3 Classic Drum Machines (And the Hip-Hop Tracks They Inspired)
There are few instruments that have played a bigger role in hip-hop than the classic drum machine. Without the Akais and Linns, you wouldn’t have Run DMC, LL Cool J, NWA, or any of the classic hip-hop acts.
Today, of course, drum machines are obsolete, a curious instrument kept around for nostalgia’s sake. But when they were first released in the early ‘80s, they downright changed music. Glam rock and their big haired drummers might have dominated the pop charts, but all the underground genres – hip-hop, techno, house – used drum machines almost exclusively.
So in this post today, I’ll look back at some of the classic drum machines of yesteryears, their history, and the songs they helped create.
1. Roland TR-808
Roland TR-808 (Image source: Wikipedia)
No history of classic drum machines can be complete without mentioning the Roland TR-808. Introduced in 1980, this was one of the earliest machines that allowed users to program their own rhythm patterns. All the machines before this forced you to use preset patterns (which, you can imagine, gets old really quickly).
The 808 was a massive commercial failure, but it was precisely this fact that enabled its popularity. Because it failed to sell, all the 12,000 units Roland created were sold off for cheap. This made it possible for underground artists to get their hands on what would have been an otherwise expensive instrument.
While real drummers criticized the TR-808 for its “unrealistic” sound, it was this precise sound that gave hip-hop its characteristic tone. The booming bass sound, aka the ‘808’, that is omnipresent in classic hip-hop can be traced to this machine.
I can create an entirely new article on the songs that used the TR-808. There is virtually no hip-hop act that hasn’t used or been influenced by its trademark sound. In fact, Kanye West used the TR-808 exclusively on his 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak.
Head over to any sample library right now and you’ll see countless variants of the “LinnDrum” sound.
This isn’t accidental. The LinnDrum, which was released in 1982, succeeded the Linn LM-1, and quickly became a favorite among musicians across genres. Prince used it, as did Madonna and Tears for Fears.
What made the LinnDrum (and the LM-1 before it) unique was that it used acoustic drum samples. All the other drum machines before it (including the TR-808) synthesized their drum sounds from scratch.
The use of acoustic drum samples was a gamechanger. It suddenly made realistic-sounding drums possible for non-drummers (quite like modern day software drum machines). This was a far cry from the artificial (but unique) sounding TR-808.
Because of the more realistic sound, LinnDrum found more use in pop music than hip-hop. Some of the tracks that used it include “Shout” by Tears for Fears, “Lucky Star” by Madonna, and “Take on Me” by a-Ha.
3. Akai MPC60
Akai MPC60 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Akai makes some of the most loved instruments in music. From their MPK range of MIDI keyboards to the drum machines, Akai still dominates the industry.
But back in the 1980s, Akai was a small Japanese electronics manufacturer that had never made a musical product before. So it headhunted Roger Linn (of Linn LM-1 fame) and asked him to create a modern drum machine.
The result was the revolutionary Akai MPC60.
The MPC60 was more than just another drum machine. Rather, it was a complete mobile workstation that could play 16 voices at once. That wasn’t all. Roger Linn specifically designed the MPC60 to be extremely intuitive. You didn’t need to read the manual to use it.
As you can imagine, this ease of use was a big hit among musicians. Throw in a gorgeous design, plenty of built-in rhythm patterns (which we still use today), and you can understand its enduring popularity.
Artists who’ve used MPC60 sounds predominantly in their tracks include MF Doom, MC Hammer, Sly & Robbie, DJ Premier, Dr Dre (especially “Chronic”), De La Soul, DJ Yella, and NWA.
Of course, you can “recreate” virtually any drum kit by finding their original samples and loading them onto your software drum rack. But in terms of design, tactile responsiveness, and playability, these old school drum machines are still a whole lot of fun.