Sample School: The Winstons


The amazing thing about so much of modern music, from hip-hop and out beyond, is that you’re never really listening to just one album or just one track, you’re skimming the surface of musical history. Most hip-hop artists are as much archivists as they are musicians and if you look a little deeper you’ll find a mind-boggling back-catalog of genius staring back at you. Spend more than a few minutes on and you’ll quickly become entranced, digging out track after track to find out which 70s funk hooks, film score overtures and Malcolm X quotes built the flesh around the skeleton of the beat. The purpose of this feature is to give you an insight into a particular band or artist who helped to shape that world, an artist you’ve likely been listening to for years without even realising it.

The Winstons

This one is going to have a bit of a different flavour to it. You see, the Winstons have an assured place in the history of sample culture not for one particular track, but for a six second drum clip. The challenge for me, from here on out is to save that particular gem until last, since its importance is so difficult to play down. The other trouble is that aside from that one track, they aren’t a particularly heavily sampled band, nor a prominent one, so I’ll make it clear from the outset that whilst usually the list of 3 tracks at the end of each article covers 3 of the most recognisably sampled tracks, in this case there’s only one to speak of, so we’ll focus on that (especially considering that, aside from an album of Rolling Stones covers, the band only released one LP).

In the mean time though, a bit of contextual history. The Winstons were founded by Richard Spencer, a tenor sax player who had logged an impressive amount of studio and stage time with Otis Redding. The band were one of the earliest signees to Curtom, Curtis Mayfield’s record label, which was appropriate considering how similar to the Impressions the band sounded. Their first recording single, ‘Need a Replacement’ was a tight, enjoyable soul track but sadly when it released in 1968 Curtom hadn’t gained anywhere near enough prominence to give it the airplay it needed to get the band off the ground.

After this first hurdle the band moved away from Curtom and over to the colossal Metromedia, releasing a new single titled ‘Color Him Father’ in 1969. The track, which explored ideas about a child accepting his stepfather as a loving member of the family, absolutely exploded. It peaked at number 2 in the US R&B chart and Spencer won a Grammy for the arrangement. Off the back of the release the Winstons toured nationwide with the Impressions. Sadly, that was all she wrote for the band, they struggled to book any gigs as a headline act, being that they were based in Georgia and even in 1970 clubs in the southern US states weren’t wild about booking a mixed-race group. Spencer himself more or less entirely retired from music after the band broke up, going on to study political science at Columbia before ultimately settling as a teacher in North Carolina. But even though Spencer’s musical career ended in 1970, the legacy of the Winstons prevailed in a fascinating new way.

Amen, Brother – Color Him Father – 1969
Appears in Straight Outta’ Compton by N.W.A

When it came time to release Color Him Father as a single, the Winstons had some difficulty trying to figure out a B-side to go with it. They had a riff, just something Spencer had been played by Curtis Mayfield once, but not much beyond that. What eventually emerged was a basic, up-tempo instrumental track, it was recorded somewhat hurriedly and you can hear that, it feels very rough-and-ready, but it’s still an excellent, enjoyable piece of music. And then you hit the 1:27 mark.

Those four bars, solely occupied by drummer Gregory C. Coleman, have become absolutely legendary. The short solo was added to grant the track a little more substance, but when you listen to it what do you hear? Breakbeat. Pure, undistllled breakbeat DNA. Straight Outta Compton might be the most famous single track to use the break, but as the years have gone by, alongside the numerous hip-hop artists to use it, dozens of jungle, drum and bass and breakcore tracks have featured the sample. The first notable time it was actually sampled was in a 1986 Salt N’ Peppa track, but it’s come a long way since then, becoming known as the ‘Amen Break’.

Since 1986 it’s been sampled in over 1500 different tracks with notable examples including Prodigy, Aphex Twin, The Ganja Kru, Shy FX, Amon Tobin, DJ Shadow, Squarepusher, DJ Zinc, David Bowie, LTJ Bukem, The Game, Big K.R.I.T, High Contrast, Eric B & Rakim, Primal Scream, Slipknot, Venetian Snares, Asian Dub Foundation, Zomby, Rudimental, Skream, Jay Z, Tyler, the Creator, Lupe Fiasco, Klute, DJ Krust, Ray Keith and so many others. If you look up basically any prominent jungle or drum and bass producer on WhoSampled, you will almost invariably find Amen, Brother listed beneath their name somewhere. The one which really blows my mind is the opening theme music from Futurama (composed by Christopher Tyng).

Sadly, with sampling being such a complex beast in terms of royalties and copyright laws, that legacy never really made it back to its true originator. Coleman never saw any of the money and likely never even knew what a massive impact he’s had on both hip-hop and dance music culture. He died in the grip of addiction and homelessness in 2006. In Spencer’s case, a recent fundraising scheme was put in place by Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald to allow musicians and fans alike to donate some money to him to honour his contribution to that world. The donations closed last month, with £24,000 raised, a massive achievement considering that the scheme had only ever aimed for £1,000. Spencer himself has expressed his eternal gratitude both the money and the recognition.

For a more detailed look at the Amen Break, featuring words from jungle and drum and bass producers such as Ray Keith, J Majik, Dillinja, Wickaman and many others, listen to this fascinating Radio 1 Xtra special:

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