Hip Hop: The Instruments
Hip hop was unique in that the music was
usually produced without a traditional backing band. DJs
usually pieced together the music using samples of exsisting
This section deals with the tools and instruments used by hip
One of the fundamental tools used by DJs obviously is the
record player. Almost always this means a Technics SL1200 mkII.
Two of these joined by a small mixer is the usual rig.
The Technics SL1200 was originally introduced in 1973 for home
HiFi use. However, it achieved wider professional use than
Technics equivalent professional turntable because it was less
cumbersome to transport and use due to it having a 11" platter
opposed to the 15" platter of the .......
Early on, DJs started using the SL1200 as an instrument in its
own right by using "breaks". The term break derived from
"breakdown", the part of disco and funk record where the
arangement breaks away leaving only the drums and occasionally,
If a DJ had two copies of the same record, he or she could use
the two to indefinetly loop the breakdown forming a rhythm
section on which to base a new song on. One could easily
imagine the new parts placed in the "new" songs were usually
boastful rappers on a microphone.
One pioneering hip hop dj to gain widespread fame was
Grandmaster Flash who to make it easier to use two turntables
at once built his own mixer to mix the signals of both decks.
Nothing unusual about that however, his mixer desk was unique
at the time in that it not only had fader pots to control the
volume of each deck, but it also had one extra fader that could
increase the volume of deck A while simultaneously decreasing
the volume of deck B. Thus, the "cross-fader" was invented.
Cross-faders nowdays come in many different configurations
with the linear and scratch being the most popular.
The linear cross-fader has gradual gradients with both A and B
being at full volume in the centre position. This configuration
allows for smooth fading between the two tracks.
The Scratch-Fader, as it is often called, looks and feels much
the same as the linear however the gradients of it are
remarkably different. The scratch-fader feature very steep
gradients at each end to the slider with both decks being at
full volume right throughout the centre of travel. This
configuration allows for easier scratch mixing as it allows one
deck to be switched from minimum to maximum volume with a
simple flick of the fader rather than complete movement from
extreem ends to the centre.
In 1978 an Australian company introduced the first sampling
machine, the Fairlight CMI. This machine was revolutionary with
the ability to record a sound (any sound), analyse it and allow
the operator to play the sample back at any tone on it's
built-in full width keyboard.
Suddenly DJs (who could afford one) had a new device which made
the process of sampling records a much less labour intensive
task. Many Artists who embraced the Fairlight CMI right from
the start include Afrika Bambaataa, Herbie Hancock, .......
With the advent of sampling machines, sampling soon grew from
simple looping of breakdowns to taking pieces from many
different songs and pasting them together in clever ways to
create not just rhythm sections but full melodies as well.
One more new product that was extensively used by DJ's was
Roland's TR808 drum machine. Introduced in 1981 to replace the
companies previous drum machine, the CR-78, the TR808 was a
fully analogue drum synthesizer with a built in sequencer. The
sequencer was the only part of the machine that included
The TR808's electronics were simple
oscillators comprising of just transistors, capacitors,
ressitors, etc. It contained no specialised components. With
the exception of the sequencer circuit, everything inside the
TR808 were common passive components that could be bought quite
cheaply over the counter at your local Radio Shack any day of
the week. Such simplicity has inspired many electronic hobbyst
to attempt to clone the curcuitry (including myself). Circuit
diagrams are easily found on the internet.
After reading the above review you may be thinking that the
TR808 is a useless machine that sounds nothing like what a drum
kit should sound like and is only suitable for use as a kids
toy. This is entirely true. However, hip hop producers embraced
the machine and all involved fell in love with it. Especially
for its particularly strong kick drum which could get a
subwoofer really pumping.
Strangely enough, no other genre of music used the TR808
very much. Other forms of '80s and '90s dance music usually
used the later drum machine from Roland, the TR909. The 909 was
quite similar to the 808 but with a punchier kick drum. Also
the TR909's hi-hats, ride and crash cybals differed from the
TR808 in that these sounds were actually digital samples stored
on ROM chips rathar than being synthesized by analogue curcuits
like the 808.
Such is the popularity of the machine that a much used 25 year
old TR808 can still pull prices over the US$1000 mark. They
often show up for sale on ebay with massive amounts of interest
shown by potential buyers.