Feel the rhythm - new book pays homage to the drum machine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm

Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession
by Joe Mansfield
Get On Down
Jack Hamilton
4 stars

Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense features perhaps the most famous opening of any concert film. David Byrne strides onstage in a grey suit and white canvas sneakers and lays a boombox at his feet. "Hi," he says. "I got a tape I want to play." He presses a button and a pulsing, slithering rhythm emerges. The crowd goes wild; Byrne strums the opening chords of Psycho Killer.

The boombox is a lie; it's not even near a microphone. The sound that fills the stage and screen is a Roland TR-808, plugged into a mixing board far from the camera's gaze, defined by invisibility. The 808 is the Steinway of drum machines, the most famous model of the most important instrument since the electric guitar. When rapper KRS-One introduced D-Nice as "the human TR-808" on Boogie Down Productions' South Bronx in 1986, it was the highest compliment he could bestow on a beat boxer.

"I know y'all wanted that 808," declared Big Boi on Outkast's The Way You Move in 2003; given that the song hit No1, Big Boi knew right. In 2008 Kanye West named an album after the machine, 808s and Heartbreak; Kanye being Kanye, heartbreak got the cover. Even Byrne wouldn't let it have its close-up.

The TR-808 and 74 other objects of its kind finally receive their due in Joe Mansfield's Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. It's a cleverly designed, lavishly illustrated and endlessly fascinating coffee-table history of the drum machine.

Mansfield is a drum machine collector as well as a historian and music business veteran, best known to hip hop fans as the producer behind Ed O.G. and Da Bulldogs' 1991 classic I Got to Have It. Mansfield bought his first drum machine in 1985, at age 15 (a mint-condition 808, for US$250); he has since accumulated upwards of 150.

Like most books of its kind, Beat Box is a primarily visual experience. Mansfield provides specs for each machine and an occasional anecdote; Dave Tompkins - whose brilliant 2010 history of the vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, is probably the closest thematic relation to Mansfield's book - christens the volume with a terrific foreword. But the stars of Beat Box are the drum machines, lovingly photographed by Gary Land and laid out on the page in all their glorious, colourful, idiosyncratic detail. Flipping through Beat Box it becomes apparent that for much of the drum machine's history, the people building them had no clear idea what they were doing, even if those using them increasingly did.

The drum machine is a mind-bogglingly weird idea. For starters, what defines one? No one calls a metronome a drum machine, although several of the machines in Mansfield's book (the Seeburg Select-a-Rhythm, the Conn Min-O-Matic Rhythm) offer metronome functions. The earliest drum machines were intended to literally replace drummers themselves. Beat Box's opening profile is of the Wurlitzer Sideman (1959), generally considered the first drum machine ever made.

In the book's early pages, most machines we see were designed primarily as collections of preset rhythms. Among these are such vague and dusty archaisms as "foxtrot", "watusi", "twist", and my own personal favourite, "teen". The Maestro Rhythm King, used by Sly Stone on his 1971 album There's a Riot Goin' On (widely considered the first mainstream album to feature a drum machine), boasts 18 variously coloured buttons, each adorned with labels such as "Cha Cha", "Go-Go", "Slow Fox" and "Western".

And yet by the time Roger Linn introduced his groundbreaking LM-1 Drum Computer in 1979 - the first machine to offer digital samples of actual acoustic drums - there was nary a preset rhythm to be found. The LM-1 - a machine so powerful that in 1984 it let Prince release When Doves Cry without a bass track - contains 18 different individual drum sounds and is equipped with a 13-channel mixer. Nothing about the LM-1 is user-friendly or convenient, nor is it meant to be: it is proudly conscious of its own artistry, and that of its prospective users.

The most influential devotees of these instruments were young musicians working in young genres - hip hop, house, new wave and so on - who came to them with few inhibitions or preconceptions. Mansfield's book contains interviews with drum programming luminaries such as Marshall Jefferson, Davy DMX and, most memorably, rap legend Schoolly D, whose greatest hit, P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?), features a Roland TR-909 programmed by Schoolly himself.

"It's funny because nine out of 10 drummers cannot re-play the … song [on live drums], because it goes against however they learn time signatures," says Schoolly. "And the craziest thing is that I played it all live in the studio, while I was rapping on top of it."

One listen to the track and you'll hear what he means - a hip hop classic born of fearlessness, counter-intuitive experimentation, and a healthy dose of screwing around.