Gear Tribute: The Maestro Rhythm King MRK–2, Sly Stone's Favorite Drum Machine

The Maestro Rhythm King MRK–2 is a handsome groove box with a row of brightly colored buttons reminiscent of a TR–808. But compared to the 808 — and certainly to any drum machines that meet today’s standards — the MRK–2 is sorely underwhelming.

The MRK–2 has 18 preset rhythms and can’t be programmed. If you want to add any variation to those rhythms, you have to toggle the buttons on the front of the box at just the right time. There’s a volume knob and a tone knob. That’s all there is to the Maestro Rhythm King.

Built between 1971 and 1974, the MRK–2 would have a brief moment of relevance before quickly fading away.

Yet when the MRK–2 was introduced to popular music as an instrument in its own right, it subtly changed the way that the music world thought about drums and percussion. Its brief time in the spotlight on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On likely kicked off a butterfly effect that put drum machines into just about all of the popular music heard today.

Its hissing hats, quaint bongos, blocks, and claves playing on those rubbery beats were front and center on Sly’s magnum opus. When the album’s single “Family Affair” hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts the same year, the inflexible, artificial MRK–2 got its 15 minutes of fame.

Sly & The Family Stone - "Family Affair"

In the Court of the Rhythm King

Originally, groove boxes like the MRK were intended as little more than metronomes to accompany organs. They were electronic timekeepers to play along with at home rather than serious instruments meant to replace a human drummer.

Sly Stone wasn’t the first to use a drum machine in pop music. That honor goes to the Bee Gee’s Robin Gibbs, with his 1969 single “Saved By The Bell.” But Sly was the first to successfully place the rigid rhythms of his MRK–2 at the center of a rhythm section.

It took a serendipitous combination of Sly Stone’s unique musical vision and personal problems with Family Stone drummer Greg Errico for Sly to first use the MRK–2 on a number of productions for his Stone Flower imprint.

In Joel Selvin’s Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History, Errico recalls, “Everybody would call and say that he was messing with the drum machine and he wanted me to come down there. I get calls daily from him, from everybody, and I just didn't want no more part of it. I was done with it.”

When Errico quit the group, Sly would lay down a track with the MRK–2 as a base, and then layer either his own or a session drummer's licks on top of it.

The Unfunky Drummer

The introduction of electronic percussion on pop records was a radical move in the early 1970s. The static, unearthly sounds of the MRK–2 simply hadn’t been heard on songs that were supposed to be hits before.

Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2

The MRK–2 created a very specific mood on the pop tracks it appears on. Totally unlike a drummer playing a real kit, it’s static and uniform, creating staunchly synthetic vibe. That artificiality made a substantial contribution to the dark, compressed, and paranoid mood of There’s a Riot Going On, and in doing so, opened up a fertile new creative area in popular music.

The drum machine rose at a time when producers were discovering that drum sounds could be adjusted and effected. They became another set of tones that could add additional musical and abstract textures, rather than performing simply as a sonic anchor.

The MRK–2 and other drum machines were great candidates for producers who wanted to twist, manipulate, and polish drum sounds for whatever they had in mind.

The rigidity provided by a drum machine could provide a tight center around which sounds could be languidly arranged and the playing could lurch and stumble, like on Sly’s “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” and “Poet.”

Later, the Maestro MRK–2 would introduce a strict functionalism to the rest of the playing, blanching out the feel, and replacing it with metronomic accuracy. This provided the ever–unfolding, unresolving loop that disco would soon thrive on.

George McCrae’s huge ’74 proto–disco hit “Rock Your Baby” was the first drum machine–led dance floor record, and it showed how effective a machine’s 4/4 groove could be. That repetitive, unchanging 4/4 pulse that first underpinned disco would go on to inform the foundation of house and techno.

George McCrae - "Rock Your Baby"

But it wasn’t like once drum machines hit the scene, they were there to stay. Sure, there were the early adopters, like Sly, Timmy Thomas, Stevie Wonder, JJ Cale, Shuggie Otis, George McCrae. But it would take some time before the distinctive sound of the drum machine would find a strong and lasting foothold in music.

Instead, the technology improved over the next few years, leading to the fully programmable Roland TR–808 and Linn Electronics LM–1 Drum Computer. Only then would new wave, electro, and all the post–disco forms of dance music become seduced by the synthetic charms of the drum machine.

Today, electronic percussion is ubiquitous, and we have become used to a barrage of percussive audio underpinning our music — much of it abstract and unrelated to acoustic drum sounds.

We now know that the introduction of drum machines facilitated a complete overhaul of the sonic language of percussion. The emotionless tics and hisses of boxes like the MRK–2 now crop up as samples in pop, rock, hip hop, electronica, and all shades of dance music.

Those sounds possess a nostalgic charm and are a sonic shorthand for a certain, orange–and–brown polyester–draped vision of the 1970s. But despite its nostalgic trappings, its historic impact should never be forgotten.

The Maestro Rhythm King widened a sonic palette, allowing musicians and producers to toy with the concept of rhythms made up of sounds that weren’t just drums. In doing so, this humble organ accompaniment prepared the ground for the explosion in electronic rhythm that followed.

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