5 Drum Machines Used in Rap Classics That Aren't the 808

DJ Jazzy Jeff. Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.
Grandmaster Flash. Photo by Mika-photography. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. Modified with color overlay.

Back in the early 1980s, as rap music began to pivot away from the live-band sound that characterized the genre’s earliest releases, many hip-hop musicians turned to drum machines and samplers as a means of creating the sound that they envisioned.

Some renowned drum machines and samplers—such as the Roland TR-909, E-MU SP-1200, Ensoniq ASR-10, and Akai’s MPC series—have rightfully become synonymous with hip-hop music, having found their way onto countless recordings. But while you might be familiar with those machines, there are a number of other lesser-known pieces of hardware that also contributed to hip-hop's sonic legacy in major ways.

Below, we're going to take a look at five classic hip-hop records that were made with unlikely and underrated machines.


Flash to the Beat — Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
VOX V829 PERCUSSION KING

Taken from a legendary recording of a party thrown at the Bronx River Community Center in 1979, Flash To The Beat is a live tape of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at the height of their powers. This tape would later be pressed to vinyl and distributed by Bozo Meko—a bootleg label run by BreakBeat Lenny and BreakBeat Lou, the team behind the foundational Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation album series.

With “Fusion Beats” on the B-side—an early cut-up/sampling tape experiment produced by Afrika Islam and Jazzy Jay of the Universral Zulu Naton—the Flash to the Beat 12-inch is one of the most important documents of early hip-hop history.

While Flash does begin the performance by playing classic breaks like Juice’s “Catch A Groove," Flash to the Beat is unique for its time because, instead of backing the Furious Five on the turntables, Flash performs beats live using a Vox Percussion King v829. With its initial release in 1966, the Vox Percussion King was already a "vintage" machine by the time Flash got his hands on it.

An ad from the Thomas Vox (US) company gives us an insight into some of the Percussion King’s features and design specs:

"10 different out-of sight percussion effects! Crash cymbal, Brush Cymbal, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Drum Roll, Bongo I, Bongo II, Block, Clave and Castanets. Has volume control, off-on switch, may be operated from a two-button foot control, with rhythm effects achieved by tapping right and left pedals alternately or may be played with finger buttons on the control panel. Handsomely encased in formal Vox black with gold trim. Adds the really important percussion effects that make a group big."

With Flash’s funky kick and snare pattern and the Furious Five’s catchy rapped/sung routine, Flash to the Beat became a classic that has been sampled in countless hip-hop tunes. Most famously, it was used for the drums in Gang Starr’s “You Know My Steez” and has been sampled by The Beastie Boys and DJ Shadow.


"Sucker M.C.'s" — RUN-D.M.C.
OBERHEIM DMX

In 1982, a group of New York-based musicians, who had come together to serve as Kurtis Blow’s touring band, released “Action"—a slick and catchy pop-funk anthem that ruled clubs and boomboxes that year. Although the song was a hit and has continued to live on in DJ sets since its release, “Action” has found an unlikely second life as the inspiration behind one of the greatest rap songs ever made.

Producer Larry Smith played bass on “Action,” and it was through his relationship with Russell Simmons (Kurtis Blow’s manager) that Smith would find himself in the studio with Hollis Queens trio RUN-D.M.C. In contrast to the first wave of rap releases, which had backing tracks mostly made up of interpolations of disco cuts played by live musicians, "Sucker M.C.'s" was a strikingly rough and minimal production.

The song only featured the group's voice and reverb-heavy recreation of Orange Krush drummer Trevor Gale's drum beat from "Action." Programmed on the Oberheim DMX and produced by Larry Smith, “Sucker M.C.'s” represented a sea-change in the way that rap records were produced.

"[Smith] was just messing around with the drum machine and replayed Trevor’s beat," says writer and historian Jay Quan (of thaFoundation.com). "He called the beat 'The Krush Groove' before it was renamed 'Sucker M.C.'s'."

Quan also spoke about Smith's ability to nail the raw sound RUN-D.M.C. was going for, being an instrumentalist who'd emerged from the soul/funk era. "That was the genius of Larry. He used to hang out at The Fever (a legendary Bronx nightclub where RUN-D.M.C. got their start) and he witnessed Flash, June Bug, etc. He understood hip-hop."


He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper — DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
LINNDRUM

In the late 1970s, multi-instrumentalist and programmer Roger Linn was working out of a small, four-track studio in his home. Armed with a Fender Rhodes electric piano, a guitar, and a bass, Linn was in search of a solution for creating realistic drum tracks for the demos he was producing.

Increasingly dissatisfied with the inflexibility and sound-quality of the few drum machines that were on the market at the time, Linn set about creating his own drum machine—one that was both programmable (as opposed to earlier machines that just played preset beats) and featured sounds that were sampled, lending to a more realistic sound. And in 1979, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer was released to a hungry market.

Musicians and producers alike quickly embraced Linn’s machines, and by 1982, Linn Electronics followed up its LM-1 with the LinnDrum—a machine that was cheaper and more accessible than the LM-1 and would eventually go on to provide rhythm tracks for many '80s hits.

One act that used the LinnDrum to help craft one of their better-known recordings was the Philly-based rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Known for their light-hearted and accessible take on rap, Jazzy Jeff & the the Fresh Prince’s sound broke from that of many of their peers by incorporating beatboxer Ready Rock C alongside samples, programmed beats, and Jeff’s virtuosic scratching.

LinnDrum

Their classic 1988 album He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper was partially recorded in Battery Studios' state-of-the art facilities in London and featured the Roland TR-808, the Synclavier, and the LinnDrum. While recording in London, Jive (the group’s label) paired them with their own in-house production team that included keyboardist/producer Pete Q. Harris. Harris would be a crucial component in the album’s creation, playing keyboard, bass, and assisting in programming drums and samples.

By the time the record was released, the E-MU SP-12 was on the scene, the Roland TR-808 was still the center of many studio setups, and the LinnDrum was not considered a go-to machine for many hip-hop musicians.

In Brian Coleman’s book, Harris described the production of He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, saying, "The tracks we did for the album—which were recorded in Battery Studio Three—were done entirely with a Fairlight, with samples I had put in there from all over the place. Sometimes, we would use the LinnDrum or [Roland TR]-808 drums too."


Funcrusher Plus — Company Flow
ENSONIQ EPS 16 PLUS

When an NYC trio consisting of Bigg Jus, Mr. Len, and Company Flow released their debut album Funcrusher Plus, the project’s abstract rhymes and bruising chaotic beats threw down an aesthetic gauntlet that changed the sound of underground hip-hop.

With production crafted by EL-P, Funcrusher Plus’s dramatic instrumental stabs, violent kick-snare patterns, and crisp turntable work characterized Company Flow’s sound as an update to the stripped-down sound that RUN-D.M.C. and Rick Rubin had pioneered over a decade prior. By incorporating haunting vocal and synth samples, CoFlow took the sonic lessons they'd learned from RUN-D.M.C. and pushed them into near-apocalyptic dimensions.

Speaking with The Fader in an in-depth interview about his production process, EL-P discusses how a sense of experimentation and discovery animates his work, while highlighting the EPS Plus as the machine that Funcrusher was created on. "In the early '90s, I got my first real sampler, an Ensoniq EPS 16 Plus, and that was when it opened up for me in a lot of ways. That's what the Company Flow record was made on. After that, it went further. I started getting synths and Pro Tools, being able to layer more.”


"P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" — Schoolly D
ROLAND TR-909

In the mid-80s, West Philly hip-hop legend Schoolly D’s run of independently released singles would have a monumental impact on hip-hop moving forward. Acknowledged by many as the first gangster rapper, Schoolly’s funky, minimalist beats and vivid and graphic lyrics had a deep impact on West Coast rappers like N.W.A. and Ice-T.

One of Schoolly’s most impactful works was his 1985 single “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” With its heavy kick and snare pattern, razor sharp hi-hats, and splashing cymbal rashes programmed on the Roland TR-909 and held together by a cavernous reverb, “P.S.K.” sounded like a bomb going off in the speaker systems of cars and Jeeps cruising around cities throughout the country.

One of hip-hop’s most enduring signature beats, “P.S.K.” has been sampled many times—most notably by Notorious B.I.G. (“B.I.G. Interlude”) and Siouxsie and The Banshees (“Kiss The For Me”).

Schoolly explained the process behind the creation of "P.S.K." in a 2004 interview with the Philadelphia City Paper, particularly illuminating how they achieved the booming reverb the single is known for while recording at Philadelphia’s Third Story Recording—a space outfitted to record orchestras.

"They had these big plate reverbs, that’s why you got the 'P.S.K.’ sound because nobody used the real shit. We did everything live, and if you listen you can hear my fingers programming the drum machine. We just kept getting higher and higher and higher, and smoking and smoking, and all of a sudden the song just took on this whole other life because we were just so fucked up. It just made this sucking sound like 'boosh, boosh’ and we just looked at each other and were like, 'Yeah, do more of that shit.’"

Although the 909 remains a lesser-known alternative to its more famous predecessor, the TR-808, it has made its way onto a handful of classic hip-hop records. Few of these records have proven to be more unique and impactful than “P.S.K.”

comments powered by Disqus