Books: Ode to a drum machine
The 808 is the Steinway of drum machines. Illustrates BOOKS-MUSIC (category e), by Jack Hamilton (c) 2013, Slate. Moved Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Gary Land.)
beat box: A Drum Machine Obsession by Joe Mansfield (?212 pages, $45)
Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense features maybe the most famous opening of any concert film. David Byrne strides onstage in a gray 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 mic’d. 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 KRS-One introduced D-Nice as “the human TR-808” on Boogie Down Productions’s “South Bronx” in 1986, it was the highest compliment he could bestow on a beatboxer. “I know y’all wanted that 808,” declared Big Boi on Outkast’s “The Way You Move” in 2003; given that the song hit No. 1, 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 David 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. Beat Box is 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-biz veteran, best known to hip hop fans as the producer behind Ed O.G. and Da Bulldogs’s 1991 classic “I Got to Have It.”
Mansfield bought his first drum machine in 1985, at age 15 (a mint-condition 808, for $250); he has since accumulated upwards of 150.
Like most books of its kind Beat Box is a primarily visual experience. Mansfield provides various 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 themselves, lovingly photographed by Gary Land and laid out on the page in all their glorious, colorful, idiosyncratic detail. Some appear straight out of Star Trek, others straight out of Toy Story; some are designed like immovable furniture, others like transistor radios.
Flipping through Beat Box it quickly 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 the people 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, though several of the machines in Mansfield’s book (the Seeburg Select-a-Rhythm, the Conn Min-O-Matic Rhythm) offer “metronome” functions, which seems a little like equipping an iPhone with a Dixie-cup-and-string attachment. 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. The original ad copy for the machine, reproduced for our interest and amusement, essentially pitches the Sideman as a band member you don’t need to pay.
Even the name invites a new version of the old joke: What do you call a machine that hangs out with musicians?
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.
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 replay the . . . 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.