Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Six Seconds That Changed Popular Music

This 18-minute mini-documentary explains the history of one of the most recognizable breakbeats in popular culture. It's been sampled by everyone from hip hop artists to pharmaceutical advertisements. "It's been used so much," narrator Nate Harrison says, "that I might argue it's entered the collective audio unconscious."

Harrison's dry narration accompanies what must be looped video of a scratchy record turning. The six second break beat, or drum beat, is called the "Amen Break." It came from a 1969 B-side called "Amen Brother" by The Winstons, a Washington D.C. soul act that had but one single.

To hear the break, scroll through to 1:19 into the video. To hear it in the context of its original song, scroll through to 2:25 into the video. It really is one of the most-heard pieces of song. The "Amen Break," was "one of the first drum samples to be experimented with" in the 1980s, Harrison explains.

It's been used famously by N.W.A. in their hit "Straight Outta Compton" (1989), and a whole slew of other rap and hip hop acts. It gets more complicated from there. The whole musical genre of jungle is practically based upon the 6-second break.

About seven minutes into the video, Harrison reveals that the record we see periodically isn't playing a loop as I though in the beginning (it is actually moving), nor is it just for effect. The record is actually a dub plate of his entire monologue and music samples. A dub plate is "an exclusive, 'one-off' acetate disc recording pioneered by Reggae sound systems but also used by drum and bass and other dance music artists, DJs and sound systems." (Wikipedia)

I love Harrison's irate summation of the music of Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) and Hrvatski (aka Keith Whitman):
With jungle's popularity, what you got in reaction was this sort of chin-stroking art crowd, who took the "Amen" as their own in the name of a sort of -- as some might say -- highbrow posturing. They proceeded to push the levels of absurdity with its use, really tweaking the arrangements beyond the point of danceability and syncopation, and into a realm of fetishization and self-indulgence."
And then he gets into television ads. One, for the "Extreme Jeep Snow Event," uses the break as punctuation, signifying the sort of playful possibilities one has with a Jeep in inclement weather.

But what I like the most about this video is that it's essentially a spoken-word essay, illustrated with very simple video. You don't have to watch it to get it, but it's a nice feature. It's very well done. I'd like to find more little essays or "meditations" like this, particularly about the history of music and popular culture.

The essay has a message, of course. It is that copyright laws are becoming so stringent that phenomena like the "Amen Break" may no longer be possible.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Site Meter