Roland TR-808 – Iconic Drum Machine

Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation, died on April 1st at the age of 87.  Roland has produced a huge range of electronic musical instruments and effects since its founding in 1972, and Kakehashi developed MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that sits at the heart of electronic instrument communication. But no product or invention by Kakehashi and Roland has had more impact on popular music than the TR-808 drum machine.

Manufactured for three years beginning in 1980, the 808 has been used by innumerable artists for nearly 40 years, and it’s said that the 808 is to hip hop what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock and roll.  The 808 was built just before sampling became widespread and produced 16 synthesized approximations to sounds from a bass drum to a handclap.

The first hit record to use the 808 appears to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from 1982.   Listen to the opening bars and you’ll immediately recognize the iconic sounds.

Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, also from 1982, is credited with cementing the 808 into hip hop’s early vocabulary.

Whitney Houston used the 808 to set the beat for her 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

In 2008, Kanye West built his fourth studio album around the sounds of the 808, and even named the album “808’s and Heartbreaks”. The drum loop in “Say You Will” is all 808.

If you want to get the full scoop on this history of this important piece of technology, here is the trailer to “808” the movie!

Anderson .Paak – Grammy Bound?

At the 59th Grammy Awards, airing tomorrow night, the Best New Artist category is quite diverse.   There are two new country singers, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, a DJ duo, The Chainsmokers, who had a hit called “#SELFIE” that has almost a half-billion YouTube views (don’t add one, I warn you), and two hot hip-hop artists, Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak.

While he might be a long shot for the Grammy, .Paak’s music is in the hip hop vein I really like.   Thanks for the introduction to him, Ben!  His arrangements use real instruments, which may owe to .Paak being a very fine drummer himself, melodic vocals, a solid foundation of R&B, and Southern Cali jazz fusion mixed in.

.Paak performed “Am I Wrong” live on French TV about a year ago, and closed the song with an apropos David Bowie tribute.

It didn’t take American TV too long to catch up to the French. Steven Colbert hosted Anderson’s first American TV performance in March of last year.

.Paak produced a video for “Come Down” from his recent album “Malibu” using friends and family from Oxnard, California. And, yes, he apparently honed his drumming skills backing a gospel choir as a kid.

If you want to hear a bit more from .Paak, how many hip hop artists can pull off an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.  Forward about 3-1/2 minutes into the set to hear “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”.

Let’s Start 2017 With a Trip to Motown to Visit Bob Babbitt

It is oddly prophetic that my last post, four months ago, covered the band Hiatus Kaiyote.  Hiatus indeed!  Well Happy New Year to all, and allow me to begin the year with a trip way back to the early 70’s.

A few months ago I watched the movie “Searching for Sugar Man” for the first time.  Hard to believe it took me so long to see the 2012 Academy Award winner – thanks for the DVD, Margaret!  It’s a great flick if you haven’t seen it, and one little snippet from the movie is the basis for this post.

It seems that on Sixto Rodriquez’s first album “Cold Fact”, which included the track “Sugar Man” from which the movie title was taken, his producer hired some top notch Motown session men to back Sixto’s vocals and guitar.  Among them was bassist Bob Babbitt.

Babbitt was part of The Funk Brothers, studio musicians who backed most of Motown’s hits from 1959 to 1972.   A little research on Babbitt reveals that he played some of the most recognizable bass tracks in history, including those on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, “War” by Edwin Starr, “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye, and many more.  In all he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits including 25 gold and platinum records.

Below is more than my usual number of videos, but turn up the bass and appreciate  Babbitt’s genius.  You’ll wonder what these songs would be without him.

Babbitt passed away in 2012 at age 74, some years after winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.  The 2002 documentary on The Funk Brothers, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” is now on my “to watch” list.

Upcoming Releases from Sir Elton and Lake Street Dive, plus a Glenn Frey Tribute

Elton John’s new album “Wonderful Crazy Night” will be released February 5th.  It’s Sir Elton’s 32nd studio album (or 33rd depending on what internet page you believe).  Long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin is still writing lyrics, and uber-producer T Bone Burnett is back after helping out on John’s 2013 album, “The Diving Board”.  Here’s “Looking Up”, one of a few live-studio performance videos made for the new release.

On February 18th Lake Street Dive will release “Side Pony”, their first release with new label, Nonesuch Records.  Nonesuch is a great label, being home to acts as diverse as The Black Keys, Wilco, Ry Cooder, Pat Metheny, and Emmylou Harris. Hopefully it will mean a new level of exposure for LSD.  Unlike Elton’s new album, no cool videos have yet dropped for “Side Pony”, but the band previewed the track “Close to Me” at last year’s Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco.

While I wasn’t planning a Glenn Frey tribute this week, I tripped across this Lake Street Dive cover of “Take It To The Limit”. Written by Frey, together with Don Henley and Randy Meisner, it was the only Eagles single on which Meisner sang lead. Here’s the song with Rachel Price singing lead.

Women Vocalists Review – Björk, Rhiannon Giddens and Kandace Springs

Before we start, a couple of notes on last night’s Grammy Awards.  Happy to see Roseanne Cash take home three in the American Roots categories for “The River & The Thread” (see our earlier post), Beck take home two for “Morning Phase” (see our earlier post), and Jack White score one for “Lazaretto”.

But that’s old musical news.

Björk (she of the infamous swan dress) is a unique and esoteric vocalist with an international following, putting out top selling solo albums since 1993.  Her latest, “Vulnicura” (meaning “Cure for Wounds”), was to be released in March to coincide with an exhibit on her career opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  But the album leaked on the internet in January, so the album dropped early.  Lush with string arrangements, the album is a meditation on her breakup with American artist Matthew Barney.  Spend a few minutes getting into the hypnotic feel of the album’s first track “Stonemilker”.

In a completely different vein, Rhiannon Giddens has been working with uber-producer T Bone Burnett on a few projects, including her first solo album “Tomorrow is My Turn”. The album includes covers of a number of great artists, features great backing musicians, and most of all introduces us to a great new singer. Listen to these covers of Patsy Kline and Joan Baez.

And in another completely different vein, Kandace Springs is a singer and pianist bringing a soul look and style that’s a little bit retro and a whole lot of fun. Check out “Love Got in the Way” from her eponymous debut EP. Then, to tie back to last night’s Grammy’s, listen to her cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” which won him Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

 

Buy Music