Owner of the “Amen Break”

I (used to) have a blog called Sample Spotters that talks about whose songs have been sampled by whom. With the help of sites like the-breaks.com and datraxer.com, I make a list of an artist’s songs and where they were used: e.g. Roy Ayers, Patrice Rushen or Labi Siffre. I also did it the other way round once (what songs were sampled BY George Michael), and for some pivotal songs, I dedicated a whole blog post to just 1 song: Funky Drummer and the “Amen Break”.

On that last post I just got a comment by someone who seems to be the original copyright owner of the song: Richard L. Spencer:

I am thoroughly disappointed at all of the comments that I read from decent sounding young people who are not appalled that works by artists such as Greg and the rest of us in The Winstons can be ripped off by hundreds of artists and they do not protest. I am the copyright owner of “The Amen Drum Break” which was created by fellow Winston Greg Coleman and neither of us have ever received a penny for our product.

The history of the Amen Break goes a bit like this:

The Winstons’ version was released as a B-side of the single “Color Him Father” (1969) (…). Unfortunately the drummer, Gregory C. Coleman, nor the copyright owner Richard L. Spencer, the Grammy award winning composer and performer of the hit “Color Him Father”, have never received any royalties for the sampling.
The song itself achieved fame within the Hip-Hop and subsequent Electronic music communities when Louis Flores compiled it onto his 1986 Ultimate Breaks & Beats bootleg series for DJ’s. (…) With the emergence of rave music around 1990, the “Amen” began to appear in an increasing number of techno productions. Very soon the famous loop became the sole drum element of many tracks and a whole style got its own name – Jungle. (…) In 1993-94 the whole jungle movement evolved into drum and bass. (…) At the end of the 90s, some producers focused on the amen break and took it to the next level. Artists like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin started a new sub-genre of hyper-edited drum and bass called drill and bass.
It is probably the only time in the history of music when a 5 second drum loop created a completely new style of music and managed to influence other musical styles to such a degree.

In that constant struggle between protection of intellectual property and freedom to create/recycle/innovate, the inventors of the “Amen Break” got a bad deal. Would jungle or drum-n-bass have taken off like they did if the rights to the Amen Break would have belonged to a lawyer-bombing IFPI/RIAA member? Can you copyright a drum fill? Starting from how many beats? Will future drummers be as free to talk about their inspiration as Jeff Porcaro was about “Rosanna”?

Background: There’s an installation about the Amen Break and there’s even a documentary movie. Don’t think you’ve heard it? Listen here:

💬 music 🏷 copyright 🏷 sampling