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These are the breaks: 10 of the most sampled drum beats in music history

Led Zeppelin's John Bonham (Photo: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns, Getty Images)
Led Zeppelin's John Bonham (Photo: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns, Getty Images)

Drum breaks: Those small patches of space within a song where the singer shuts up, the guitarist backs off, the bass rumbles down, and the percussionist is given a moment or two to shine. Before the rise of sampling, those moments were merely considered artistic flourishes, necessary bridges, or just breathers from the mayhem swirling around the kit. Afterward, they became essential building blocks for some of the greatest music ever recorded. Below is a collection of some of the most widely sampled drum breaks, with just a few of the songs that feature them.

1. Led Zeppelin, “When The Levee Breaks” (1971)

Recorded in a centuries-old estate in Hampshire, England, this Led Zeppelin IV track obtained its opening titanic drum sound when movers set up John Bonham’s brand new Ludwig kit at the bottom of the mansion’s cavernous stairwell. The resulting natural reverberation, combined with Bonham’s own force-of-nature technique, created an effect that proved irresistible to latter-day samplers. The track has been used extensively through the years by artists like Beastie Boys on “Rhymin & Stealin,” Dr. Dre for “Lyrical Gangbang,” and “Man Next Door” by Massive Attack.

2. James Brown, “Funky Drummer” (1970)

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the bandleader who considered every instrument a drum would be responsible for giving the world one of the most widely sampled drum breaks of all time. Performed by Clyde Stubblefield, the oft-pulled moment arrives around five and a half minutes into “Funky Drummer”; Brown bookends the break with a “one-two-three-four” count in and out. The break became the base for tracks like “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy, “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J, “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A., and “Run’s House” by Run-D.M.C. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson hit the nail on the head: “It’s hands down the most perfect beat you can loop—it’s very lyrical, very melodic, very rhythmic. It’s perfect. It’s magical.”

3. The Winstons, “Amen, Brother” (1969)

Quite possibly the most sampled drumbeat ever, the so-called “Amen break” was laid down by G.C. Coleman as part of the B-side to the 1971 single “Color Him Father.” While The Winstons never hit as big commercially as some of their funk and soul contemporaries, it can be argued that the band made an impact as large as Sly And The Family Stone or The Miracles through the legacy of this singular six-to-seven-second piece of music. Innumerable producers have built songs around the “Amen break” over the last 40 years. Among the more notable examples include “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A., “I Desire” by Salt-N-Pepa, “D’You Know What I Mean” by Oasis, and the theme song to the television show Futurama. A recent GoFundMe campaign managed to raise £24,000 for “Amen, Brother” composer Richard L. Spencer, who had never seen a cent out of the song’s use before; Coleman died broke and homeless in 2006.

4. Melvin Bliss, “Synthetic Substitution” (1973)

While you wouldn’t call “Synthetic Substitution” a throwaway necessarily, it’s a prime example of one of those songs that might have been lost to history if not for those diligent crate diggers on the search for new sounds. Released in 1973 as the B-side to the flop single “Reward,” “Synthetic Substitutions” gained new life after it was sampled by the Ultramagnetic MC’s for the song “Ego Trippin’” in 1988. Since then, the intro beat has been used by the Wu-Tang Clan on “Bring Da Ruckus,” “O.P.P.” by Naughty By Nature, and “Don’t Believe The Hype” by Public Enemy.

5. The Honey Drippers, “Impeach The President” (1973)

In the wake of foul-play revelations after the 1972 Watergate break-in, not many people were too fond of Richard Nixon. Among that growing demographic was soul singer Roy C, who recorded a whole song about his displeasure with Tricky Dick with high-school outfit The Honey Drippers. The track eventually transcended its status as an early ’70s curio thanks to producer Marley Marl, who snipped out its prominent opening break for the 1988 MC Shan song “The Bridge.” Since then, it’s been used by big names like LL Cool J, De La Soul, and Nas, who’s rapped over it several times on tracks like “I Can” and “The Message.” GZA later highlighted the break’s ubiquity on the song “As High At The Wu-Tang Get,” rapping, “You can’t flow, must be the speech impediment / You got lost off the snare off ‘Impeach The President.’”

6. James Brown, “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” (1974)

Another entry from the Godfather Of Soul, “Funky President” was recorded in September 1974 for the album Reality and is presumed to be about Gerald Ford. For the sessions, Brown called in drummer Allan Schwartzberg, formerly of the Leslie West-fronted rock band Mountain, to man the kit. He delivered right off the top with an extended boom-bap style, break-beat introduction that can be spotted in songs like “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and “Eric B. Is President” by Eric B. & Rakim.

7. Mountain, “Long Red” (1972)

Apparently, Leslie West had an ear for excellent drummers. Before Allan Schwartzberg took over on the skins for Mountain in 1973, the job fell to N.D. Smart, who only lasted with the band for a few months. But Smart was with Mountain long enough to take part in a star-making turn at Woodstock in 1969 and to lay down a cavernous intro break on “Long Red” (which appears on the 1972 album Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On). Kanye West later scooped parts of this song for two tracks on his album Graduation: He used the break on “The Glory” and mixed in a “Long Red” “yeah” in the song “Barry Bonds.”

8. Billy Squier, “The Big Beat” (1980)

Despite a promising beginning with a variety of hits including “The Stroke,” “Everybody Wants You,” and “In The Dark,” ’80s rock phenom Billy Squier’s career all but ended the instant the embarrassing “Rock Me Tonite” video first aired on MTV in 1984. Though his commercial viability dried up faster than a spilled can of New Coke in the summer sun, Squier gained a second life in music by way of his song “The Big Beat,” whose massive drum sound has been bitten extensively for hundreds of rap tracks throughout the years. Mega-producer Rick Rubin used it for the Jay Z song “99 Problems” and the Eminem track “Berzerk.”

9. Kool And The Gang, “N.T.” (1971)

This Kool And The Gang track features a drum break so vital, A Tribe Called Quest mastermind Q-Tip named a song after it. Produced by DJ Scratch, Tip’s own song “N.T.” was released on his first solo record Amplified in 1999, another song on that album, “Breathe And Stop,” featured the drumbeat. Kool And The Gang recorded “N.T” as part of the 1971 album Live At P.J.’s, laid down by George “Funky” Brown. Other producers who’ve have gravitated to the break through the years include Dr. Dre, who used it on the N.W.A. classic “Gangsta Gangsta,” and DJ Premier who made it the backbone of “N.Y. State Of Mind” on Nas’ masterpiece debut Illmatic.

10. Lyn Collins, “Think (About It)” (1972)

Though “Think (About It)” is credited to Lyn Collins, the song’s lead vocalist, this is yet another James Brown production. Not only did Brown produce the song, he also wrote it and released it under his People Records label in 1972. As much as the track’s drums have been sampled by the likes of Kanye West for “Lost In The World” and 2 Unlimited for “Get Ready For This,” “Think (About It)” is most prominently known as the basis for Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s party anthem “It Takes Two.”