Saturday, February 12, 2011
How the very first programmable drum machine changed the sound of reggae music
As a bass player I am always listening to the drum and bass line in every song. Rhythm is what my ear is drawn to and its how I think about and conceive of music. And as a bass player, I have a lot of love for drummers, who if you pardon the acutely American sports metaphor are a lot like baseball pitchers (or for those of you in the U.K. a Cricket bowler) who either come at the batter directly with speed and power (hard bashing players) or try to fool them with tricks and changes (finesse players). When it comes to ska and reggae music my personal favorite drummers are John Bradbury of The Specials (who manages to somehow mix finesse into his power drumming) and Lloyd Knibbs of The Skatalites who always kept me rapt with his incredible finesse playing.
Though drum and bass rhythms drive the various eras of ska, rocksteady, reggae, 2-Tone, dancehall and beyond, drums and drummers have defined each distinct phase. And like the divide in rock music that occurred in the mid 70's when synthesizers and drum machines began to make their way into popular music (see the brilliant BBC Four 'Synth Britannia' documentary for more information), reggae also had a similar moment when the very first drum machine arrived on the island in the mid-70's and slowly became dominant during the early 80's.
First a bit of history about drum machines. The Eko ComputerRhythm is generally considered the very first programmable drum machine. Like the very first computers, the original drum machines were large, bulky, expensive and hard to program. The Eko ComputerRhythm had a 6 row push-button matrix that allowed users to enter a pattern manually, or to push punch cards with pre-programmed rhythms through a reader slot on the unit. Watch a demo of one the earliest Eko's:
What the EKO lacked in accessibility and ease of use they made up for in changing the sound and texture of music and also elevated the producer to the role of musician. This was particularly true in Jamaica where Sound Systems and later record labels were all driven by personalities who were driven to one-up the competition with new talent, but more importantly new sounds.
The Upsetters' 'Chim Cherie' is a crucial piece of music history and the holy grail of electronic reggae music. Created as a white label dub plate for the Pressure Sounds label sometime in the late 70's, it marks the pivotal moment in time when the EKO was employed on a reggae track and this is the result of its very first use. The song marked a turning point for so much electronic dance music whose original roots all start in Jamaican recording studios over 35 years ago. The rhythm was later used to great effect in Shinehead's 1984 version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. Have a listen to both versions:
According to the story, the drum programming for 'Chim Cherie' was handled by The Wailers bassist Aston 'Family Man' Barrett and the song was produced and dubbed out by Lee "Scratch" Perry. The dub sounds much heavier than the original, and while the sound suffers from age, the tape degradation does lend the tune an incredible, hazy quality. Play it loud and play it often!