Given that electronic music has plenty of heroes, it often comes as a surprise when someone willfully shuns any sort of attention. Not that this is anything new — take Detroit's famously enigmatic Underground Resistance clan, for instance — but most of the time, even the staunchly “anonymous” reach legendary status. How odd, then, that nearly 20 years after the Roland TB-303 first hit the market, its creator, who also crafted the TR-909, is far from a household name. Tadao Kikumoto, the senior managing director at Roland headquarters in Japan, created the equipment upon which modern electronica is built, yet he utters nary a word about it.
The TR-909, released in 1983, was heir to a great legacy of drum machines but sadly outdated by the time it made its debut; the 303 has a similarly turbulent story. Designed to mimic the bass guitar and ostensibly substitute for a live bassist during performance, the 303's sprawling interface and cryptic programming language prevented musicians from smoothly integrating it into their existing setups. Thus, after less than two years, Roland pulled the TB-303 from production, and a good number wound up in thrift stores, pawn shops and dusty basements around the world.
Being such cheap, easy-to-find cast-offs made the machines appealing alternatives for cash-strapped musicians. When Kevin Saunderson first heard the 909, courtesy of Derrick May, in 1984, he was fairly stunned. “It was easy to incorporate the 909 and 303 [which he encountered in 1988] into my music,” he remarks. “They both had very unique sounds that were very warm but also kind of dirty. The 909 had the perfect kick, and the 303 was robotnick and very mental and melodic-sounding.”
One trio of friends collectively identified as Phuture (Spanky, Herbert J and DJ Pierre) stumbled upon the 303 circa 1985 and effectively changed the course of dance music by pioneering a searing, intense new sound: acid. “I went over to [Spanky's] house, and he had a track playing with this crazy sound on it,” Pierre recalls. “He didn't exactly know how to work it, but he liked the sound it was putting out. I agreed and proceeded to mess around with the knobs and stuff. We made a tape of it that day and got it right away to Ron Hardy.” That tape, dubbed Acid Trax, ignited a spark that set the burgeoning house community alight. Hardy adopted the sound, and soon artists such as 808 State, Humanoid (who later formed FSOL) and Hard-floor began churning out acid tracks at an alarming rate.
To this day, both machines are prized pieces of the most envied studios, counting contemporary artists like Josh Wink, Laurent Garnier and Jeff Mills as fans. Richie Hawtin regards the equipment as “cheap toys to make a soundtrack for a generation,” and the hard-working Atomic Babies duo still uses them in its live shows. “There is no substitute for these sounds at all,” claims Joey Jupiter of Atomic Babies. “We lug these machines around as not only a labor of love but as a carpenter would his hammer. There are alternates, second string players, but there are no equals!”
Perhaps it's better that Kikumoto remain silent about the whole thing. According to Jim Norman, product specialist at Roland U.S., Kikumoto is fully aware of the products' cult status but prefers to focus attention on his current projects. DJ Pierre seems to empathize with Kikumoto: “We don't use [the machines] how he intended them to be used. It was his work of art, and we degraded it with this new weird, high-tech-influenced music!”