What Do You Call a Machine That Hangs Out With Musicians?

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2013 8:08 AM

Select-a-Rhythm

What do you call a machine that hangs out with musicians?

(Continued from Page 1)

The disappearance of preset rhythms happens gradually through the pages of Mansfield’s book but now strikes me as nothing less than a massive revolution in the understanding of the drum machine, if not even percussion itself. In this disappearance we can see drum machines go from responding to musical trends to creating those trends. The LM-1, the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 (1980 and 1984, respectively), the Oberheim DMX (1982), the E-mu Drumulator (1983): These machines, none of which come with presets and each of which appears on countless pop hits from the 1980s to today, were conceived, and played, as instruments unto themselves. They’re not faux-drummers; they’re real drum kits.

Joe Mansfield.
Author Joe Mansfield

Photo by Gary Land

The most influential devotees of these instruments were young musicians working in young genres—hip-hop, house, new wave, et al.—who came to them with little preconceptions or inhibitions. Mansfield’s book contains interviews with drum programming luminaries like 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 fucking song [on live drums], because it goes against however they learn time signatures,” says Schoolly. “It goes from ride to hi-hat to crash. … 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 instantly hear what he means—a hip-hop classic born of fearlessness, counterintuitive experimentation, and a healthy dose of screwing around.

Beat Box is not a perfect work. The prose can be dry and overly technical, and I personally would have liked more historical detail on certain machines, although one doesn’t turn to coffee-table books for comprehensiveness. There’s also not a lot in the book to describe the actual sound of the machines, although by the end I found that silence to be one of its understated triumphs. Rhythm is the hardest element of music to render into words—some mystical combination of sound, space, and time—and in many of these early machines we see this ineffability personified (“Teen”). I sometimes found myself wishing the book came with some sort of comprehensive audio sampler, but that’d be impossible, and that impossibility is the point: Like any great musical instrument, the drum machine’s potential sounds, and songs, are infinite.

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Luckily Beat Box comes with something even better. Its appendix includes a selective list of songs that feature some of the machines in Mansfield’s book. Want to hear the Linn 9000? Throw on Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The Roland CR-78? Phil Collins, a drummer himself, used it on “In the Air Tonight.” The Oberheim DMX? Try Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble”—he named himself after the thing. Ever notice R.E.M.’s 1992 smash “Everybody Hurts” has a drum machine? It surely does, the Univox SR-95 (1973), already vintage by the time the band dug it out for Automatic for the People. And there’s so much more where that came from. By the time you finally put it down, you’ll realize, if you haven’t already, that Beat Box is a photographic journey through rhythms you’ve had stuck in your head for years.

Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession by Joe Mansfield. Get On Down.

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.

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