So far in our series covering the history of music’s most important electronic instruments, we’ve looked at the Minimoog, the Roland TR-909, the Roland TR-808, The Roland TB-303, and the Yamaha DX7 – all crucial to the development of House music and Techno. Now it’s time to take a look at an instrument which helped Hip-Hop come of age: the Akai Music Production Controller.
The MPC line is actually a series of samplers, from the original MPC60 to the most recent MPC Studio. As a sampler, the instrument’s core function is to store and play recorded samples in a user-programmed sequence.
Over time, producers have utilised this function in both straightforward and experimental ways, giving us some of our favourite songs in the process. And it all started when established Japanese consumer electronics brand teamed up with American drum machine designer Roger Linn.
Akai had made electronic instruments before, but it wasn’t until the firm teamed up with Linn that it struck gold. Linn had a great track record in the industry as the brains behind his eponymous Linn LM-1 and LinnDrum Drum machines from the early 80s.
Unlike synth-based drum machines like Roland’s 808s and 909s, Linn’s models used sound samples of real drums which users could erase and rerecord with their own drum kit. Because of this the LinnDrum became popular with drummers, such as Prince and Phil Collins, who relished the chance to modify their playing.
When Linn teamed up with Akai in 1991, creating a sampler-based drum machine was a natural move. Linn and Akai enlisted English engineer David Cockerell to help with the electronics, and the final product was the MPC60.
It had 16 pads, 13.1 seconds of sampling memory (upgradable to 26.2), and 128 sounds pre-loaded in its memory bank. Users could create and loop MIDI drum patterns, or they could tap the pads with their fingertips to trigger the sounds live.
In 1994 Akai released the MPC60’s successor, the MPC3000. Built in collaboration with Linn again, the instrument had more memory, better effects and more complex MIDI functionality.
After the MPC3000, Akai broke off ties with Linn. Linn says they wanted to avoid his royalty fees. Whatever the reason, the company kept pushing forward without him, building on the template they established together, and throughout the 90s and 00s they released the MPC2000, MPC4000, MPC2500, MPC1000, MPC500 and MPC5000. All of these instruments were variations on the original MPC60, it was only with the firm’s next model that they deviated from the formula.
With the popularity of home computers now undisputable, Akai created the MPC Renaissance and MPC Studio, both of which relied on external PC or Mac software to work.
Initially the MPC60 was used for its original purpose – to program drums. Slick Rick’s music, for example, is full of MPC sample patterns. But the history of electronic instruments is the history of innovative producers finding unique way to play them. Although the instrument was intended as a simple drum machine, it found success being used for far more than drum sounds.
What the MPC60 actually did was allow producers of sample-heavy music to become even more creative with their art. In Hip-Hop, productions by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang used samples of other songs, but without a versatile sampling instrument to chop them up and reorder them, longer sample loops were the norm.
MPCs allowed producers to approach sampling in an entirely new way. Rather than create simple drum loops, producers used MPCs to store clips of songs and sequence or play them back.
The experimental capabilities of the MPC are best displayed in the work of legendary Hip-Hop producer J Dilla, who combined manually entered drum patterns with Soul loops and stretched high pitched sound snippets out over entire songs, creating dreamy atmospheres.
DJ Shadow is another producer whose MPC usage changed the way musicians and listeners approach electronic music. His Endtroducing… album is a masterclass in MPC mashup.
MPCs have been used on more popular tracks too. G-Funk pioneer Dr Dre used MPC3000s for many of his solo productions. And Just Blaze’s MPC productions are all over the biggest R&B and Hip-Hop tracks of the 2000s, from Jay-Z to Kanye West.
A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip is such a fan of MPCs that he named his second solo album, The Renaissance, after one of Akai’s most recent machines. The cover even pictures him holding one up in front of his face.
Clearly, the MPC has become an inseparable part of Hip-Hop history, taking the genre to new heights, and treating listeners to brand new unique soundscapes, the likes of which we would have never heard without it.