How the SP-404 Came to Dominate the Global Beat Scene

The Roland SP-404 sampler, and its later iterations the 404SX and 404A, are synonymous with a vibrant global community of beatmakers who use the small but powerful instrument both in the studio and during live sets.

Given the meteoric rise in popularity the 404 has experienced over the past five to 10 years, it's worth asking the question: How did this sampler become such a global phenomenon, despite modest initial commercial success and a relatively slow adoption from the producer community?

From Pre-SP Origins to the 404's First Recording

When Roland introduced its MS-1 digital sampler in 1995, Sound on Sound writer Derek Johnson told readers to "get ready for what may be the first example of true sampling democracy."

The Roland MS-1. Photo by kyoto-075 second-hand shop.

Though the MS-1 never quite made the dramatic impact he predicted, Johnson's intuition was relatively spot on. Roland's bedroom studio–sized sampler paved the way for its Boss/SP series—a lineup of small, portable sampling devices that revolutionized sample-based music.

After the release of the MS-1, Roland's Boss eventually unleashed the SP-202 in 1998. The 202 initially found its footing in recorded rap music and instrumental hip-hop when Anticon label co-founder and DJ/producer Odd Nosdam used it to produce the entirety of cLOUDDEAD's well-received 2002 self-titled debut.

A few DJs and producers also used the 202 in live setups, but the SP series didn't achieve widespread visibility until Madlib gave the 303 (released in 2001) a shoutout at a 2002 Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Brazil. During his travels to Brazil, the Stones Throw icon also made "Rhinestone Cowboy," "Raid," and "Strange Ways" for the classic 2004 MF DOOM collaboration Madvillainy with his 303, a portable turntable, and his hotel room cassette deck.

After the release of the SP-505 (a favorite tool of producer/vocalist Pursuit Grooves) and the unveiling of the 606 (another preferred Madlib unit), Roland introduced the SP-404 in 2005. Their company website celebrated the release by promising to enhance everything artists loved about the earlier models.

MC and producer Jneiro Jarel, perhaps best known for his 2012 MF Doom collaboration, Key To The Kuffs, may hold the distinction as the first artist to utilize the 404 on an official release with Three Piece Puzzle. In a glowing 2005 writeup for RapReviews, writer Tom Doggett praised the Three Piece Puzzle track "Get Yuh Own" by noting that it, "sounds almost like a Madlib production, with thick distorted bass and minimalist drums," a compliment that hints at likely SP usage.

Jneiro Jarel's "Get Yuh Own" might be the first official release to feature a 404.

Seismic Shifts: Donuts, Myspace, and Low End Theory

Other events were also taking place that helped propel the 404 towards the vaulted status it holds today. For one, the late J Dilla released his Donuts album on Stones Throw Records in 2006. Mostly created in his hospital bed with a stack of 45s, an SP-303, and a portable turntable—and released on his 32nd birthday just three days before his untimely passing—the critically revered album added to the growing lore of SP samplers.

The gritty yet beautiful textures on Donuts also led to a much-increased demand for instrumental hip-hop, an emerging subgenre that had already been on the rise for quite a while thanks to DJ Krush's Krush (1994), DJ Shadow's Endtroducing..... (1996), Pete Rock's PeteStrumentals (2001), and several other compelling beat-focused projects.

Meanwhile, the social media platform Myspace provided a pre-Bandcamp space for aspiring beatmakers to share their instrumentals and exchange beats with their peers during the mid and late-Aughts. 404 early adopters like Roland ambassador Dibiase, Mello Music Group artist Elaquent, Mutant Academy member Ohbliv, and countless others used the platform to connect with other members of an expanding global beatmaking community.

Perhaps the single greatest shift in 404 culture, however, took place in 2006 with the inception of the Low End Theory, a weekly event at The Airliner venue in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. Founded by veteran DJ, engineer, and producer Daddy Kev in 2006, the event soon became a go-to spot for 303 and eventual 404 aficionados like Dibiase, the late Ras G, Brainfeeder record label founder Flying Lotus, Samiyam, and Tokimonsta.

Ras G, live at Low End Theory Festival, 2015.

The event took on an almost mythical quality for those who were never able to attend before it shut down two summers ago, simultaneously cementing the SP-404's status as a go-to live performance tool thanks to earth-shattering live sets by Ras G and company.

While the Low End Theory is perhaps the US beat showcase and one most responsible for birthing and enhancing 404 culture, live shows like L.A.'s Beat Cinema, Atlanta's Controllerise, Boston's Nightworks, and many others deserve a nod for providing nurturing creative environments for 404 users.

Brainfeeder, Bandcamp, and Samiyam's Rap Beats, Vol. 1

Not long after the foundation of Low End Theory, Flying Lotus moved into the Das Bauhaus apartment building in the San Fernando Valley alongside eventual Brainfeeder label manager Adam Stover. Producers Samiyam and Teebs also took up residence there a short time later, making the complex ground zero for experimental sample-based music. Flying Lotus eventually founded his Brainfeeder label in 2008 and it soon became a landing pad for some of the most diverse and eclectic instrumental releases around.

When Samiyam released Rap Beats, Vol. 1 in 2008 as the storied label's very first release, it officially put Brainfeeder on the map, while the audience for the record grew rapidly in size and scope over the years. In 2011 the label took to Twitter to celebrate the fact that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was a fan of the track "Sideways."

Samiyam - "Sideways"

Though there's no verification available online as to whether or not the 404 was used on Samiyam's debut, the SP quickly became a central part of his creative process. "This is what I do everything on though," he said in a 2012 video interview with Behind Closed Doors. "The 404. This is the one right here. Everything goes in there."

The same year Brainfeeder formed, Ethan Diamond launched Bandcamp—a move that proved to be another hugely important technological innovation for beat/404 culture. The artist-friendly digital music and merchandise platform made an ideal home for smaller instrumental label projects like Rap Beats, Vol. 1 and self-released producer albums. It also introduced the beat tape album format to new listeners.

Bathroom Studios, Jonwayne's Underground Tapes, and Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion

"Second generation" Low End Theory producer Jonwayne also used the 404 early and often in his career, with much of his early work was pieced together in a makeshift bathroom studio. "Synthesizer sits on top of pulled-out drawers, 404 goes on one side of the sink and a turntable goes on the other side," he told Lainna Fader in a 2012 Resident Advisor interview.

Upon mastering the ins and outs of the 404 he used his machine to create the sought-after 2009 underground releases 404 Blueberries, 404 Madness, and 404 Rawberries, as well as his 2012 404SX/iPad project Jonwayne Fucks Disney.

Animal Collective - "Daily Routine"

Though the 404 certainly wasn't "mainstream" yet in 2009, it did feature on releases outside of the beat tape and instrumental hip-hop world. Animal Collective used both the SP-404 and the 555 on their universally acclaimed 2009 release, Merriweather Post Pavilion. It is perhaps most audible on "Daily Routine," where the group and producer Ben Allen chained multiple 404s together to maximize the effectiveness of their effects.

A New Decade, Integrating DAWs, and More 404 Adoption and Innovation

SP culture showed no signs of slowing down at the dawn of a new decade, as 404 enthusiast Teebs' 2010 debut album, Ardour, gave the Brainfeeder label another critically acclaimed entry in their catalog. Described by Rory Gibb of The Quietus as "a lush, sumptuous record," Teebs showed listeners that even mundane everyday noises could sound beautiful when run through an SP.

Like the previous releases of Jonwayne and Samiyam, he was also drawn to the numerous effects on the SP interface that give producers limitless sound-altering potential. "I record everything into there and keep re-affecting it there and then into a computer," he said in a 2010 NPR interview. "I've used tape peeling off something and the door-slamming of a microwave before."

Elaquent - "Cloud 8"

2,500 miles northeast of LA in Guelph, Ontario, Elaquent was using the 404 to accent his FL Studio beats by running his computer audio into the SP. "I'd just be fucking around, improvising, and playing effects to beats I was working on," he says. "I'd record whichever ideas I thought stuck."

His 2010 Persona project in particular features a wide range of SP effects tastefully accenting beautiful tracks like "Cloud 8" and "Deep Slumber." That said, while Elaquent praises the sampler for being an important live performance tool and a way to enhance his production, he never used it as a sole means of production like some of his producer peers and is currently taking a 404 hiatus due to his unit's disrepair. "It was always a sampler first for me, effects module second, performance tool third, and I guess as an actual sequencer, that was way way at the bottom of the list," he says.

Dibiase, Nas Rockwell, and 404 Day Origins

SP-303 and 404 originator and early adopter Dibiase—who helped mastermind Roland's official 404 Day and subsequent mini-documentary Beat Culture & the SP-404: Dibia$e, Flying Lotus and Ras G with his wife/fellow SP user Nas Rockwell—also enjoys pairing his 404 with different DAWs to give his computer productions a bit of added punch.

Beat Culture & the SP-404: Dibia$e, Flying Lotus and Ras G

Though he made much of his excellent 2011 effort Swingology101 with the program Reason 5, you can still hear the 404 on the album providing important textures to his beats if you listen carefully. "I'll make a beat on Reason and then run it through the 303 or 404 for its compression to dirty it up," he said in a 2013 Micro-Chop interview.

A master at combining the 404 with a variety of DAWs and samplers, Dibi also uses his Twitter feed to showcase his innovative 404 beatmaking videos to great acclaim. Given the fact that he purchased his first 404 unit for $50 and a beat, it is remarkable that his near 15 years of SP usage helped make him a face of the Roland brand while giving the SP-404 its own official day.

The Founding of La Mellotron and the Enduring Legacy of Ras G's Raw Fruit

Following the release of Swingology 101, SP culture started to expand at an exponential rate. On the river Seine in the Paris Basin, the 24/7 streaming radio and live DJ performance station La Mellotron first established itself in a boat studio. Now relocated in a bar, the radio station and video platform provided both an important YouTube resource and a chance for increased exposure for producers from all over the world. 404 masters like Khyro (Paris, France), Hermit City Recordings founder Tajima Hal (Yokohama, Japan), FloFilz (Aachen, Germany) and many others wowed viewers from all over with their live sets while increasing the global demand for 404s.

A Khryo SP-404 live set on Le Mellotron

Back in Los Angeles, the late Ras G made sure that the Low End Theory spirit was alive and well when he dropped his 2012 debut in the Raw Fruit series on Leaving Records. While describing the first edition of his multi-album series in the album liner notes he wrote, "Freestyle beats shit I make 2 smoke weed to...I just make 'em, record 'em, and on 2 the next one."

Although the Raw Fruit series also features beats Ras crafted on his MPC2000XL and SP-303, the ultra erotic "Veggie Thugs Anthem" on Raw Fruit Vol. 2 (2014) and the trippy "Ice…" and "T.V. Party" from Raw Fruit Vol. 3 (2014) are straight out of the 404. In honor of Ras' love of the 404, his family anointed April 4, 2020 (4/04) the first-ever Ras G day and released his posthumous record Raw Fruit Vol. 5 & 6 together as a joint album on Juneteenth 2020.

Ohbliv's MindGarden and Linafornia's Yung

As Ras G released installments 3 and 4 in the Raw Fruit series, Richmond, Virginia producer Ohbliv was readying himself to create an album that proved to be a major turning point in his career. Looking back on the release of MindGarden six years later, he feels the album was a way of showcasing a new level of confidence to the world. "It was the first release on Thrash Flow, Courtney Blood's label, and it was a statement album," he says.

As he flips through MindGarden songs to jog his memory during our interview, one particular song sticks out as an anchor for the entire project. "'Southside Vibrations' was a centerpiece track."

Ohbliv - "Southside Vibrations"

To craft the lush 404 beats on the project, Ohbliv used a new level of ingenuity with his 404 productions. On several tracks he sampled loops on the 404, dumped them into the open source audio editor Audacity, pitched them way down, and then sampled them back into the 404—a technique he still uses on some of his work to this day.

He also divulged a production secret he has never discussed in an interview before—recording samples to cassette tape and sampling the tapes into his 404. He leaned heavily on this technique for 2013 and 2014 releases and continues to use it in some of his newer work, specifically when it comes to percussion. "I used cassette sample drums for MindGarden's 'Oh Girl,'" he says.

Linfornia uses a 404 and 555 in this 2017 RBMA LA set.

While Ohbliv and Thrash Flow readied MindGarden for release, back on the West Coast Low End Theory performer and eventual resident DJ Linafornia found her way into SP-404 live performance after an extended recovery from a devastating car accident. She used an incredible streak of live performances from 2014–2016, while adding a 555 to her arsenal in 2015, to ready herself for the release of her debut project, YUNG.

The project, which she described as "a melting pot of FL Studio, the 404, and the 555" showcased that her production skills were just as deft in the studio as they were in a live setting, winning widespread acclaim from people like esteemed music journalist Jeff Weiss. Linafornia's stock has continued to rise since then, as Roland used their official Instagram account to shout out her accomplishments on International Women's Day in March of 2020.

STLNDRMS, The Founding of Controllerise, and Buscrates 16-Bit Ensemble

As YUNG popped off on the west coast, producer STLNDRMS was busy coming out of a five-year beatmaking hiatus by posting beatmaking videos online while cofounding the increasingly popular live beat showcase and producer collective Controllerise with fellow Atlanta resident Blkcubes. Using a combination of the Akai MPC2000XL, an SP-303, and an SP-404, he also started working on several comeback projects, including the 2016 album SHORT DAYS LONG NIGHTS—a record that contains the fan favorite "lifestyle" and remains one of his proudest moments as a producer.

To create beats like "lifestyle" and other selections on SHORT DAYS LONG NIGHTS, he used a form of dual compression between the 303 and 404 to achieve the desired sound. "I had compressed that shit in the 303 a little and on the 404 too," he says. "I recorded it to a pad, and then went back and added stutters after. I was adding additional texture from the 404 that way."

The year after SHORT DAYS LONG NIGHTS dropped, multi-instrumentalist and producer Buscrates (also known as Buscrates 16-Bit Ensemble) put together his Thrash Flow release Home Again in by merging the 404 with an Akai MPC2000XL, Fender Rhodes, Sequential Prophet-6, and a variety of other instruments.

Pointing to his use of the 404 on the song "Esther's TDK C-60" and the second half of the album, the Pittsburgh resident reveals an innovative production technique for getting his drums to hit just right. "I would sample the drums into the 303, run it through an Electro-Harmonix Attack Decay pedal to tighten up the drums, then I would go into the 404 like that," he says.

The Future of the 404

Today, the 404 can be heard anywhere and everywhere instrumental hip-hop is being made. In Baltimore, eu-IV used the SP to help him compose his immersive, conceptual record Supernova from 2017. In Toronto, you can hear the inspiring 404 sets from producers like Astro Mega, Max Melanin, and Kiezin floating out of Cosmos Records—home of The Build Music and Arts Collective. And in Taiwan, the 404 has proven a critical instrument in their emerging world of underground rap records.

Although heated debates about the 404 abound in terms qualifiers and genre names (Are beats made with certain effects on the 404 instrumental hip-hop? Lo-fi? Something else?), what some consider overuse of the sampler, and what others perceive as largely ornamental SP obsession, it's hard to argue with the robust body of work talented artists have created with the 404.

What started out as a niche sampler utilized on underground beat tapes in a few burgeoning beat scenes now has its very own Roland-provided day of celebration—something that innovative 404 producers deserve the lion's share of the credit for.

To be sure, the body of work of both live performances and albums where the 404 played a key role far exceeds the confines of this article. So get to do work and do some further exploration and research. Whatever your current opinion of the 404, hopefully you can appreciate the positives it has provided sample-based music with thus far.


About the author: Gino Sorcinelli is the writer, creator, and editor of Micro-Chop, a Substack newsletter that dissects beatmaking, DJing, music production, rapping, and sampling. His articles have appeared on Ableton, HipHopDX, Okayplayer, Passion of the Weiss, Red Bull Music Academy, and Roland.

comments powered by Disqus