The Immortal Soul of the Drum Machine

808s and MRK-2s aren't hollow replacements for live percussion—they're influential, boundary-pushing instruments of their own, as a new book documents.
Flickr / Brandon Daniel

Joe Mansfield really likes drum machines. The record producer and founder of hip-hop reissue label Get On Down has amassed a collection of about 150 of them, 75 of which are on display in his forthcoming book Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession.

The word “obsession” comes with negative connotations—suggesting single-mindedness, obscurity, and going too far—and its presence in the book’s title gives Mansfield’s collection a hint of self-deprecation. Of course, drum machines, in some circles, also have negative connotations: supposedly soulless replacements for the act of live rhythm creation.

But flip through Beat Box (out December 3), and you might start to wonder why more people aren’t obsessed with drum machines—why they aren’t as commonly mythologized as, say, the guitar. The book offers a striking, visual reminder of the drum machine’s deep and positive influence on a huge swath of musical history, of its legitimacy as a “real instrument,” and of its value as a quintessentially American innovation.

Beat Box opens with an important warning, instructing readers to dispense with Luddite prejudices: “A drum machine is an electronic musical instrument designed to imitate the sound of drums or other percussion instruments. They are used in a variety of musical genres, not just electronic music. They are also a common necessity when session drummers are not available or desired.” It’s patient, but firm. If you’re one of those “organic” music types who demands to listen to a full band in a room—maybe someone who loved Dave Grohl’s 2012 Grammy acceptance speech—back off.

Most people credit Sly Stone’s use of a Maestro Rhythm-King MRK-2 on the 1971 No. 1 “Family Affair” as one of the defining early moments for programmed percussion. During the ‘70s, the devices worked their way into hits—Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Roxy Music’s “Dance Away”—and carved space in both explicitly regenerative genres like new wave and commercial juggernauts like disco. In the ‘80s, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna all used drum machines. Hip-hop developed into a national force behind acts like Run DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys; they had the toughest beats around, put together with drum machines.

There are still corners of the world for the machines to colonize—they probably appear less in country music, for example, though J.J. Cale used them under his loping country grooves—but their unique propulsion is pervasive, and valuable. This is true regardless of how you evaluate music. If your metric is sonic innovation, drum machines have consistently pushed boundaries further: Kraftwerk playing every part of their songs on a machine; Lee “Scratch” Perry using the “Super Rhythmer” to help open reggae’s spaces; Prince working with Linn models, pumping record levels of sexuality and whiplash into funk and pop. (Questlove, drummer for the hip-hop band the Roots, suggested that “Prince is, bar none, the best drum programmer of all time.”) Grandmaster Flash, the Daft Punk influence Jean-Michel Jarre—these people worked with drum machines to create new worlds of music.

If your metric is chart success, drum machines have also ruled for close to 35 years. The title track to Michael Jackson’s Thriller—people debate whether that album sold 100 million copies—rode a Linn Drum Computer beat, as did “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'.” Kanye West paid homage to drum machines in the title of his 808s & Heartbreaks album. (Though he told The Fader, “I couldn’t tell you shit about those drum machines in there.”) Various strains of dance music and hip-hop, consistently commercially dominant genres, both have drum machines in their DNA.

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Elias Leight writes about music and books for Paste and Popmatters.

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