“When you feel it, it wraps itself around you…” Frankie Knuckles on the devastating impact of the Roland TR-909

Today, 9 September, marks ‘909 Day’ – an annual opportunity to commemorate the impact that the Roland TR-909 has had on electronic music – this site, for example, would likely be called something entirely different if it weren’t for Japanese engineer Tadao Kikumoto’s creation.

While it played a key role in the development of house and techno music, the fabled ‘Rhythm Composer’ didn’t set the world alight on its release in 1983 – by the time Chicago’s DJ Pierre was formulating early acid house a couple of years later, it had largely ‘run its course’, at least in the eyes of the manufacturers.

“I first came across a 909 from hearing the raw energy of the drums in the tracks Ron [Hardy] was playing at the Music Box,” Pierre told Red Bull Music Academy in 2016. “It made me want to get a drum machine. I was always told ‘get a 909.’ I didn’t know what it looked like, but I knew it was the most raw drum machine I’d ever heard.”

Indeed, Pierre goes on to say that such was the rarity of the 909 at the time, that those who had one would inevitably share it with their music-producing peers.

“You might use other drum machines to create the track, but once you got in the studio, you would replace it with a 909,” he explained. “The other thing was that drum machines would travel around Chicago. Since very few people could afford one, they would get loaned out. It would go from one house to the next.”

Vintage ad for the Roland TR-909 [source: retrosynthads.blogspot.com]

For legendary producer Frankie Knuckles (RIP), however, his first 909 came courtesy of Detroit techno wizard Derrick May – and as he put it in a 2014 interview, he “had been in love with [the 909] ever since”.

“It’s at the foundation of what I do  […] especially when it comes to the foundation of the bottom end – you know, the kick and the bassline and stuff like that, and how they work,” Knuckles explained.

“My theory is that it should be felt and not heard. […] I found that for me in house music, especially when you are on a big dancefloor, in a big room, on a beautiful soundsystem, when you ‘feel’ that bass come at you, versus ‘hear’ it come at you, it’s a big difference.

“When you feel it, it wraps itself around you, and it hugs you. I’ve watched it do some pretty amazing things to people on the dancefloor.”

You can watch the full interview below. Happy 909 Day everybody! 🙂

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