What do you call a machine that hangs out with musicians?

A Roland TR-808
A Roland TR-808

Photo by Gary Land

Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense features maybe the most famous opening of any concert film. David Byrne strides onstage in a gray suit and white canvas sneakers and lays a boombox at his feet. “Hi,” he says. “I got a tape I want to play.” He presses a button and a pulsing, slithering rhythm emerges. The crowd goes wild; Byrne strums the opening chords of “Psycho Killer.”

The boombox is a lie; it’s not even mic’d. The sound that fills the stage and screen is a Roland TR-808, plugged into a mixing board far from the camera’s gaze, defined by invisibility. The 808 is the Steinway of drum machines, the most famous model of the most important instrument since the electric guitar. When KRS-One introduced D-Nice as “the human TR-808” on Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx” in 1986, it was the highest compliment he could bestow on a beatboxer. “I know y’all wanted that 808,” declared Big Boi on Outkast’s “The Way You Move” in 2003; given that the song hit No. 1, Big Boi knew right. In 2008 Kanye West named an album after the machine, 808s and Heartbreak; Kanye being Kanye, heartbreak got the cover. Even David Byrne wouldn’t let it have its close-up.

The TR-808 and 74 other objects of its kind finally receive their due in Joe Mansfield’s Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession. Beat Box is a cleverly designed, lavishly illustrated, and endlessly fascinating coffee-table history of the drum machine. Mansfield is a drum machine collector as well as a historian and music-biz veteran, best known to hip-hop fans as the producer behind Ed O.G. and Da Bulldogs’ 1991 classic “I Got to Have It.” Mansfield bought his first drum machine in 1985, at age 15 (a mint-condition 808, for $250); he has since accumulated upwards of 150.

Like most books of its kind Beat Box is a primarily visual experience. Mansfield provides various specs for each machine and an occasional anecdote; Dave Tompkins—whose brilliant 2010 history of the vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, is probably the closest thematic relation to Mansfield’s book—christens the volume with a terrific foreword. But the stars of Beat Box are the drum machines themselves, lovingly photographed by Gary Land and laid out on the page in all their glorious, colorful, idiosyncratic detail. Some appear straight out of Star Trek, others straight out of Toy Story; some are designed like immovable furniture, others like transistor radios. Flipping through Beat Box it quickly becomes apparent that for much of the drum machine’s history, the people building them had no clear idea what they were doing, even if the people using them increasingly did.

The drum machine is a mind-bogglingly weird idea. For starters, what defines one? No one calls a metronome a drum machine, though several of the machines in Mansfield’s book (the Seeburg Select-a-Rhythm, the Conn Min-O-Matic Rhythm) offer “metronome” functions, which seems a little like equipping an iPhone with a Dixie-cup-and-string attachment. The earliest drum machines were intended to literally replace drummers themselves. Beat Box’s opening profile is of the Wurlitzer Sideman (1959), generally considered the first drum machine ever made. The original ad copy for the machine, reproduced for our interest and amusement, essentially pitches the Sideman as a band member you don’t need to pay. Even the name invites a new version of the old joke: What do you call a machine that hangs out with musicians?  

Beat Box also offers a glimpse into the drum machine’s imagined possibilities, in emergent, unresolved, often soon-to-be-aborted forms. In the book’s early pages, most machines we see were designed primarily as collections of preset rhythms. Among these are such vague and dusty archaisms as “Foxtrot,” “Watusi,” “Twist,” and my own personal favorite, “Teen.” The Maestro Rhythm King, used by Sly Stone on his 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On (widely considered the first mainstream album to feature a drum machine), boasts 18 variously colored buttons, each adorned with labels like “Cha Cha,” “Go-Go,” “Slow Fox,” and “Western.”

And yet by the time Roger Linn introduced his groundbreaking LM-1 Drum Computer in 1979—the first machine to offer digital samples of actual acoustic drums—there was nary a preset rhythm to be found. The LM-1—a machine so powerful that in 1984 it let Prince release “When Doves Cry” without a bass track—contains 18 different individual drum sounds (snares, kicks, hi-hats) and is equipped with a 13-channel mixer. Nothing about the LM-1 is user-friendly or convenient, nor is it meant to be: It is proudly conscious of its own artistry, and that of its prospective users.

The disappearance of preset rhythms happens gradually through the pages of Mansfield’s book but now strikes me as nothing less than a massive revolution in the understanding of the drum machine, if not even percussion itself. In this disappearance we can see drum machines go from responding to musical trends to creating those trends. The LM-1, the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 (1980 and 1984, respectively), the Oberheim DMX (1982), the E-mu Drumulator (1983): These machines, none of which come with presets and each of which appears on countless pop hits from the 1980s to today, were conceived, and played, as instruments unto themselves. They’re not faux-drummers; they’re real drum kits.

Joe Mansfield.
Author Joe Mansfield

Photo by Gary Land

The most influential devotees of these instruments were young musicians working in young genres—hip-hop, house, new wave, et al.—who came to them with little preconceptions or inhibitions. Mansfield’s book contains interviews with drum programming luminaries like Marshall Jefferson, Davy DMX, and, most memorably, rap legend Schoolly D, whose greatest hit, “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?),” features a Roland TR-909 programmed by Schoolly himself. “It’s funny because nine out of 10 drummers cannot re-play the fucking song [on live drums], because it goes against however they learn time signatures,” says Schoolly. “It goes from ride to hi-hat to crash. … And the craziest thing is that I played it all live in the studio, while I was rapping on top of it.” One listen to the track and you’ll instantly hear what he means—a hip-hop classic born of fearlessness, counterintuitive experimentation, and a healthy dose of screwing around.

Beat Box is not a perfect work. The prose can be dry and overly technical, and I personally would have liked more historical detail on certain machines, although one doesn’t turn to coffee-table books for comprehensiveness. There’s also not a lot in the book to describe the actual sound of the machines, although by the end I found that silence to be one of its understated triumphs. Rhythm is the hardest element of music to render into words—some mystical combination of sound, space, and time—and in many of these early machines we see this ineffability personified (“Teen”). I sometimes found myself wishing the book came with some sort of comprehensive audio sampler, but that’d be impossible, and that impossibility is the point: Like any great musical instrument, the drum machine’s potential sounds, and songs, are infinite.

Luckily Beat Box comes with something even better. Its appendix includes a selective list of songs that feature some of the machines in Mansfield’s book. Want to hear the Linn 9000? Throw on Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The Roland CR-78? Phil Collins, a drummer himself, used it on “In the Air Tonight.” The Oberheim DMX? Try Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble”—he named himself after the thing. Ever notice R.E.M.’s 1992 smash “Everybody Hurts” has a drum machine? It surely does, the Univox SR-95 (1973), already vintage by the time the band dug it out for Automatic for the People. And there’s so much more where that came from. By the time you finally put it down, you’ll realize, if you haven’t already, that Beat Box is a photographic journey through rhythms you’ve had stuck in your head for years.

Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession by Joe Mansfield. Get On Down.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.