Tag Archive | OutKast

Sounding Out! Podcast #62: ¡¡¡¡RESIST!!!!

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The Clash, “Guns of Brixton”—The Editorial Collective
Alice Bag, “Programmed”—Jenny Stoever
Speedy Ortiz, “Raising the Skate”—Liana Silva
OutKast, “Humble Mumble”—Regina Bradley
The Staple Singers, “Freedom Highway”—Shakira Holt
El Jornaleros del Norte, “Serenata a un Indocumentado”—Dolores Inés Casillas
A Tribe Called Red (feat. Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear), “R.E.D.”—reina alejandra prado
Body Count, “No Lives Matter”—Holger Schulze
Pega Monstro, “Partir a Loiça”—Carlo Patrão
Björk, “Declare Independence”—Chris Chien
Green Velvet and Prok & Fitch, “Sheeple”—Justin Burton
Pet Shop Boys, “Go West”—Airek Beauchamp
Kate Bush, “Waking the Witch”—Gretchen Jude
Cabaret Voltaire, “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)”—Yetta Howard
Lucid Nation (feat. Jody Bleyle), “Fubar”—Tamra Lucid
Resorte, “Opina o Muere”—Aurelio Meza
Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”—Ariel B Taub
Charlie Haden & Liberation Music Orchestra, “We Shall Overcome”—Elizabeth Newton
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, “Johnny Appleseed”—Aaron Trammell

***Click here to read our Blog-o-versary year-in-review by Ed. in Chief JS 

The Love Below (the Mason Dixon Line): OutKast’s Rejection at the 1995 Source Awards

During his acceptance speech at 2017’s Golden Globe awards, actor and rapper Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover thanked the black people of the city of Atlanta for “being alive,” and the Atlanta trap rap group Migos for their single “Bad and Boujee.” As the camera panned out into the crowd, it showed dominantly white faces full of confusion and polite yet uncomfortable laughter. These audience members seemed unfamiliar with Migos and with categorizing a “black” Atlanta (and South) separate from the pop culture hub we know as Atlanta today. Glover’s speech re-affirmed the sentiments of Outkast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin over twenty years’ prior at the 1995 Source Awards, that the (black) South got something to say.

As I’ve argued previously, Andre and Big Boi’s acceptance speech at the Source Awards was the springboard for what I call the “hip hop south,” the social-cultural experiences that frame southern blackness after the Civil Rights Movement. The declaration “the South got something to say”—and the booing that ensued—is important to engaging how southerners see and hear themselves in a contemporary landscape. The Source Award’s dominantly New York audience booing both jolts the ear and affirms hip hop’s hyper-regional focus in the early to mid 1990s. The booing crowd identifies hip hop as northeastern, urban, and rigidly masculine, an aesthetic that was a daunting task for non-northeastern performers to try and break through. Even celebrated west coast artists like Snoop Dogg, who menacingly and repeatedly asked the crowd “you don’t love us?” during the show, struggled with the challenge of being recognized – and respected – by northeast hip hop enthusiasts.

The 1995 Source Awards proved to be the climax of the beef instigated by both West Coast Death Row Records and East Coast Bad Boy Records, the bitter lyrical and personal battle between Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., and OutKast, a Southern act, chosen as “Best New Rap Group.” The crowd’s increasingly despondent sonic rejection of hip hop outside of New York foregrounds my reading of OutKast’s acceptance speech as blatant and unforgiving southern black protest, a rallying cry that carves a space for the hip hop south to come into existence.

A recap of that night, in which Christopher “Kid” Reid and Salt-N-Pepa presented OutKast their award. Upbeat and playful, Kid says “ladies help me out” to announce the winner, but there is a distinctive drop in their enthusiasm when naming OutKast the winner of the category. The inflection in their voices signifies shock and even disappointment, with Kid quickly trying to be diplomatic by shouting out OutKast’s frequent collaborators and label mates Goodie Mob. The negative reaction from the crowd was immediate, with sharp and continuous booing.

Big Boi starts his acceptance speech, dropping a few colloquial words immediately recognizable as proper hip hop – “word” and “what’s up?” Over a growingly irritated crowd, Big Boi acknowledges that he is in New York, “y’alls city,” and tries to show respect to the New York rappers by crediting them as “original emcees.” Big Boi recognizes he is an outsider, his southern drawl long and clear in his pronunciation of “south” as “souf,” yet attempts to be diplomatic and respectful of New York. There is also a recognition that where he is from, Atlanta, is also a city: his statement, “y’alls city,” is not only a recognition of his being an outsider but a proclamation that he, too, comes from a city—except it’s a different city.

Big Boi’s embrace of Atlanta as urban challenges previous cultural narratives of southerners as incapable of maneuvering within an urban setting. Because of a long-standing and comfortable assumption that the American south was incapable of anything urban (i.e. mass transit, tall buildings, bustling neighborhoods and other forms of communities), beliefs about southerners’ perspectives remained aligned with rural – read ‘country’ and ‘backward’ – sensibilities incapable of functioning within an urban cultural setting. These sensibilities often played out in longhand form via literature or in popular black music, with focus on dialect and language standing in as a signifier of regional and cultural distinction.

Big Boi still repping ATL in 2012, Outside Lands Music Festival, San Francisco, CA, Image by Flickr User Thomas Hawk, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Consider Rudolph Fisher’s southern protagonist King Solomon Gillis from the short story “City of Refuge” (1925). Fisher’s characterization of Gillis, a black man from rural North Carolina, is one of naiveté and awe for not only New York and its sounds, but the premise of city life in general. In the opening of the story Fisher describes Gillis’s ride on the subway as “terrifying,” with “strange and terrible sounds.” References to the bang and clank of the subway doors and the close proximity of each train as “distant thunder” is particularly striking, a subtle sonic nod to Gillis’ rural southernness and his inability to articulate the subway system outside of his limited southern experiences. The references to “heat,” “oppression,” and “suffocation” also lend premise to southern weather, a well as the belief of the American south as an unending repetition of slavery and its effects.

It is important to point out that Gillis certainly isn’t a fearful man in the literal sense: his reason for migrating to Harlem was out of necessity and desperation after shooting a white man back home to avoid being lynched. Yet Fisher’s attention to sound presents Gillis as an outsider. Further, Fisher describes Gillis as “Jonah emerging from the whale,” both a biblical allusion to triumph over a difficult situation as well as a rebirth, the possibility of a new life and new purpose. This can be connected to the biblical reckoning of southern black folks migrating out of the south for social-economic change and advancement.

Still, southern black folks emerging in the city is not an easy transition, with Gillis’ train ride and his discomfort with the sounds it produces symbolizing the move from one difficult landscape to another. Although Gillis ultimately is confronted with the brutality he was trying to avoid in North Carolina, his repetitive proclamation, “they even got cullud policemans!” amplified his southernness and naiveté. Fisher’s intentional use of written dialect enhances the repetitiveness of the impact of seeing black police officers, which blots out the characteristic of region but not white supremacy as a whole. Gillis’s acceptance of black police officers blurred the binaries of the Great Migration as a testament to black folks not only looking for social-economic change outside of the American South, a terroristic space for blacks, but the unfortunate anxiety of those deciding to remain in the south, complacent in the lack of social equality.

Panel 35 of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, documenting Black Americans’ move to Northern Urban Centers : “They Left the South in Great Numbers. They Arrived in the North in Great Numbers.”  Photo by Flickr User Ron Cogswell, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Seventy years later Big Boi, a Georgian, returns to New York with the confidence of both rural and southern sensibilities outside of the immediately recognizable urban trope embodied by New York. Big Boi’s full embrace of being “cullud,” in both the linguistic and cultural elements that Fisher’s long-hand dialect represented as authentic southernness, is jarring because his intentional embrace of southern blackness as othered anchors his approach to rap music. Big Boi does not posture the south as a space or place in need of escape or reposturing. Rather, the hyper-awareness from both Big Boi and Andre in front of the dominantly New York crowd ruptures the accepted narrative of the south as needing saving by non-southern counterparts.  Big Boi’s speech forces the audience to de-romanticize their notions of northeastern supremacy and recognize the south as capable of hip hop. Their direct booing is a sonic representation of that discomfort.

From this perspective, André’s now iconic remarks from the acceptance speech further emphasized Big Boi’s departure from reckoning with northeastern hip hop as the standard. He stumbles in his speech, possibly because of nerves or irritation, and, like Big Boi, must talk over the crowd. André speaks about having the “demo tape and don’t nobody wanna hear it,” a double signifier of not only being rejected for his southernness but also the difficulty of breaking into the music industry. André’s frustration with being unheard as a southerner can also be extended into the actual production of the tape by OutKast’s production team Organized Noize, who drew from southern musical influences like funk, blues, and gospel to ground their beats. Andre’s call-to-arms, “the south got something to say,” rallied other southern rappers to self-validate their own music. It is important to note that André’s rally called to the entire south, not just Atlanta. This is significant in thinking about southern experiences as non-monolithic, the aural-cultural possibilities of multiple Souths and their various intersections using hip hop aesthetics.

OutKast at the Pemberton Music Festival, CREDIT MARK C AUSTIN(CC BY 2.0)

OutKast moves past their rejection at the Source Awards via their second album ATLiens (Atlanta aliens), which offered an equal rejection of hip hop culture’s binaries. The album’s use of ‘otherworldly’ sonic signifiers i.e. synthesizers and pockets of silence that sounded like space travel –  embodied their deliberate isolation from mainstream hip hop culture. Still, OutKast didn’t forget their rejection, sampling their acceptance speech in the final track from their third album Aquemini titled “Chonkyfire.” The brazen and hazy riffs of an electric guitar guide the song, with the recording from the source appearing at the end of the track. There is a deliberate slowing down of the track, with both the accompaniment and the recording becoming increasingly muddled. After André’s declaration “the south got something to say,” the track begins to crawl to its end, a sonic signifier of not only the end of the album but also the end of OutKast’s concern with bi-coastal hip hop expectations. Sampling their denial at the Source Awards was a full-circle moment for their music and identities. It was a reminder that the South was a legitimate hip hop cultural space.

In this contemporary moment, there is less focus and interest in establishing regional identities in hip hop. The dominance of social media collapses a specific need to carve up hip hop spaces per physical parameters. Sonically, there is an intriguing phenomenon occurring where rappers from across the country are borrowing from southern hip hop aesthetics, whether it be the drawl, bass kicks, or lyrical performance. Although our focus on social media has seemingly collapsed the physical need to differentiate region and identity, geographical aesthethics remain central to our listening practices. With this in mind, OutKast’s initial rejection from then mainstream hip hop in favor of sonic and cultural reckonings of southern blackness keep them central to conversations about how the Hip Hop South continues to ebb and weave within and outside the parameters of hip hop culture. Their rejection of hip hop’s stage solidified their place on it.

Featured Image “Big Boi I” by Flickr user Matt Perich (CC BY 2.0)

Regina N. Bradley, Ph.D is an instructor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. She earned her Ph.D in African American Literature at Florida State University in 2013. Regina writes about post-Civil Rights African American literature, the contemporary U.S. South, pop culture, race and sound, and Hip Hop. Her current book project explores how critical hip hop (culture) sensibilities can be used to navigate race and identity politics in this supposedly postracial moment of American history. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a blog and personal website and can also be reached on Twitter at @redclayscholar.

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Caterpillars and Concrete Roses in a Mad City: Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man” Interview with Tupac Shakur—Regina Bradley

I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity — Regina Bradley

The (Magic) Upper Room: Sonic Pleasure Politics in Southern Hip Hop—Regina Bradley

This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom

Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted? Can you imagine what that would sound like?–Prince, in a 2015 interview by Smokey D. Fontaine

Prince leaves an invitingly “messy” catalog—a musical cosmos, really—just as rich for those who knew it well as for those encountering it with fresh ears. He avoided interviews like he avoided conventions. He made few claims. Read him as you will.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Yes, art is open, and perhaps Prince’s art especially. And yet many eulogies have described him as indescribable, as if he were untethered by the politics of his world; he wasn’t. Some remembrances assume (or imagine) that Prince was so inventive that he could escape stultifying codes and achieve liberation, both as musician and human being.  For example, Prince has often been called “transcendent”—of race, of musical genre, even of humanity itself.  This is overstated; he was rooted in all of these. Better to say, maybe, that he was a laureate of many poetics, some musical and some not. He responded to race, genre, and humanity, all things that he and we are stuck with. He was a living artwork, and these, by way of sound, were his media.

Prince was not transcendent. He was just too much for some to assimilate.

little prince

Since Prince’s passing last month, I’ve been struck by the idea that his career might have been, deliberately or not, an elaborate quotation of the career of Little Richard, who anachronistically has outlived him. Or, a sonic version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “signifyin(g)” in the African American artistic tradition in The Signifying Monkey: repetition with a difference, a re-vision—and, especially appropriate here—a riffing (66). Both Prince and Richard in their way defined rock music, even as rock—as a canonized form—held them at a distance. They were simultaneously rock’s inventive engine and its outer margins, but never, seemingly, its core—at least from the perspective of its self-appointed gatekeepers.

Love-Symbol-2

Rock and race have, to put it mildly, an awkward history. African-American rock artists rarely get their due from labels and taste-making outlets, in money or posterity, a phenomenon not at all limited to the well-known pinching of Elvis and Pat Boone. One might consider, for example, Maureen Mahon’s anthropology of the Black Rock Coalition, a group home to Greg Tate, Living Colour, and others dwelling on rock’s periphery. Canons are one way to understand how this denial works.

To be sure, some black artists have been canonized in rock, but always with a handicap, as Jack Hamilton has explained lucidly. In, for example, best-of lists (which I have browsed obsessively since Prince died, as if enshrinement there might confirm something about him; he is usually #40 or #50), there are only so many slots of color: Hendrix is the black guitar god; Little Richard the sexual sentinel rising in a repressed era; James Brown the lifeline to funk; Big Mama Thornton the grandmaternal footnote. Best-of lists published by major magazines and websites such as Rolling Stone and VH1, tend to name about 70% white artists, as well as 90-95% male ones. These lists have become just a smidgen more inclusive in the past decade or so. Still, only the Beatles and Rolling Stones are regular contenders to be named history’s greatest rock band.

We are free to interpret greatness, but not too free.

For those who care about lists enough to comment on them, much of the point is in the arguing, the freedom to declare an opinion that cannot be challenged on logical grounds. I certainly wouldn’t argue for more “correct” best-of lists, either for aesthetics or inclusivity. Lists have every right to be subjective. But they are also fascinatingly unmoored by any explicit standard for judgment. As a result, the debates that surround their ordering are full of unvarnished pronouncements of truth (and falsity), even for those who acknowledge the subjectivity of lists, which I observed first hand as I joined and posted on a Beatles forum and an Eagles forum to research this article (“…putting the Police and the Doors ahead of the Eagles is absurd, IMHO”). But why would anyone declare certainty about a question such as the best rock artist of all time, when it is so plainly open to personal interpretation?

Yes, lists are subjective. But who are the subjects that invest in them?

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Prince’s career began in the late 1970s, a musical moment deeply reflective of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”  The Beatles were gone after the 1960s and guitar music stood under their long shadow. Led Zeppelin were bloated and breaking up. Disco was in ascent. Rock had somehow convinced itself that it was neither rooted in nor anchored by queer, female, and racially marked bodies, as it indeed was and in fact had always been. White male rock critics and fans were busily constructing the “rock canon” as a citadel—impenetrable to “four on the floor beats” and diva-styled vocals—and there was nothing in its blueprint to suggest that there would be a door for someone like Prince.

Just one month after Prince finished recording his breakthrough, self-titled album in July 1979—the record gave us “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You,” which Chaka Khan would take to chart topping heights in 1984—Chicago “shock jock” Steve Dahl staged an infamous event at Comiskey Park called Disco Demolition Night. The fascistic spectacle, which took place between games of a White Sox doubleheader, asked fans to bring disco records, which would be demolished in an explosion and ensuing bonfire on the field.

It was a release of pent-up frustration and a wild-eyed effort to rid the world of the scourge of disco, which many listeners felt had displaced rock with plastic rhythms, as Osvaldo Oyola discussed in a 2010 SO! post “Ain’t Got the Same Soul,” a discussion of Bob Seger, who famously sang in 1979, “Don’t try to take me to a disco/you’ll never even get me out on the floor.” Excited, drunk defenders of the “rock canon” rioted around the fire. The nightcap was cancelled.

These are the subjects who invest in lists.

Many who witnessed the event, both in person and on television, experienced its personal, racially charged, and violent implications. Aspiring DJ Vince Lawrence, who worked as an usher at the Disco Demolition Night game, was later interviewed for a BBC documentary entitled Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music: [see 9:00-10:15 of the clip below]:

It was more about blowing up all this ‘nigger music’ than, um, you know, destroying disco. Strangely enough, I was an usher, working his way towards his first synthesizer at the time, what I noticed at the gates was people were bringing records and some of those were disco records and I thought those records were kinda good, but some of them were just black records, they weren’t disco, they were just black records, R&B records. I should have taken that as a tone for what the attitudes of these people were. I know that nobody was bringing Metallica records by mistake. They might have brought a Marvin Gaye record which wasn’t a disco record, and that got accepted and blown up along with Donna Summer and Anita Ward, so it felt very racial to me.

Lawrence notes that blackness was, for rock’s canonizers, part of a mostly inseparable bundle of otherness that also included queer people, among others. Although the disco backlash is often regarded as mainly homophobic, in fact it points to even deeper reservoirs of resentment and privilege.

When music companies decided to mass-market the black, queer sound of disco, they first called it “disco-rock”; two words that American audiences eventually ripped apart, or demolished, perhaps. Black and queer people—and women too, of all races and sexualities—represented the hordes outside of rock’s new citadel, whose walls were made from the Beatles’ cheeky jokes, Mick’s rooster-strut, Robert Plant’s cucumber cock, and Elvis’s hayseed hubris.

Little Richard, for example, was black and queer like disco; what to do with him? His drummer invented the straight eight rhythm, perhaps the genre’s most enduring motif. Here’s Little Richard was rock incarnate, total frenetic energy; Richard’s brilliant, singular approach to the piano  would launch a thousand rock tropes in imitation. But in canonization he could only be the nutrient-rich soil of rock—say, #36 on a best-of list—never its epitome, somehow.

I don’t know if Prince—a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, who came of age in the volatile Midwestern American milieu of white disco demolitions AND underground black electronic music culture—cared to consider this history, but he floated in it. He effectively signified on Little Richard not so much by quoting his music (though he owed a debt to him just like everyone who played rock), but by reproducing his position in the music industry. He was a queer noncomformist, never in the business of explaining himself, obsessed with control, whose blackness became a way of not flinching in the face of an industry that would never embrace him, anyway.

prince2

Love-Symbol-2

I interpret Prince’s musical personae as queer, not in the sense of inversion, as the anti-disco folks had it, but as a forever-exploration of sexual life. Prince’s queerness was not, strictly speaking, like Little Richard’s, but Prince took it on as an artistic possibility nonetheless. If Richard dwelled on this particular fringe as a consequence of his body, his desires, and the limits of social acceptance and religious conviction, Prince chose it as his identity. But Prince also lived and worked within limits of morality and, also like Little Richard, religion.

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Image by Flickr User Ann Althouse, 2007

Touré writes in a New York Times obit of Prince’s “holy lust,” the “commingling” of sexuality and spirituality. Jack Hamilton writes of the doubt and moral uncertainty that coursed through songs like “Little Red Corvette.” Holy lust is arguably the central pursuit of rock; the term “rock and roll” is etymologically linked either to intercourse or worship, appropriately, emerging in both cases from African-American vernacular. Prince’s queer play with sex, sexuality identity, and religion is as rock and roll as it gets.

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As punk sputtered, Simon Reynolds writes in Rip it Up and Start Again, funk appeared to rock fans as a racially tinged, politically and sexually charged savior. Bass, the heart of funk, was key to punk becoming post-punk around 1980. The instrument was suddenly charged with new symbolic and structural importance. During the same period, it is remarkable how many of Prince’s songs either have no bass, or rework bass’s role entirely. “When Doves Cry,” from Purple Rain (1984), Prince’s 6th studio album, is the best-known example of an ultra-funky track that withholds bass entirely, but “Kiss” lacks it, too, as well as “Darling Nikki.”

Earlier on Purple Rain, the bass on “Take Me with U” plays almost as a drone, buzzing like a minimalist’s organ.“Kiss,”from 1986’s Parade and Prince’s second-biggest hit yet only #464 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Timeis so tight, so locked in, so populated by alluring timbres that suggest an alien plane of instrumentation, that you forget it’s even supposed to have bass by rock top 40 convention. On much of 1980’s Dirty Mind, it is difficult to know which carefully tweaked synthesizer tone is supposed to index the bass, if any. Prince’s funk was even funkier for being counterintuitive, as Questlove notes. This gesture wasn’t rejection, of course, it didn’t “transcend” funk. Prince was still playing inarguably funky music, and the lack of bass is so unusual that it’s almost even more apparent in its absence. Free, but not too free.

Love-Symbol-2

Prince approached rock iconicity much as he approached bass, which is to say that he embraced clichés, but performed them inside-out, calling attention to them as both limits and possibilities, as constraint and freedom. “Raspberry Beret,” from 1985’s Around the World in a Day, is a boppy “girl group” song with sly allusions to anal sex, that uses exotic instruments and is written in an obscure mode. The virtuosic riff on “When Doves Cry,” instead of going where guitar solos go, comes right at the beginning of the track, before the drums, both seemingly isolated from the rest of the song and yet heralding it, too.

All of this worked very well, of course. His songs are just idiomatic enough to give listeners a foothold, but brave enough to evoke a world well beyond idiom. In retrospect, this is precisely what Little Richard had done. This is also what Hendrix and George Clinton and Tina Turner and OutKast have done, from where they rock out—way beyond the citadel, mastering many idioms, then extending them, at once codifying and floating away from genre.

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Prince’s career calls back to the personal and artistic concerns, as well as the innovations, of Little Richard and other artists’ sonic expressions of blackness that both built rock’s house and sounded out the tall, white walls of the citadel that would exclude them. All of these artists, I suspect, find little point to hanging out near the citadel’s gates; there are other, funkier places to live. Prince himself was perfectly comfortable working athwart Warner Brothers, the press, stardom. He did more than fine.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Creative as he was, he lived in his time; he was no alien. The greatest testament to his genius is not that he escaped the world, nor that he rendered a new musical landscape from scratch, but rather that he worked in part with rock’s sclerotic structural materials to create such beautiful and fluid work.

Featured Image by Peter Tea, July 12, 2011, under Creative Commons license No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral

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From Kitschy to Classy: Reviving the TR-808

Before Roland’s new TR-8 Rhythm Performer, a contemporary drum machine, was unveiled this year, the company released a series of promotional videos in which the machine’s designers sought out the original schematics and behavior of its predecessor the TR-808, an iconic analog drum machine from the early 1980s. The TR-808 holds cultural cache–most recently due to its use by Outkast, Baauer, and Kanye West–that Roland is interested in exploiting for the Rhythm Performer. The video features engineers closely examining the TR-808’s sound with an oscilloscope, trying to glean every last detail of the original’s personality.

"Roland TR-808" by Flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY 2.0

“Roland TR-808” by Flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY 2.0

Things were not always this way. Upon its initial release, the TR-808 was widely dismissed. Because it did not sound like “normal” acoustic drums, many established musicians questioned its utility and many ultimately disregarded it.  However, its “cheap” circuit-produced sounds became bargain-bin treasures for emerging artists. Since its sounds now play such a large part in the landscape of electronic music, this essay takes a historical perspective on the TR-808 Rhythm Composer’s use and circulation. By analyzing how Juan Atkins  and Marvin Gaye used the TR-808 in the early 1980s, I show how the TR-808 created a sonic space for drum machines in popular music.

Drum machines, though commonplace today, were once seen as kitschy tools for broke amateur musicians. As audio engineer Mitchell Sigman explains, the 808’s low, subsonic kick drum and “tick” snare characterized a departure from the realistic, sampled drum sounds produced by high-end drum machines in the early 1980s. The 808 uses analog oscillators and white noise generators to make sounds resembling the components of a drum set (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc.) And, although these sounds are now commonplace, most contemporary artists use them precisely because they sound robotic, not because they sound like drums.  Even though the 808 at first seemed a failed imitation of “real” drums, the comparatively low cost of the 808, which originally retailed around $1,195, attracted musicians who were unable to afford other similar machines such as the LinnDrum that retailed at more than twice that price. Roland advertised the machine as a “studio” for musicians on a budget and even as they began to disinvest from the 808–as testified by the company’s decision to invest in marketing and research for other products–the 808’s so-called noises began their movement into mainstream American popular culture. In Detroit, electronic musician Juan Atkins, now known as one of the innovators of Detroit Techno, began experimenting with the machine’s sonic capabilities as early as 1981, while other artists such as Afrika Bambaataa were also using it in the Bronx by 1982.

"Industrial Records Studio 1980" by Flickr user Chris Carter, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Industrial Records Studio 1980” by Flickr user Chris Carter, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A landmark year for the 808, 1982 saw the release of Juan Atkins’ “Clear” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” tracks that illuminate the key features each musician realized in the 808.  For Atkins, the machine was something he felt could embody his early career; Atkins’ use of the 808 represented a pivotal moment in the American musical landscape, in which the futurism of the sound of synthesizers echoed other segments of the nation’s sonic imagination.  Gaye’s use of the 808 was a clear departure from his body of Motown work.  Although the instrument enabled different sorts of experimentation for the two, the new sorts of sounds the machine produced allowed them both to explore new possibilities for musical meaning.  Just as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco argue in Analog Days that analog synthesizers required validation by musicians such as Geoff Downes and Keith Emerson a decade before, the 808 broke into the mainstream through artistic experimentation.

Juan Atkins

In the early ‘80s, Juan Atkins was learning all he could about electronic music. As an able musician and the son of a concert promoter, Atkins was poised to couple his musical knowledge with a new breed of electronic musical instruments such as the 808. Together with a tightly knit group from Detroit, Atkins succeeded in promoting techno from a subculture to part of a global dance music scene. According to Atkins, the popularity of Detroit Techno came from its adoption in European urban centers like London and Berlin, which lent the music additional meaning stateside. In an interview with Dollop UK, Atkins emphasizes that the 808 was central to this musical development, as he calls the 808 (among other machines) “the foundation[s] of electronic dance music.”

"Cybotron-Clear" by Flickr user Alan Read, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Cybotron-Clear” by Flickr user Alan Read, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Under the moniker of Cybotron, Atkins released the song “Clear” in 1982. “Clear”’s proto-techno soundscape pushes the 808 to the front of his mix, and provides the track’s backbone. The solid, resonant kick, swishy open high hat, and the piercing snare are decidedly machinic, departing from most rhythmic trends in popular music to date, since, as music scholar John Mowitt points out, a sense of “human feeling” comes hand-in-hand with drumming.

Atkins embraced these machine sounds and considered the 808 his “secret weapon.” Its ability to be programmed, manipulated, and warped on the fly lent it a very particular kind of performance and music making that Atkins exploited. Rather than rely on the breaks that DJs could find on records, the 808 allowed Atkins to create beats to his own liking, placing kick, snare, and hi-hat hits where he found them to be most effective. Because of this flexibility, the kitsch of the 808’s sounds empowered the difference between his music and other artists’ creations. The breaks Atkins produced on the 808, for example, were obviously impossible to find on vinyl.

"Juan Atkins" by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Juan Atkins” by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As Bleep43, an online EDM collective, notes, Atkins’ vision for electronic music would eventually pick up in London, where he relocated in the late eighties. Although Detroit Techno had achieved regional success in the US, record sales and performance dates in London signaled techno had found a larger audience abroad.  Although Atkins considers himself an eclectically “Detroit” artist,  he recognizes the impact of his work globally, and thinks of the modern Berlin flavor of minimal techno as a notably clever offshoot.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s struggle with depression, drug use and relationship issues were the context for the subtle and understated 808 rhythmic backing he used in “Sexual Healing.” Gaye’s use of the 808 in “Sexual Healing” differs vastly from Watkins’ in “Clear,” operating as a tool of texture and punctuation from the noticeable timbric changes to the clever placement of  handclaps and clave in the composition.  While Gaye recovered from his personal crises in Belgium, Colombia Records sent him an 808 because it was more portable than a studio drummer. It also offered sonic capabilities new and exciting to Gaye’s seasoned ears.

“Synths of Yesteryear 5/5” by Flickr user Jochen Wolters, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The drum machine’s prevalence in “Sexual Healing” shows how culturally marginal sounds move into mainstream musical culture. Gaye and his producers, already squarely in the center of popular American music, experimented with the sound of the 808 not in an attempt to break through, but rather to exercise musical flexibility. Since he was already an extremely successful pop artist, Gaye’s use of the 808 marks him as a sonic risk-taker and innovator, weaving the machine sounds of the 808 seamlessly but noticeably into R and B.

The machine’s normally powerful snare is invoked only at the quietest of velocities, often being replaced by the now iconic handclap. Unlike many contexts in which the 808 is heard such as “Clear” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” “Sexual Healing manages to keep everything low key. Matching the lyrics that espouse peace, harmony, and sense of internal struggle (Whenever blue tear drops are falling/And my emotional stability is leaving me/Honey I know you’ll be there to relieve me/The love you give to me will free me), Gaye uses the 808 to evoke a surprisingly contemplative and serene atmosphere. It is this use that best shows the machine’s strange versatility, as both a harbinger of radically innovative musical genres and its ability to produce tranquil rhythmic textures for popular music.

Transformation

"Roland TR 909 Drum Machine Classic" by Flickr user Juliana Luz, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Roland TR 909 Drum Machine Classic” by Flickr user Juliana Luz, CC BY-NC 2.0

Although Atkins and Gaye’s work exemplify the TR-808’s early adoption, a long road toward mainstream popularity remained because of Roger Linn’s more “realistic”  sampled drums sounds included in his high-end machines. The LM-1 and its successors (famous for hit singles like Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”, Hall and Oate’s “Maneater,” and Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”) made sampled drums the gold standard of computerized rhythmic backing. In fact, Roland’s next drum machine, the TR-909, implemented samples alongside synthesis.  As a result, 808s couldn’t be given away until musical innovators gave its sounds gravitas (Sigman, 2011, 46).

The 808’s shift from sonically trashy and undesirable to ostensibly hip signifies a culturally important moment within the history of music technology. As shown in the examples above, subtle moments of economic, emotional, and geographic necessity seeded the popular music industry for the eventual 808 boom today. When techno eventually broke through to global popularity, the 808 was so fundamental to the canon of the genre that it has managed to retain a place of fundamental sonic importance for musicians and producers.

 11:40, 6/11/14: This essay was re-edited for clarity, grammar, and flow by Jennifer Stoever.

Ian Dunham is a musician and music scholar originally from northeast Ohio. He earned a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University in the Recording Industry within the College of Mass Communications, and then worked as a recording engineer in Nashville and Germany. Afterward, he earned an M.M. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin, where he also operated a home recording studio. He will start a PhD in Media Studies at Rutgers in the fall, where he will pursue research related to music and copyright.

Featured image: “1980 Roland TR-808” by Flickr user Joseph Holmes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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