My Precious: The History of The Akai MPC

The sampler nears a quarter of a century of producer gold
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At the risk of retreading an old argument to which there is rarely a definitive answer, who historically is the most significant trailblazer in hip-hop: Grandmaster Flash? Kool DJ Herc? Grandwizard Theodore? Soulja Boy Tell’Em? How about Roger Linn? Wait, who was that last one again?

Roger Linn is the man pivotal to one of hip-hop’s most definitive bits of studio kit, the Akai MPC: the sampler behind some of rap’s greatest albums and breeding ground for would-be producers to become world beaters. He gets Jehst’s vote anyway. “The MPC60 is right up there with the SP-12/1200 as a cornerstone of hip-hop production,” says one of the UK’s rarely bested beatsmiths. “It’s the next step in the evolution of the sound after the TR-808, TR-909 and DMX; classic drum machines of the early hip-hop/ electro era. In fact, props to Roger Linn for giving us the Linndrum and the original MPC - that dude needs to be up on the hip-hop Hall of Fame for real!”

The Music (previously MIDI) Production Center is both immovable object and irresistible force. Sampling’s grand-daddy DJ Shadow recently released ‘Total Breakdown’, a new archiving of his historical MPC feeds, having rewritten the rulebook (or by his own admission, paid very close attention to the user manual) on the mind-blowing marriage to machinery that is of course ‘Endtroducing’. Micall Parknsun’s upcoming ‘Me Myself And Akai’ is an album on a strictly oneman-and-his-favouriteapparatus proviso.

YouTube Yamin Semali from Clan Destined’s ‘Never Leave’, and you will find how close the  MPC remains to hip-hop’s  bosom. While not quite on a par with Cristal or Lexus for hip-hop quotable, it’s a fairly regular entry in the rhymer’s dictionary. Q-Tip can be found hiding behind one on the cover of ‘The Renaissance’ album, and Nottingham’s Cappo, DJ Ivory and Paul S make up the Akai Professionals to spell out their weapon of choice. Further out, Joe Hahn can be seen bashing one in Linkin Park videos, while araabmuzik has demonstrated its live, one-stop-shop shift, playing it like a mixture  of synthesizer and Simon  meets Bop-It. For some, it’s  not even about possibilities or expertise. “The thing I love most about MPCs, mainly the older models, is just how damn functional they look,” offers UK producer Chemo, AKA Telemachus. “No flashing purple lights or full colour displays, just a couple of shades of grey to keep your interest. The fact that they wouldn’t look out of place next to a cheap toaster is what really warms my heart when I look back on my years with my MPC2000.”

“By the time I got the MPC, I was so ready for something new,” says Shadow in an archive interview. “I’d taken the four-track to the limit, doing everything from  putting the tape in on  the other side for reverse loops, to everything I could possibly think of, and there was nothing more for me to do with it. I’d fantasized about the MPC for so long that when I got it, I took it home and I was shaking and sweating. I stayed up all night reading the manual front to back. I had to use it immediately because I was bursting with all these ideas.”

The evolution of clunky-looking behemoth to portable plug and play unit, exploited live by the likes of Kanye West  (showing that today’s synth  fanciers still know how to pay dues), has upgraded itself across increased memory and sample storage, added time-stretch capability, USB accessibility, models that can run on regular batteries, and Windows/Mac compatibility, and now spans a dozen or so incarnations and discontinuations since the MPC60 of 1988 - evolution that would earn Linn a Grammy Award for Lifetime Technical Achievement (in context, Leo ‘Stratocaster’ Fender is another incumbent). Aaron Thomason, AKA 2econd Class Citizen, admits to a common problem where he “owned a MPC1000 more for live shows, but it’s probably not the best one to talk about because it basically fell apart slowly on me and I was constantly replacing the pads!” A-list producer Just Blaze took to his online blog and got his best Watchdog on to have a lengthy pop at the operating system of the MPC5000, in an  open letter to Akai reeling off a host of bugs and  oversights. Nonetheless it has gone from transitional  industry item to indispensible, thumpable, all-in-one Holy Grail, making musicians out of those loath to pick up ‘proper’ instruments. “I was building all of  my beats on an old Atari ST with Cubase,” Jehst continues, “midi-ed up to a couple of Akai 950s, when Harry Love said to me that I should get an MPC60 and use that to sequence and trigger the 950s. That way I’d trust my ears more and not rely on a visual representation of the musical sequence. I’ve never turned back since!”

Words: Matt Oliver

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This is an excerpt from the December 2012 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.

Buy the December 2012 issue of Clash Magazine.

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To accompany this article, check out our MPC MVPs including rhymes from Hi-Tek and Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Pete Rock, Pharoahe Monch, Monsta Island Czars, People Under The Stairs, Black Milk, Sean Price, Artifacts and Redman.

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