discerning tastes. Fundamentally, this was an organic process that saw the creator actually laying hands on one or more musical instruments. But with the advent of electronics and computers, modern day maestros decorate their compositions with prerecorded instrumentation; sonic iron-on patches and appliqués, if you will.

Today, use of such prerecorded snippets of music is very common, and there is one particular drum break that is so frequently used that it serves as a common thread sewing together a patchwork of songs that span many genres. Whether funk or hip-hop is your style, rock or pop, drum ‘n bass, R&B, or two-step, your many instances of booty shaking, hip shaking or breakin’ most likely came thanks to a six-second syncopated contribution from the late Mr. GC Coleman.

Mr. Gregory Cylvester Coleman is the former drummer of the R&B group The Winstons, and the architect of one of the most co-opted drum breaks since the invention of the sampler: the “Amen Break.” Yet his name is not as recognizable as the artists who have made use of his instrumentation.

One might argue that aside from the fanatics who read through the liner notes of CD packages, no one really knows who is playing what on radio tunes. But the main difference between those musicians and Coleman is that they are duly paid for their contributions, while GC never received a royalty check (or any other type of compensation for that matter, be it cash or kind) for the numerous times his drumming has been looped to form beats.

Mr. Coleman’s drum break, which can be heard toward the middle of the song “Amen, Brother” (the B-side to the band’s Grammy-winning 1969 single “Color Him Father”), has been used in songs by 3rd Bass, Squarepusher, Atari Teenage Riot, Goldie, Public Enemy, Slipknot, the Pixies, George Michael, and serves as the theme music for “The Powerpuff Girls” television show. There is even an 18-minute YouTube video with more than a hundred pages of comments and three separate Wikipedia entries that delve into the history and use of the break.

Like most listeners, the first time I came across the Amen Break I had no concept of its significance. It was used in a song by some guys declaring patriotism for their ‘hood. On the album cover, six fine specimens of LA gangster life stared at me from under a racially charged three-letter acronym. One was holding a pistol. The song was NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” and I was about 16 years old and in high school at the time, just as Coleman was when he created the drum break that gave the song its hopped-up urgency. Gregory Coleman was a drum major for the Armstrong High School marching band until his graduation in 1962 led him to form his seminal band GC Coleman and the Soul Twisters. Subsequently tapping his artistry, greats such as Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield employed the proficient Gregory Coleman to kick out beats for their live and studio performances. Moving from Virginia to Washington DC, Coleman formed The Winstons with Richard Spencer, a young musician with his eyes set on R&B stardom, in the late ‘60s.

Mr. Spencer, lead singer and “interpreter” for The Winstons, remembers the Amen Break very well.

“That drum solo that Greg played had nothing peculiar about it,” Spencer recalls via telephone after a day of high school teaching, his current profession. “It came from his high school days. Every black drummer had the thing they did to get the girls’ attention. That break came with him to The Winstons. All the drummers had signature solo pieces that they played all the time — they were like gunslingers, but they all wore their guns differently.”

Some speculate that it was much more than teenage lust or serendipitous jamming that drove GC Coleman to create the break. One intellectual in particular has put the break in the realm of divine artistic creations.

Dr. Michael S. Schneider, prominent mathematician and author of A Beginner’s Guide To Constructing The Universe, wrote that he “immediately recognized the Golden Ratio in the structure of [the Amen Break’s] timing. And I was surprised to find an even deeper relationship with the structure of the human body.”

The Golden Ratio refers to the optimal arrangement of visual objects in a manner that is considered most pleasing to the eye. The Greek sculptor, Phi, is said to have employed the ratio in his creation of the Pantheon in 440 BC, and it is believed that Leonardo Da Vinci did the same using “Divine Proportion” when painting the Mona Lisa some 2,000 years later. Schneider argues that somehow the genius of GC Coleman was cued into this phenomenon as great composers before him — Mozart, Beethoven, Satie — have also been naturally inclined toward the particular arrangement of beats and spaces. “[Musical] Golden Ratios resemble the Golden Divisions in the body but in audible form,” wrote Schneider in his online paper, which involved a lot of complex math. “I suppose it might appear in music most conducive to dancing.” Which, he concludes, is the reason behind the Amen Break’s popularity.

When I asked Richard Spencer, current owner of the copyright to “Amen, Brother” and its popular drum break, about the possibility that GC was tuned in to the Golden Ratio when creating the break, it was difficult for him to contain his disgruntlement.

“Man, that’s bullshit,” said Spencer angrily, his voice retaining its smooth Southern tone. “Greg was a young black man from Richmond who played a drum solo and played it well. I am quite pleased that Greg made such a lasting imprint on so many, but it’s sacrilegious to make it more than that. He was a young man that all his life never got his fair share. It’s almost insulting to try and attach ideological and philosophical bullshit connotations. I think towards the end, Greg did realize its popularity, but who’s benefiting? Certainly not Greg. Who’s gonna pay his children? Greg’s family ain’t gonna get shit.” This is the sentiment that mars the popularity of the Amen Break, making it infamous in its iconic stature. GC Coleman whiled his life away as a relatively poor man in Atlanta, Georgia, while unwittingly fattening the pockets of many in the music industry.

He died in September of 2006, but the beat he created lives on.

Desmond Williams is a freelance writer and columnist based in Brooklyn, New York.

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