Gadget Inspector: Black Music Tech Evolution - The Electric Guitar to Fruity Loops

[photo : Akai MPC3000]

When you think about the evolution of music, where does your history book begin?

From Diddley to Diddy, James Brown

to Jay-Z, the rules of the game may have changed, but it’s still about groove,

beats and having the right sound.

Let’s take a look at just a few

key pieces of gear that helped shape Black Music over the years, and remain

integral to modern times.

Electric Guitar

Making its debut in the 1930s, the

electric guitar revolutionized acoustic sound by amplifying it. Its first usage

was in jazz orchestras, with guitarist and bandleader Gage Brewer believed to

be the first to use the electric guitar during a performance.

Hitmakers like Chuck Berry and

Jimi Hendrix took it to the next level, making the instrument as important to

their sound as their vocals. Hendrix was also known for his use of

amplification, effects and distortion.

Today, we don’t necessarily think

about the electric guitar as integral to Hip-Hop, but in fact many artists are

well versed on the instrument, and those traveling with bands are proof that

the electric guitar remains key to any musician’s craft.

Wah Pedal

One of the effects most often

associated with Jimi Hendrix is the wah, or wah-wah, pedal. Hendrix’ name is

usually connected to the Crybaby wah, but in fact the Vox figured prominently

in his work.

The wah’s distinctive sound became synonymous with 1960s guitar, but it was also highly popular during the ‘70s, when bands like Rufus incorporated it into their recordings. In modern times, DJ Mix Master Mike developed his tweak scratch sound by connecting the wah to his turntable.

The Vocoder

Invented in the 1930s, the vocoder

was primarily used for coding speech for telecommunications transmissions, and

made its musical debut in 1970, often used in soundtracks. Sometimes referred

to as the “talking synthesizer,” and not to be mistaken with the talk box, it

changed the face of pop music when incorporated by prog-rock bands like Pink

Floyd and Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).

The vocoder soon made its way into the R&B world, where bands like Zapp used it regularly, bringing it forward in hits like “More Bounce to the Ounce.”

The vocoder remains a staple in the Hip-Hop world, with artists like T-Pain, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne and Kanye West incorporating its effect into their recordings.

Originally a Moog product,

vocoders are now manufactured by companies like Electro Harmonix, Roland and

Korg. The vocoder is a key feature in Roland keyboards.

The Turntable Mixer

Every Hip-Hop head knows that

Grandmaster Flash revolutionized DJing when he created a turntable mixer from a

mic mixer. He and dozens of other turntablists revolutionized Black music with

their groundbreaking magic on the turntables, and the DJ mixer in tow.

Although there were other DJs and engineers who had toyed with the turntable mixer idea, it was Hip-Hop’s use of the technology that forced equipment companies to take notice. These days you have mixers that work for everything from CDJs to iPods, but there will never be anything quite like the original sound of a real DJ and two turntables.

Roland TR-808

Sir Mixalot may have said it best

in his hit single “My Posse’s On Broadway”… “the 808 kick drum makes the girlies get dumb.”

Roland was among the first

manufacturers to introduce a programmable drum machine. Their TR-808, with its

preferred kick-drum sound, came out as a comparably affordable model in 1980.

Working in analogue held it back

from instant success, but in time—and even after being discontinued—it became a

favorite of studio musicians, thanks to its variety of sounds, effects and available


Credit the 808 for that infectious

backbeat in Marvin Gaye’s 1982 hit “Sexual Healing.” That same year, Hip-Hop and funk collided in the classic “Planet Rock,” as Afrika Bambaataa’s vocals boomed as loudly as the 808 that drove the beat.

In the early ‘80s, producers like Mantronix and Rick Rubin utilized the bass of the 808 to create a fuller sound for Hip-Hop. To date, artists still seek out 808s to enhance their beats.

The whole bass/booty music movement incorporating the 808 is pretty fascinating within itself. For instance, did you know that 2 Live Crew actually started out in California? There's a lot of info online about it, so google to your heart's content!

Akai MPC 3000

Workstation, sequencer and drum

machine - the Akai MPC 3000 exploded onto the scene in 1994 and immediately

became the workhorse of beat makers everywhere, in every genre.

Years later, the 3000 remained such

a favorite that in 2000 the company came out with its MPC3000LE (Limited

Edition) to satisfy customers who couldn’t get their hands on a used model of

the original. Since then, Akai has continued developing their MPC line,

debuting the 5000 this year, but the 3000 remains a sought-after piece of

equipment and Akai users still talk about it.

Easy to program, easy to tap beats

into, highly intuitive and user-friendly with its scroll help screens, featuring

MIDI inputs and outputs, pad banks and sampling memory, the 3000—successor to

Akai’s wildly popular MPC 60 (1988)—was the flagship for future Akai MPCs.

The 3000 made it easy for anyone

to walk into their local music store and utter those five famous words: “I

wanna be a producer!”

Home Studio Software

Pro Tools, Garageband, Fruity

Loops, Cakewalk, ACID… the list goes on. As technology improved and advanced, so did the sound, the effects, and finally, in the age of the Internet, the ability

for anyone to set up a home studio and release their original material to the


Software programs like Pro Tools

and Garageband have given independent artists a voice and completely changed

the way music is made, heard, distributed and sold. Hundreds of budding

producers are able to work on their music in the privacy of their own home, and

with success stories like Little Brother, Soulja Boy and others, it’s only the

beginning of what’s to come for independent production.

Which legendary artists influenced your sound? Which piece(s) of gear turned your beats or vocals around? The Gadget Inspector wants to know. Let’s hear your comments!