In this episode, I try to get my head around sampling and copyright law with regard to music, and end up learning about one of the most sampled recordings of all time, 'The Amen Break', which for years has been uncredited by producers from hip hop to drum 'n bass. We are also gifted with new releases from wily guitar wizard John Frusciante - all for free, and far-removed from his work with Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lastly, we remember the watershed moment in art-punk trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs career, where silky synth anthems began to assert their dominance on 2009's It's Blitz!.
- If you've personally been influenced and inspired by music made with the 'Amen Break', and would like to support Richard Lewis Spencer - the sole copyright holder of the original recording - there is another GoFundMe campaign that you can contribute to here.
- 'Amen Brother' by Richard Lewis Spencer of The Winstons is found on FreeSound.org and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 3.0)
- John Frusciante's Renoise Tracks 2009-2011 and 4-Track Guitar Music, as well as additional singles, can be downloaded for free from his Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 2009 album It's Blitz! can downloaded from iTunes here.
Our theme music is provided by PodcastThemes.com - thanks!
Jump to your desire section at these points:
Sampling & 'The Amen Break'
00:42 to 09:16
09:17 to 15:05
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
15:06 to 20:42
Intro, Sampling & 'The Amen Break'
Hi there folks, welcome to the seventeenth episode of Musicology With The Eagle! I am The Eagle, your host on this journey of music discovery and discussion.
When I first started this podcast, a friend of mine gleefully shared a link of it on Facebook, saying something along the lines of “This podcast plays an array of heart-warming music, etcera etcera”. As much as I was grateful for the promotion – and his intentions were good – I had to quickly correct him. “Woah dude, we actually don’t play any music on here – it’s just discussion!”. You yourself might also be a bit confused, having searched for a particular artist on Soundcloud, seen one of our episodes, and thought “Hey, that sounds like a nice mix of music. Let me listen to it while I work on my Master’s thesis. Or bake a cake. Or walk the dog”. Fair warning now - it’s just me talking.
So why don’t we play music here on Musicology With The Eagle? I’ve touched on this before briefly in Episodes 5 and 10, but it’s worth mentioning again to fully explore the topic. Playing portions of other people’s music – on here, or any other medium – is a tricky business. Actually wait - don’t say business, otherwise people will think you’re making money off of it. Let’s just say that for the uninitiated – like me, and probably you too – music copyrighting and royalties seem like a legal grey area, the kind which makes you wanna avoid doing anything too loosey-goosey, lest you wind up with some trouble for yourself.
As much as I admire podcasts like NPR’s All Songs Considered, which play music mixes of the latest tunes they’re talking about, I was initially spooked by the idea of doing the same on here. Doesn’t Soundcloud have an algorithm that picks up whether you’re using copyrighted content? Am I gonna somehow get a lawyer’s letter for an innocent snippet of music? Yeah, they probably went through the whole process of asking for permission each time, but it all seems a bit complicated.
But wait! We play a 20-second intro of rock ‘n roll guitar every episode! Yes, but that piece of music is considered royalty-free – meaning that whether you purchased it or it was made freely available to you, you can use the material as long as you attribute its source. So thanks PodcastThemes.com, your Hard Rock theme has come in handy so far!
So we’ve given credit where it’s due, and we’re not using the material for commercial reasons – okay, cool. But what about copyrighted songs, where the intellectual property of the artist is meant to be closely guarded? Nowadays, even though people still violate these copyrights, big-name artists and record companies have an eagle eye on the industry, with robust well-paid lawyers managing to deter the more obvious and blatant uses.
But what if I told you that the copyright owner of one of the most sampled and influential pieces of music - appearing in numerous forms through more than 1,500 other songs – has never received a cent from its success outside of the original version? No royalties, no clearance fees, nothing.
The ‘Amen break’ is the holy grail of drum solos – six seconds, or 4 bars, of which you’ve heard in dozens and dozens of songs, probably without even realising it. Here it is:
(6-second music break)
Recognize it? Well, the drum ‘break’, as it’s known, comes from a 1969 b-side by funk-soul group The Winstons, called ‘Amen Brother’. Needing to find something to accompany their soon-to-be Grammy-Award winning hit ‘Color Him Father’, the band tried out a quick instrumental, but soon realised that they didn't have enough music for a whole track. Halfway through the track, the other instruments fall silent as drummer GC Coleman continues to pound away on his own, and into the history books.
Little did the band know that this innocuous slice of percussive power would go on to spawn new music genres, be speeded up, slowed down, and spliced up into tiny fragments, whilst finding its way into almost any song that needs a spirited kick in rhythm department, or to convey action and danger. But neither Coleman, nor the band’s saxophonist and copyright owner, Richard Lewis Spencer, tasted of its unlikely fruits, nor sought royalties from the countless infringements of their work.
But what did they unwittingly give birth to, and how did it come about?
A generation later, long after The Winstons had split and left the music industry, the hip-hop scene in New York City was rising up from the underground, with DJ’s and producers using whatever tools at their disposal to concoct new beats and keep the crowd buzzing whilst emcee’s rapped over the top of them. Turntables were primarily the ‘Rapper’s Delight’, often being used to play drum breaks from old funk tracks to serve as the rhythmic backdrop. Given time, compilations of just drum-only tracks began surfacing on the scene, one of these being 1986’s ‘Ultimate Breaks And Beats’. The bootleg series provided a master toolkit for all aspiring hip hop artists – instead of having to search themselves for obscure material to repurpose, they could tap into a well of sure-fire party-starters. Combined with a newly-affordable piece of digital hardware known as a sampler – which recorded snippets of sound to be deployed in new contexts – hip hop flourished with experimentation, a grassroots community founded on digging into the past.
The ‘Amen break’ was one of these many loops, but proved to be so versatile that it started to pop up on some of the biggest hip hop tracks at the time, such as NWA’s seminal hit ‘Straight Outta Compton’, and Public Enemy’s ‘Bring The Noise’. But not only hip hop can claim it as its own. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, British producers in the early 1990’s began to manipulate old breakbeats such as ‘Amen’ in unexpected ways, chopping up segments, layering and processing them in such way that the original was almost unrecognizable. But mostly they tweaked the tempo, which for ‘Amen’ was an already-brisk 120 beats per minute, to crazy levels approaching 160 or 170 BPM. And thus electronic genres such as jungle and drum and bass were formed, slicing and dicing ‘Amen’ into danceable madness, its pitched snares rejigged for a rave culture.
‘Amen’’s proliferation is far beyond the underground now. Rock acts – with functioning drummers, you know, such as Oasis and Slipknot - have seen fit to use it, and you can even hear it in the background of car commercials and television shows such as Futurama. But why? Surely they could just rerecord a similar drum part themselves? Whilst you could say that the sonic qualities of the original made it a universal hit, distinctively loose and colourful, what is more likely is that the widespread plundering was a sign of the times. The ‘Amen Break’ just happened to snowball into popularity enough that it became the bedrock, and in a time where sampling was much more of a legal grey area than it is now, producers saw little need to reinvent the wheel when a perfectly-good one was already there.
With no one to pursue to you for royalties, there’s no need to ask. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t give back. Earlier this year, a crowdfunding campaign spearheaded by two British DJ’s decided to return the favour to Spencer, now 72 years old and a retired teacher and novelist. ‘The Winstons Amen Breakbeat Gesture’ raised $36,000 for the copyright holder himself, presenting him with more than just a cheque, but the respect and appreciation of 1,811 donors who grew up on music touched by the sample’s magic, or made their own mutations of its timeless sound.
Now for that, can I get an aaaaa-men, brother!
In this episode, we have a surprise set of new releases from the wily guitar wizard John Frusciante.
If you’ve been a fan of the funk-rock kings Red Hot Chili Peppers for a while – or at least have been aware of them at the heights of their mainstream success – then you should recognize the long-haired axeman and his passionate vocal harmonies that provided a melancholic beauty to the band’s frenzied freak-outs. You should also be aware that once again, he is not a part of that band, choosing in 2009 to walk away from the ‘Stadium Arcadium’ and soldier a path alone making electronic music.
Yes, it’s been quite a life for Frusciante, and at 45 years old, he is far from settled with his musical approach. Having idolized the Chili Peppers as a teen, his rock star dreams came true at 18 when he was asked to join the group – a decision which catapulted the band into unbelievable fame, and which the young Frusciante struggled to cope with. His first exit in 1992 began a descent into a crippling 5-year drug addiction – the product of a deep depression and isolation which he tried to self-medicate.
Frusciante’s late-90’s renaissance and re-entry into the band kick-started a purple patch in his career, at one point releasing a series of six records in six months during 2004 and frequently collaborating with Omar Rodríguez-López (bandleader of progressive rock group The Mars Volta), and Josh Klinghoffer, who became John’s eventual replacement in the Chili Peppers lineup. His heroin years were not totally lost music-wise – his solo debut ‘Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt’ is a cult fan favourite from someone who is quite a cult solo artist.
But from what I know of his baffling, at times brilliant career outside of Chili Peppers, is that when he channels his energies in the right direction – such as my personal favourite ‘Shadows Collide With People’ from 2004 – it reveals a dedicated songsmith who favours capturing the moment appropriately rather than fussing over virtuosity.
Starting around 2007, his move into electronic territory is made all the more admirable when you consider the entirely new musical vocabulary he chose to learn in the process, falling under a spell of experimental acid house – a subgenre of house music known for its squelching bass sound. According to Frusciante, it apparently took him months to learn to programme the various instruments and hardware – a guitarist fish of the water, one could say, where his skills in making rock music had no power, and traditional song writing methods went out of the window.
Many of these sonic diversions have seen the light of day under the alias Trickfinger, and on two full-length albums and short EP’s, so finding out that Frusciante has more in the vaults is not particularly surprising, especially given their experimental nature. It’s more the method of releasing them.
In a heartfelt essay posted on his official website, Frusciante recently announced that he had released all these batches of music directly through his Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages – for free. The move was partly in response to the press received from an interview where he stated that he had ‘no audience’ and that he no longer planned to release music commercially. Actually, what he meant was that he has made music specifically to learn from, without an audience in mind.
The last part is an important caveat in understanding these songs and their context. For ‘Renoise Tracks 2009 to 2011’, it’s all there in the title: Renoise being the name of a digital audio workstation, the dates being his first few years producing and recording this sort of music. The songs on ‘4-Track Guitar Music’ are all still untitled, filled with weird anti-rock solos from his primary instrument backed by glitchy drum machine beats. On one hand, you get the feeling that you’ve stumbled upon your friend’s work-in-progress, so judgement is withheld. But when reading the essay, you begin to understand Frusciante’s creative philosophy, with a firmware update for 2015.
The man who once wrote ‘Give It Away’ is literally doing just that, clearly defining the concept as such:
“Giving people music for free online being so common these days is a good reminder that artistic expression is always a matter of giving - not taking, or selling. Selling is the making money part, and artistic expression, creation, is the giving part. They are distinct from one another, and it is my conviction that music should always be made because one loves music, regardless of whether one plans on selling it or not.”
So what to make of this motley mix of melodies? Personally, I was equally challenged and intrigued by the aforementioned ‘mini-albums’ – but what really stood out for me were some of the additional single tracks. ‘Fight For Love, another in a long line of collaborations with Rodríguez-López, is simple and stately despite being recorded for the satirical Spanish language film, Casa di Mi Padre, starring Will Ferrell. An acoustic guitar reinterpretation of ‘Zone’, from his 2014 album ‘Enclosure’, is probably as close as you’ll get to accessible now that Dr Frusciante is hard at work in the laboratory. Given his track record, expect either madness, or majesty.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
For this episode’s retrospective, we remember the glittery rebirth of an indie rock band known for its feral stage presence and confrontational music.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a trashy trio that tumbled out of the early-2000’s garage-punk renaissance: their name proudly plucked from their New York vernacular, and with an attitude to boot. Musically minimalistic and visually outrageous, they harnessed a menacing, sexy, feminine energy, thanks to lead singer Karen O, which separated them from much of their New York peers, such as The Strokes or TV On The Radio.
When I first heard Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I couldn’t decide which of the riotous racket was more impressive: guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Bryan Chase’s instrumental insurgency, or Karen O’s she-devil snarling. I mean, surely you’d need a bassist to round out your sound? Zinner’s double duty on guitars and keyboards adds just enough sonic texture to keep things interesting, and has been a notable creative barometer for the band as Karen O’s sheer force of personality shapeshifts into whatever feels right at the time.
Of all their early barnstorming releases, Yeah Yeah Yeahs found an unlikely anthem in the unabashedly sentimental ‘Maps’, from their 2003 debut ‘Fever To Tell’. The song still rocked, but its dynamics and emotional centre were a little to the left of their aural attack. It showed that the band were capable of producing honest, pretty ballads and capturing the ambiguities and uncertainties of modern romance.
The moodiness continued on much of their subdued follow-up, 2006’s ‘Show Your Bones’ – a gothic reinvention that followed the ‘Maps’ trail and tried to pursue substance over style. Post-fame maturity didn’t completely iron out their eccentricities – it just revealed that they could channel their manic energy into twisted pop songs, like the one-two punch of ‘Cheated Hearts’ and ‘Dudley’.
Still, little can prepare you for the galloping rhythms and pulsing synths of ‘Zero’, which opens 2009’s ‘It’s Blitz!’ – my favourite and most consistently great Yeah Yeah Yeahs album thus far. Evoking more Blondie than Siouxsie And The Banshees, the band slipped into a glammed-up dance-oriented groove, and at times are positively jubilant – even when singing troubling hooks such as ‘you’re a zero/what’s your name/no one’s gonna ask you/better find out where they want you to go’.
So once again, there is reinvention on this album, but this time it’s from the ground up. According to one of the producers, Nick Launay, the band literally chopped up their own music to stitch it into something worthwhile, getting Chase to experiment with different drumbeats and then looping the results into odd yet effective rhythm parts. Layer by layer, songs were constructed and altered, mixing the human with the electronic for a run on the pop charts.
Much like new-wave icon Debbie Harry – lead singer of Blondie – Karen O leads the listener through a dazzling array of danceable tunes, but adds an emotional depth and integrity to the music which is often lacking in something you can dance your ass off to. Songs unexpectedly take lengthy asides or dynamic detours, such as ‘Soft Shock’, which starts off with tinkling keyboards from Zinner and a gentle vocal melody, before climaxing not at the chorus, but during the powerful bridge, where Karen O repeatedly worries if her bliss is too good to be true.
The record hums with stately moments like these: the spine-tingling percussion-less lullaby that is ‘Skeletons’, or the ice-queen dictatorship of ‘Heads Will Roll’. But ‘Hysteric’ summits the heights reached by ‘Maps’ a few years’ earlier, surveys the emotional landscape, and perfects the contemplative vulnerability found on their breakout hit. When Karen O realises that ‘you suddenly complete me’, hundreds of young lovers nod in agreement.
‘Dragon Queen’, however, is effortlessly cool and funky, roping in Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio for backing vocals, ripe and ready to carve up indie-rock dancefloors with lines about mouths touching mouths and other human desires. But the sexuality here is subtle and less scandalous than before. Compare it to the roaring sugar-mommy tale of ‘Rich’ from their debut: Yeah Yeah Yeahs now project a dreamy glamour, with coy winks to the audience. Thankfully, a song like ‘Shame And Fortune’ reminds us of the band’s tough and sexy rock roots, allowing Zinner and Chase to unload a buzzing barrage not found elsewhere on the album.
It would be another four years before Yeah Yeah Yeahs would spit out another eclectic mouthful of arty anthems for the hipster crowd – they’re definitely not ones to rush themselves. 2013’s ‘Mosquito’ continued this synth-heavy approach, but with mixed results. Much like its simple yet effective cover of a woman’s fist bursting a raw egg, I consider ‘It’s Blitz!’ to be a watershed moment in time for a relentlessly chameleon-like group of musicians. A happy balance between a punky past and pop-inflected future.
So that’s all we have for you this episode. Thank you very, very much for tuning in to our podcast. We really appreciate the plays and downloads we’ve managed to get from listeners all over the world. Let us know if you have any suggestions or ideas for future shows – we’d be glad to hear them. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.