The Dirty Heartbeat of the Golden Age


In the summer of 1987, E-mu Systems released the SP-1200, a drum machine and sampler designed for dance-music producers. An update of a previous model known as the SP-12, the souped-up edition allowed for the recording and manipulation of a 10.07-second sample with gritty 12-bit sound quality—now you could craft a complete instrumental on one portable machine.

Just as the Stradivarius or the Fender Stratocaster were standard-bearers by which other instruments were judged, the SP-1200 quickly became the tool of choice for East Coast beat-makers during rap’s so-called “Golden Age,” a period during the late ’80s and early ’90s, when sampling laws were still being meted out in courtrooms. Such artists as Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Gang Starr, Main Source, and the Notorious B.I.G. created classic joints over beats concocted on the SP-1200. The machine rose to such prominence that its strengths and weaknesses sculpted an entire era of music: The crunchy digitized drums, choppy segmented samples, and murky filtered basslines that characterize the vintage New York sound are all mechanisms of the machine.

Long ago toppled by more powerful equipment and computer-based production programs, the sampler continues to inspire enough cultish devotion that any prospective knob-twister still must shell out around $1,000 to go retro. We spoke with several of hip-hop’s must celebrated veteran producers about their experiences with the SP-1200 over the last 20 years.

The Cast

Hank Shocklee Part of the Bomb Squad and producer for Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and Slick Rick.

Lord Finesse Producer for the Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, and Big L.

Pete Rock Recording artist with CL Smooth and producer for Heavy D, Nas, Das EFX, and House of Pain.

Ski Producer for Jay-Z, Camp Lo, and Sporty Thievz.

The Learning Curve

Pete Rock When I first got the SP-1200—I think that was back in ’87—I was going to sessions with my cousin Heavy D, and he was working with Marley Marl. I would just be looking around and looking at the stuff they had and looking at what he was doing. Eddie F had the drum machine, and he showed me how to work it. I basically studied the manual—read it beginning to end and learned it like that. I used it all day, every day. I never came outside—just woke up happy to have a piece of machinery that made music. I didn’t give a damn about anything else once I got that drum machine.

Ski The strength of the SP was definitely the way the 12-bit sounded when you threw the sample or the snare or the kick in there—it just sounded so dirty. It was a definite, definite fucking plus with the machine. The limited sampling time made you become more creative. That’s how a lot of producers learned how to chop the samples: We didn’t have no time, so we had to figure out ways to stretch the sounds and make it all mesh together. We basically made musical collages just by chopping little bits and notes.

Hank Shocklee There’s little tricks that were developed on it. For example, you got 12 seconds [10.07, according to the manufacturer] of sample time to divide amongst eight pads. So depending on how much you use on each pad, you decrease the amount of sample time that you have. You take a 33 1/3 record and play it on 45, and you cheat the system. [Another] aspect that we created is out of a mistake—one day I was playing “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and it came out real muffled. I couldn’t hear any of the high-end part of it. I found out that if you put the phono or quarter-inch jack halfway in, it filters the high frequency. Now I just got the bass part of the sample. I was like, “Oh, shit, this is the craziest thing on the planet!”

The Machine and the Masters

Lord Finesse They had me as a special guest on Stretch and Bobbito, one of the popular radio shows of the ’90s. I thought it would be slick if I brought my 1200 down. A lot of producers did total beats with their 1200, and I think I did two or three, and one specifically was when I chopped up Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” I chopped all around his voice using the 1200 and put an instrumental in the back. I played it over the air, and me and KRS-One freestyled over it. It was real slick.

Ski People said they never saw anyone work the SP as fast as me and Large Professor— not that it means anything. It’s crazy. I can’t explain it—it’s like the shit is programmed in my brain. I worked with Jay-Z and did all of Reasonable Doubt on the SP-1200. For “Dead Presidents,” everything was made on the SP, man: the whole sequence, the drum sounds, the Nas sample. The only thing that wasn’t done on the SP was the sample, [but] I ran it through it to give it that sound.

Pete Rock Everything that you ever heard from me back in the day was the SP-1200. That machine made “Reminisce” [“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”], “Straighten It Out,” “Shut ‘Em Down,” “Jump Around.” When I made “Reminisce”—I had friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can’t believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.

An End of an Era

Pete Rock I used the MPC [a technologically superior sampler line first introduced in 1988] on Soul Survivor II. That was kind of the beginning of using it. I thought it had a thinner sound than the SP, but it had way more sample time—like three minutes. So, can’t beat that. I got hundreds of beats on the SP-1200, but I like the MPC. I’m really starting to get in the midst of it now.

Hank Shocklee They’ve mastered the computer to the point it does things the SP-1200 can’t do. [But] we would have better records today if people said, “Look, you’ve got five hours to make a record.” The problem is that people got all day. They got all week. They got all month. They got all year. So thus, you in there second-guessing yourself. With the 1200, you can’t second-guess yourself, man. You got 2.5 seconds a pad, man. . . . Till this day, nobody has understood and created a machine that can best it.