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!

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.

What’s Old Is New Again with Garbage and Hiatus Kaiyote

Garbage released “Strange Little Birds” on June 10th. It’s the band’s first album since 2012 and only their second since 2005. “Empty” is the first track with an official video, and if you like Shirley Manson and the band’s original sound as much as I do you’ll really enjoy it.  To compare it to their earliest days, watch “Only Happy When it Rains” from their eponymous 1995 debut.  Fun fact to know and tell: one of the band’s founders is drummer Butch Vig, a record producer prior to forming the band best known for producing Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991.

While Hiatus Kaiyote doesn’t have the 20-year history of Garbage, they go further back than that in gathering their musical influences. The Australian quartet formed in 2011 and draw on soul, R&B and jazz fusion. They’ve already been nominated twice for the Best R&B Performance Grammy. Here are those two nominated tracks: “Nakamarra” from their first album “Tawk Tomahawk” and “Breathing Underwater” from their second album, last year’s “Choose Your Weapon”.  Actually, the Grammy nominated version of “Nakamarra” included a verse by Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-tip – you can hear it here at 2:30. Thanks for introducing me to the band, Victoria!

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.

 

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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominees – Beyond the Obvious Picks

A few weeks ago, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced the nominees for the Class of 2015, with 16 acts spanning a broad range of styles and eras. The annual announcement is always a great chance to remember acts who may have faded a bit from memory, but were very important in their day.

From the era of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (the same one where Jimi first set his guitar on fire) and Woodstock, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band played classic Chicago blues fronted by their singing and harmonica playing namesake. Butterfield was a talented young man from a well-to-do Chicago family. He studied classical flute in high school, was offered a track scholarship to Brown, and studied at the University of Chicago where he met bandmate Elvin Bishop. Fellow Chicago native Mike Bloomfield was another notable member of the band. Here’s a performance from Monterey. That’s Bishop on guitar, and Bloomfield clapping enthusiastically at the end of Butterfield’s soulful singing and harmonica work.

War formed in the 1960’s in L.A. and hit the big time when Eric Burdon, formerly of the Animals, joined the band in 1969. Who can forget their first big hit, “Spill the Wine”. Burdon only stayed with the group for a couple of years, but War kept bringing the funk well into the 1970’s. Enjoy these live versions of “Spill the Wine” and “Slipping into Darkness”.

Bill Withers is still around, though not performing anymore, and he put up a string of hits beginning with 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and running through 1981’s “Just the Two of Us”. Both songs won Grammy’s for Best R&B Song. Wither’s highest charting single, though, was 1972’s “Use Me”. Here’s a live performance of that tune by Bill, and a truly out-there cover by Mick Jagger from his 1993 solo album “Wandering Spirit”. Lenny Kravitz contributes.

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