Richard Spencer at home / All photos courtesy of Richard Spencer
Martyn Webster, a former DJ from the UK, cut his teeth on breakbeats in hip-hop and drum'n'bass in the 80s and 90s. As an aficionado of the latter throughout the Nineties, he learned the story of the Amen break, one of the genre's most infinitely-jacked drum loops that was sampled from The Winstons' 1969 track, "Amen Brother."
Speed the Amen break up, and it sounds like decades of UK hardcore and drum'n'bass, and immediately evokes the spirits of artists as varied as Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era, Shy FX and Apache, Roni Size and Squarepusher. Slow it down, and it sounds like a wide spectrum of classic hip-hop, including the DJ-forward Mantronix cut "King of the Beats" (one of the first uses of the Amen break) and N.W.A's incendiary "Straight Outta Compton." Nas sampled it multiple times. It even pops up in the Futurama theme song.
A few years ago, Webster heard The Winstons' surviving member, singer Richard Spencer, talk about the Amen break on a 2011 BBC1 Radio special. In a rare interview, the normally press-shy Spencer, who also played sax for the likes of Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, told Kutski that he and his former bandmates had made no money from the prolific sampling of their record.
"Listening to what Richard said about never getting paid and not being able to chase any payments due to the length of time before he found out about its status struck a chord with me, and I had the urge to do something about it," Webster explains. "It just seemed wrong that so many people had made money from releasing tunes containing that break, and so many people have loved it for so many years, yet the very people behind it just had to sit there and feel frustrated. That felt very wrong, especially when I heard Richard mention that Gregory Coleman, the person who actually played the break on the drums, died homeless and broke. It got me thinking, as part of the generation that had sampled and loved it, I wonder if people would put aside all the talk of copyright claims and legal nonsense and just do the right thing—to give back a small token gesture to the original artists as a means to say thank you, and as Richard's words in the interview were, 'To make it right and legal.'"
Webster launched a crowdfunding campaign for Spencer called The Winstons Amen Breakbeat Gesture. He set a fundraising goal of £1,000 (a little over $1,500). "To be honest," he admits, "I had no idea what target to put. I knew it would either be a total flop or had the potential to be huge. Given the amount the sample has been used, I think it could go a very long way, I really hope it does, for Richard's sake."
Webster's goal was met and exceeded on the first day; the current total as of this writing is over £15,000 (over $23,000).
"I assure you that I am surprised, encouraged, uplifted, and thankful for the kind people who are making this very important statement of musical brotherhood by participating in this event," says Richard Spencer, emailing from his home in North Carolina. "I have been around the horn a coupla times and have learned over the years that there are extraordinary people in the world who care about their fellow man. This loving effort by strangers is confirmation to an old soldier such as I that music is our salvation and refuge for the likes of me. Thanks to you and all of the beautiful soulful lil bruhs and sisters for caring. Now I can die feeling loved—no time soon I hope!"
Tamara Palmer is breaking beats on Twitter.