The System That Made The System: The Farsighted Genius of David Frank

Photos courtesy of David Frank, used with permission.

Today, one of the things musicians take for granted is the ability of their electronic instruments to instantly communicate with one another. After all, it seems like common sense.

But it wasn’t always the case. So in the early ’80s, if you happened onto a set of instruments designed to talk to each other—and if you were a brilliant and innovative musician in the bargain—you just might have been able to change music history. Which is exactly what David Frank did—with a little help from the Oberheim Parallel Buss system.

Frank is best known as half of the hit-making duo The System, who topped the R&B charts with 1987’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” and had numerous other hits. But it was the groundbreaking nature of those hits—sleek, syncopated, and futuristic—that gave Frank his nickname: The Godfather of Electronic R&B.

A Boston native and a classically trained pianist, Frank graduated from Berklee College of Music and moved to New York to seek his fortune. What set him apart from his peers was, in part, his foresight.

When Frank saw the Oberheim Parallel Buss system in early 1982, he realized he was looking at the future of music. The system contained three pieces of gear: a drum machine (the Oberheim DMX); a polyphonic sequencer (the Oberheim DSX); and a synthesizer (the OBX, later replaced by the OBXa). The three units were designed to be perfectly compatible, and were, at the time, a budding songwriter’s dream.

Photo of Mic Murphy and David Frank together as The System

“It was the right time for me to have it,” Frank says today, from his Canyon Reverb Studio in Topanga, California, “because I learned every possible thing I could do with it that I could think of.”

The system had been designed by Tom Oberheim and a brilliant young engineer named Marcus Ryle. They realized that a set of devices designed to work together would be an incredible studio tool. And the Parallel Buss was designed for studio musicians—since, as Ryle notes, “There was no home recording yet.”

Ryle had begun work on the DSX sequencer. “And we said that there should be a companion drum machine,” he recalls. Enter the Oberheim DMX, which used samples of real drums (played by Weather Report’s Peter Erskine), much like the Linn LM-1, which had just appeared in 1980.

When Frank got his hands on all this equipment, he took it so seriously that he memorized the manuals “backwards and forwards—every detail.” And he soon found the perfect laboratory to test out his new gear.

He was hired by a German expatriate named Otto Von Wernherr, an actor and singer, to help create an album using his Oberheim equipment. Frank had more or less carte blanche during the sessions. Von Wernherr, he recalls, “was the weirdest character. He was ‘producing,’ but he didn’t do anything.”

The singer on those sessions was a neighbor of Frank’s: an up-and-coming Michigan native named Madonna Ciccone. And after Frank condensed all his Oberheim research into a single song of his own—a dance track titled “Crimes Of Passion”—it was only natural that he approached Madonna to sing it.

There was only one problem: Madonna wanted to use her boyfriend, drummer Stephen Bray, as the co-producer. And Frank had a vision for the song that was totally free of guitars and live drums. So he turned down the offer.

Instead, he invited Michael “Mic” Murphy, whom he’d met while they were both on the road with the New York R&B band Kleeer, to be the last-minute substitute vocalist. Over the course of an evening in the studio, the pair turned “Crimes Of Passion” into “It’s Passion,” a squelchy, sinuous groove that won the duo a record deal with Mirage the very next day.

It wasn’t long before The System was on the road with all its electronic gear, headlining shows “with just two guys,” remembers session drummer (and fellow DMX user) Keith LeBlanc, who was touring on the same bills. “It was amazing,” he says.

The System “You are in my System”.

Frank’s use of the Parallel Buss helped put The System on the map, but he always had an ear out for new sounds. On the pair’s debut album,Sweat, he used “a Minimoog playing bass through control voltage.” He also employed a Memorymoog on some tracks.

On The System’s second disc, X-Periment, Frank brought in a PPG Wave 2.3 on several tracks. He sometimes used the PPG to generate percussion sounds, like the tom fills on “I Can’t Take Losing You” and the drums on “Escape.”

By the 1985 album The Pleasure Seekers, Frank’s DMX expertise was such that he deliberately sought to challenge himself. A good example was the title track, which he notes has similar chords to Prince’s “1999” and Phil Collins’s “Sussudio” (a song on which Frank did the DMX programming).

“The chord progression was kind of ordinary in a way. And I was trying to think of a way to do something with a Latin kind of feel,” he remembers. “So I was determined on ‘Pleasure Seekers’ not to program any kick drum on the downbeat. I thought, It’s gonna be freakin’ great. Well, let me tell you something: it was pretty great, and it was the theme song on ,Miami Vice that year, and it did pretty well. But we did a promotional tour for it, and people were having trouble dancing to it.” Why? Because they couldn’t locate the song’s downbeat.

Frank judged the results of his experiment through rental cars. “When we started the promotional tour, they picked us up at our respective apartments in New York City in stretch limousines. As the weeks went on, and the song lost its bullet, the cars got smaller and smaller. And by the time we got back to New York, there was no car at all. They said, ‘You can take a taxi.’” He laughs ruefully. “So much for not putting the kick drum on the downbeat!”

By the time of The System’s biggest hit—1987’s Don’t Disturb This Groove album—Frank had added the Linn 9000 to his percussion arsenal. It wasn’t until the Akai MPC60 became available at the end of the ’80s that he finally transferred his allegiances. He kept using the sampling workstation throughout the next decade “because I wasn’t confident about the feel of computer drums.”

The System “Don’t Disturb This Groove”.

In fact, although the No.1 Christina Aguilera hit “Genie In A Bottle,” which Frank co-wrote and co-produced in 1999, was created on an MPC2000, Frank actually programmed it with drum sounds from his trusty MPC60.

The System has periodically reunited in the new millennium, but Frank’s contributions to electronic music mean his legacy as an innovator is secure.

“Hey, David is, to me, the real innovator cat,” says top session keyboardist Jason Miles, who worked with Luther Vandross, Miles Davis, and a host of other luminaries—sometimes alongside Frank. “He was the one that came up with this shit first before a lot of people. And I don’t think he got the right credit for it. But he’s absolutely, absolutely one of the giants.”

About the Author: Dan LeRoy’s latest book is Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World (available here). For more information visit

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