The Drum Machine That Helped Open Paul’s Boutique

On The 33 ⅓ Podcast, legendary producer Prince Paul explores some of the greatest albums ever made, using the source material from our series.
This week, Dante Ross and Prince Paul are discussing The Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique by Dan LeRoy. The following piece is a guest post by Dan LeRoy, so that you can keep nerding out about the Beastie Boys once you’re finished listening!

When you talk about drum machines and Paul’s Boutique, there are two things that even casual listeners can probably hear. The first is that you don’t hear a lot of drum machines on the album. A big part of the record’s legacy is its sampled beats, assembled into intricate, polyrhythmic collages by The Dust Brothers and Matt Dike.

Second, the most prominent drum machine audible is Adam Horovitz’s Roland TR-808. It shows up on the “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” segment “Hello Brooklyn.” Technically, “Hello Brooklyn” was the first song recorded for Paul’s Boutique. But Matt Dike thought it was less a song than an opportunity. “When I heard it,” he told me, back in 2005, “I knew they were in trouble.”

So what “Hello Brooklyn”’s unadorned 808 drum program said to Dike was that the Beasties really needed his help—and the help of the Dust Brothers, and engineer Mario Caldato Jr.—in following up their multiplatinum Licensed to Ill.

In fact, Paul’s Boutique was a key moment in the movement away from drum machines. During the Eighties, programmed rhythm had infiltrated every genre of popular music. Not just pop and rock, not just R&B and hip hop, not just emerging genres like techno and industrial. Jazz musicians, led by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, had been using the new programmable machines since they became available.The drums on Def Leppard’s multiplatinum metal album Pyromania had been almost entirely programmed on a Fairlight CMI back in 1983, more than a year before drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car accident. Even Bocehpus himself, Hank Williams Jr., showed that a country boy could survive—by incorporating drum machines into his music, which he did on 1987’s Born to Boogie.

But backlash against the machines had been building. Sampling had become increasingly popular throughout the decade, as chip sizes shrank, memory costs plummeted, and sampling rates climbed. And sampling would eventually help put an end to the standalone drum machine. Now, in the comfort of your own bedroom, you could loop a two-bar beat from your favorite funky drummer. Now you could recapture all the feel and warmth that had become elusive, in the cold new world of precision programming and digital recording and compact discs.

That’s not to say though, that drum machines played no role at all in the creation of Paul’s Boutique. In fact, were it not for a very famous beatbox, it’s possible the album might never have come to be.

The E-mu SP-12 is one of the legendary engines of hip hop. (In fact, Prince Paul, the estimable host of this new 33 1/3 podcast, used it himself to make the classic De La Soul album 3 Feet High and Rising—an album that appeared a few months before Paul’s Boutique in 1989.) When the SP-12 debuted in 1985, the tectonic plates of the drum machine landscape had begun to shift. The machines that had dominated the landscape during the first half of the Eighties—the LinnDrum and the Oberheim DMX in particular—were giving way to a new generation of devices.

In Hollywood, Roger Linn had already unveiled the Linn 9000, his attempt to venture beyond drum machines and create an all-in-one sampler and sequencer, utilizing the new MIDI technology. The Linn 9000 was designed for drum programming, but you could also use it for sampling, and to control MIDI sequences from your synthesizer. Yet like its ancestor, the Linn LM-1, the Linn 9000 carried a hefty price tag: about $5,000.

Up the Pacific Coast in Santa Cruz, a company called E-mu Systems had gotten a reputation for making more cost-effective versions of popular products. The Emulator was a digital sampling synthesizer that compressed the functions of the Fairlight CMI into a machine about a fourth of the price. And the E-mu Drumulator, introduced in 1983, gave musicians a high quality drum machine comparable to the LinnDrum and DMX for less than a thousand dollars.

By the next year, Dave Rossum, the company’s co-founder and chief engineer, thought it was already time for an update of the successful Drumulator. “We found we had some very hard choices in terms of what we wanted to add to it,” he remembers. “I think we’d heard through the grapevine already about the Linn 9000.”

Sampling was clearly going to have to be part of E-mu’s new machine. Rossum and the crew at E-mu were able to offer 12-bit sampling capability (the “12” in the machine’s name; “SP” stands for “sampling percussion”) with 1.2 seconds of sampling time. That was expandable to about five seconds with maxed-out memory. What no one expected was what happened next.

Musicians—hip hop musicians in particular—didn’t seem to care so much about the SP-12’s two dozen stock drum sounds. They also weren’t just trying to sample individual drum hits. Instead, they were using the sampler to lift entire loops, riffs, and grooves from records, and using these bits to create new songs.

Rossum was surprised. But he also saw that this development was very good for business. Especially since the SP-12 listed for less than $3,000. “Ultimately, it was just people being creative,” Rossum reflects. “And the SP-12 was tremendously successful because it did offer user sampling at what ended up being quite a lower entry point than the Linn 9000.”

The Beasties and Rick Rubin used the SP-12 in 1986 on “Rhymin and Stealin” from Licensed to Ill. A year or two later, in a weird bit of synchronicity, they also played a role in the machine being purchased by Matt Dike.

Dike did a regular DJ set at Power Tools, the legendary Los Angeles nightclub. The club’s ad-hoc sound system, however, was completely inadequate when the Beastie Boys showed up for a gig at Power Tools in the summer of 1986. The concert ended after one song and two blown speakers. And an irate patron named Mario Caldato Jr., who was then tripping on acid with his musician friend Mike Nishita, complained to the management. He wound up with a gig as the club’s new soundman.

Caldato, a Brazilian native who’d been playing in a series of bands around Los Angeles, gave advice about more than just new speakers. “Matt wanted to get some equipment to start making some good recordings,” Caldato recalls. “I helped him pick out an eight-track recorder and mixer. And he wanted a sampling drum machine. So we got an SP-12, with five whole seconds of sampling. Wow!” he says in mock amazement.

That SP-12 became the foundation stone of an iconic record label, Delicious Vinyl. It helped launch Delicious with massive hits like Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing,” where Dike sampled drumbeats from Bizzy B and a guitar riff from Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin’.” Thanks to those successes, the SP-12 also led indirectly to a partnership between Dike, Caldato, and the Dust Brothers—a pair of aspiring producers named Mike Simpson and John King. And that partnership, in turn, would lead to the four men joining forces with the Beasties for their collective masterpiece, Paul’s Boutique.

Most of the sampling for Paul’s Boutique was done using another popular E-mu product: the Emax HD sampler. And almost a decade later, on “Hello Nasty,” Ad-Rock would namecheck the SP-12 on “Putting Shame in Your Game,” from Hello Nasty.

The SP-12 would quickly be replaced by the E-mu SP-1200, which dumped the drum presets and upped the sampling memory to allow for 32 custom sounds. Yet the SP-12 remains fondly recalled as an instrument that helped usher in hip hop’s Golden Age. “We were in this transition point where I think musicians were realizing the power of sampling and that they could do sampling themselves,” says Rossum of the SP-12. “So I think it was embraced because it embraced the times.”

Dan LeRoy’s new book Dancing to a Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered the World, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2022.

Hooked on the Beastie Boys? Tune into The 33 1/3 Podcast to learn more:

The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique cover

Dan LeRoy is the Director of Writing and Publishing at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, USA. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneNewsweekVibe, The Village Voice, National Review Online and Alternative Press. He is the co-author (with Michael Lipton) of 20 Years of Mountain Stage (2003), the author of The Beastie Boys’ Pauls Botique (Bloomsbury 2006), and The Greatest Music Never Sold (2007).

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