Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer

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When the Beat Dropped


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Many of the 10.000 TR-909s produced by the Japanese Audio Manufacturing company Roland in 1983 found their first home in the post-industrial Motor City of Detroit. ‘First wave’ DJs like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Jeff Mills replicated the sounds of machinery in the factories and used machines such as the TR-909 to layer these sounds into a formidable beat. Arguably, the aesthetic of Detroit’s run down, abandoned buildings and factories inspired the grimy, alien and industrial sounds produced by DJs.

Detroit’s legacy is twofold. First it was an economic powerhouse and home to a booming automobile industry. However, after the recession in the 1950s, Detroit’s auto industry collapsed due to rising automation, leaving many unemployed workers with nothing. Yet, from this nothing came Detroit’s new legacy: a booming music industry. Blues, jazz, R&B and, of course, techno flourished in Detroit. It is essential to understand the racial segregation in Detroit at this point as the recession had hit black communities the hardest. After the 1950 recession, over 70% of Detroit’s white population fled to the suburbs and took the money and jobs with them in what was known as the ‘White Flight’ [Clotfelter 1976]. Alongside the Jim Crow laws and redlining, the black population was neglected by the American government. In turn, the popular electronic club scene offered black people a place to escape the harsh realities of the outside world. This was especially true for gay communities of color. [].

The role of the TR-909 was in creating this sound that was unknown to anyone else at the time, something so daring and unifying for the black community that it became a music of protest against their socio-economic circumstances as a result of a system that was structured against them. The word ‘techno’ was first coined by Juan Atkins, also known as ‘the initiator’, after reading Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book The Third Wave. In this work, Toffler describes the system of Technocracy in which elites and the working class are separated by a technological divide that allows the former to control the latter. Atkins saw the similarities to the system that Detroit’s black population was living in. Rather than accepting this, he sought to use technology against technocracy and became, as Toffler puts it, a ‘techno-rebel’. [Factmag]