Slate: How the Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s impossible to deny how much drum machines have impacted modern music tastes and sensibilities, as this recent article on Slate explains:

People tend to associate drum machines with the 1980s, the age of the Roland TR-808—which helped define a long stretch of hip hop with ground-shaking bass—and the digital Linn LM-1, which used the sampled sounds of real drums. But the drum machine made its first tentative steps into pop music in the early 1970s. There’s a Riot is the centerpiece of a cluster of watershed moments in early drum machine history. Brian Wilson used it around the same time for the song “Til I Die” (perhaps something about drum machines appealed to reclusive pop geniuses?). It’s all over JJ Cale’s album Naturally, released in December of 1971. In Germany, Can and Kraftwerk also dove into this new world of sound—to a whole other, weird, effect. In the next few years, Bob MarleyShuggie Otis, and others would follow suit … Beyond aesthetic considerations, the rise of the drum machine represented a philosophical shift. Ceding the job of rhythm, which mirrors the human heart and respiratory rates, to circuits and wires overhauled notions of what it means to make music.

The release of Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On is also cited as a “quintessential moment” in early drum machine use, and the author explains the reason behind Sly Stone’s decision to use a drum machine based on his inability to find a drummer:

The drug-addled Stone had alienated many in the Family at this point in his career—including long-time drummer Greg Errico. “He [used the drum machine] because I’d left the group and he kept calling me up,” Errico told Stone’s biographer, Eddie Santiago. “If I’d been at the sessions, we’d never have tried it.”

Quite simply had Sly Stone not been such a dick, we might never have had hip hop/drum & bass/two-step/dubstep/whatever-as-we-know-it.

And make no mistake: Drum machines weren’t just adapted by soul artists, hip hop producers and electro-pioneers – Big Black was one of the most revolutionary underground rock bands of the 1980s and their sound was very much rooted in a blistering drum machine.

Purists have nevertheless consistently scofffed at the use drum machines over the decades (Charles Wright, for one, reportedly hated Dr Dre’s drum machine ladened samples of his song “Express Yourself” on the NWA song of the same name). This is understandable given the sheer amount of terribly produced music featuring electronic-based percussion.

But all wackness aside, the drum machine is here to stay and the mainstream press is now recognizing its application as a bona fide instrument.

Even traditional drummers have taken note and the drum machine has transformed nature of acoustic drumming itself – witness the machine-like precision of modern-day drummers like Questlove and  the ridiculous skills of this street drummer.

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