Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

Transition Culture has moved

I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

20 Jun 2008

The Fascinating Story of a Viral Drum Break

This has really very little to do with Transition, peak oil, or any of our usual fodder here at Transition Culture. It is a short film that I found rather fascinating, which is an interesting take on the idea of things that ‘go viral’. I am fascinated by how that happens, it seems to be happening with Transition initiatives, with many other ideas too; this is a film about a 6 second drum ‘break’, known as the ‘Amen break’, recorded in 1969, which , with the invention of the sampler, has gone viral. No profound lessons for Transition here (unless you can spot any), just something I found rather intriguing.

Categories: General, Waste/Recycling

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Finn Jackson
20 Jun 12:46pm

Many thanks for a very interesting and quite novel way to spend 20 minutes. For me this video actually has quite a LOT to do with the Transition Movement! :o)

There are three interwoven themes here: innovation, copyright, and business.

The starting point is innovation. Pioneers look for simple ways to do things. The people coming behind find it easier to copy the pioneers than to reinvent the wheel themselves.

So, in the story told in the video, one of the early people trying to sample drum tracks knew about the song ‘Amen Brother’. They sampled it because it was 6 clear seconds of drums, with no other instruments playing. They could then build those beats into other compositions. Other samplers heard about what had been done, and did the same — because it was quicker and easier for them than reinventing the wheel.

In the same way there are thousands (millions!) of people who feel uneasy about peak oil and climate change, but don’t know much about the background or what to do about it. For them the Transition Handbook is “six seconds of clear tape”. It gives them pretty much everything they need to know about the subject they are interested in, with know other ‘instruments’ getting in the way.
They can then get on with ‘mixing’ these elements into their own individual lives, creating new ‘songs’.

People using the Amen Break got classified together as “Garage” and “hip hop”. People interested in the Transition Handbook become the “Transition Movement”. Groups of different people, with a shared or common interest/attitude.

What happens next?

In the music example, lots of different people used the same raw material to get creative in lots of different ways. They created new ‘outputs’. More people got involved, and eventually someone came along who combined a load of the best bits into a product (the samples CD) that could be sold as part of a business.

There is nothing wrong with this. Effectively it is what the Transition Handbook also does – it summarises (or ”samples”) a lot of key facts from different places, puts them together in a new way, and turns them into something new, exciting and useful. A sample CD or “handbook” that people can use to help create whatever it is they are trying to achieve.

The video then talks about copyright: it says that innovation requires the re-combination of ideas… and copyright stifles that so maybe we need to change our copyright laws.

In the world of Peak Oil there is clearly a need to transition quickly – to “give up on oil before it gives up on us.”

This argues for a lack of copyright. It argues that we need to share ideas between the Towns: so that things that work well can be rolled out more quickly, and things that don’t work can be shared too so we don’t all waste time time going down the same blind alleys.

But ultimately the ideas that work best will get turned into businesses. Somebody, somewhere will take the things that work and package them into a repeatable product that can be sold to the ‘wider marketplace’.

To me it would be good if we could actively build this into the Transition process. Take the things that work well, and turn them into businesses – businesses which then feed money back into the creative processes and communities that created them.

Of course, they would have to be delivered locally (!) so perhaps a franchise model would work?? :O)

The end result (I hope) would become a transition to a future that is economically sustainable as well as ecologically sustainable.

20 Jun 12:54pm

Thank you Finn, that was quite beautifully put! I think there were the seeds of something like that in my head which is what made me post the link, but it hadn’t formed to anything like the extent you set out above. The Transition idea as a funky sample, I rather like that! Thanks, lots to chew on there….

Shaun Chamberlin
20 Jun 1:04pm

Well, I’ve been told! I rather like Squarepusher, and apparently he is part of the “chin stroking art crowd… pushing levels of absurdity with the Amen break’s use, tweaking arrangements beyond the point of dancability and syncopation, and into a realm of pure fetishisation and self-indulgence in the name of a sort of high-brow posturing”!

Great to understand a bit more of the background though – thanks Rob 🙂

Neil L
20 Jun 1:13pm

Really interesting – can’t beat something that takes you away from the familiar for a bit of inspiration and to help shed a different light on your situation – especially on a Friday afternoon!

So Finn do we spend time and effort changing the copyright laws or do we come up with a ‘new way of doing business’? I think the Transition Movement is a new way of doing business.

As is Creative Commons – referred to in the video – – to quote their homepage:

Share, Remix, Reuse — Legally

Creative Commons provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. You can use CC to change your copyright terms from “All Rights Reserved” to “Some Rights Reserved.”

We’re a nonprofit organization. Everything we do — including the software we create — is free.

Maybe there’s a new, funky version of the franchise model waiting to be created?

Have a chew-full weekend!

Finn Jackson
20 Jun 3:42pm

I’m not sure if Neil’s question to me was rhetorical but I’m going assume he wants an answer. (And it would be rude not to :o))

I don’t think we need to spend time changing copyright laws. I do think we need to focus on coming up with ‘a new way of doing business’… which I think will somehow combine elements of the for-profit and not-for-profit models.

There are lots of reasons why I’ve come to this conclusion, but ultimately (to me) it comes down to Einstein’s quote about not being able to solve problems by using the same level of thinking that created them.

We need a new way of thinking, so that we can find a new way of acting/being. And I think this Transition Period brings with it the opportunity to transform society, in the same way that after the first and second world wars things were never quite the same again.

Great weekend to all,

21 Jun 12:36am

The link didn’t work, but by going to youtube and looking for amen break, I found

21 Jun 4:12pm

Thanks for the chance to learn something in a new area. Very intersting.

22 Jun 10:47am

SO I’m thinking, why didn’t the Winstons exert their copyright and make a whole heap of money? One possible answer might be that the piece wasn’t original when they played it in 1969. ‘Amen Brother’ is an instrumental version of a song called ‘Amen’, sung by Sydney Poitier at the end of the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Check out the whole of Amen Brother, paying attention to the melody that starts at 53 seconds, then take a look at the Sydney Poitier version, written by Jester Hairston. Looks like copying music has been going on forever…

Josef Davies-Coates
24 Jun 4:50pm

Yes, Rob, the transtion idea is a damn funky sample! 🙂

Now, to ensure it spreads even more virally than it is already doing so, please (re-)release the contents of Transition Handbook (and this blog) using Creative Commons (or similar) license.

(a useful guide to open content licenses is available here)

As for people trying to package up tools for sustainable living, have you come across – they are doing exactly that; openly designing and making open source tools and machines for building sustainable villages! Very inspirational stuff.

I’d REALLY really love to see the contents of Transtion Handbook book re-published on a wiki (mediawiki probably best, or perhaps just put it on where people are free to remix it as they see fit (so long as the remixes/ copies they make carry the same freedoms).

I think this would also squarely address a criticism that I’ve often heard about Transition movement, that is that you Rob (and Ben) are acting too much like gatekeepers of important information that should spread freely.

I’ve certainly felt this in the past myself, although I have to say that you’ve been very very good gatekeepers and I throughly respect how you’ve wisely nurtured and built this movement. Slow and steady wins the race as they say 🙂

But still, lets open source the Transition Handbook so that everyone can get to hear what a funky tune it is! 🙂

(I’ve spoken to John at Green Books about doing this sort of stuff before and was pleased to hear he has the vision to see how it could work and didn’t immediately rule it out without thought as many publishers do 🙂 )

PS – if you haven’t seen/heard it yet, I higly recommend Lawrence Lessig’s classic presentation on these issues:

[…] all started with a short blog post about one of the most sampled drum breaks in history, known as the ‘Amen break’, frequently […]

[…] all started with a short blog post about one of the most sampled drum breaks in history, known as the ‘Amen break’, frequently […]