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.

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.

In Beat Box, machines like the Schober Dynabeat and its relatives are each photographed and described, often with the help of original advertisements. Large images and technical diagrams display arrays of lights, buttons, knobs, and scales, stuck into boxes of various materials and sizes. Some models emphasize portability, some symmetry; others appeal with slope. Blobs of color stand out from the assortment of blacks, browns, and silvers. Merriam-Webster defines an instrument as “a tool ... designed to do careful and exact work” or “a device that is used to make music.” Check and check.

The first commercially produced drum machine, the Wurlitzer Side Man, was made in America, and it has had a democratizing effect on music. If you can “hold the whole band in your hand,” as one of the advertising campaigns in the book suggests, music production becomes more accessible, no longer limited only to those with big contracts and fancy studios. (Especially if machines are affordable: the Roland-808, “found few early admirers,” so “Roland ceased production,” prices “dropped considerably,” the 808 found “its way into the hands of young hip-hop producers,” and then it went on to be “embraced by ... just about every genre.”) Art has always valued the contributions of the novice or the innocent, who can create without any preconceived ideas about what he or she “should” be creating. The drum machine allows for that wide-eyed, unknowing experimentation.

Ralf Hutter of Kraftwerk has pointed some of this out before: “I wanted to show them [the audience] that anyone could make electronic music,” he said, describing a 1981 American performance by his group. In other words, drum machines offer beats for the masses. That’s why the story of these machines shouldn’t be confined to Mansfield’s temperature-controlled storage unit, or even just to a niche coffee-table book. It’s one of the central stories of contemporary music. A 1985 hip-hop single credited to MCA (Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys) and Burzootie might have said it best. “People played the drums/ they did it for money and they did it for fun/ they did it for sex and they did it for fame/ all kinds of music but the beat's the same/ now there's a thing called the drum machine/ you don't need good rhythm to sound real mean.”