"The SP-1200 is the latest member of E-MU's family of high-technology musical instruments. It combines the most popular features of our first drum machine, the Drumulator, along with the Emulator II's sampling capabilities, modular design, and extensive use of display messages. Thanks to 12 bit sound digitizing, the drum sounds have a crispness and dynamic range unattainable with the more common (and inexpensive) 8 bit digitizing technology. Best of all, despite the wide range of functions the SP-1200 is remarkably easy to learn and use. After even a short period of familiarization, creating drum parts becomes second nature. We have made every effort to make the SP-1200's operation as transparent as possible, so that you can get rhythmic ideas from your head into reality in the shortest possible time. You're going to love what the SP-1200 can do. Ready? Let's start."
-- Craig Anderton, SP-1200 Owners [sic] Manual, 1987
Though high-technology musical instruments seem to come and go, the SP seems to have a special place in hip-hop. As the liner notes to Jel's '10 Seconds' (named after the SP's sample time, split into four 2.5 second banks) attest, producers from Mantronix to the Bomb Squad to the RZA have all built classics around the limitations of the outdated machine. Anticon producer Jel, best known for the excellent 'THEM' album from 2000, seems to have passed through his short period of familiarization to put together this remarkable instrumental release.
Unlike DJ Shadow's 'Endtroducing,' which all instrumental hip-hop albums as a rule of law must be compared to, '10 Seconds' does not collect a lush array of instrumental samples and layer them until a new composition arises. Instead, Jel takes a brief glimpse of his surroundings to catch an appropriate background, whether an electric guitar ('15. Define Mix') or a cheering crowd ('23. Special'), over which he lays his masterful drumwork. Two of the last songs, 'Time Signature' and 'Subsong,' seem more fully developed in this respect: the former's fast-paced shouts and horns, funking it up next to the 80s throwback of the main sample, contrast against the slow acoustic guitar and vocal samples of the hazy latter. These two are both closer to Jel's normal production sound, and stand out for it.
But on even the briefest and barest of Jel's rhythmic exercises, there's an endearing charm present. Contrary to what Mr Anderton suggested, the drum sounds do not have a crispness and dynamic range, but a dirtiness and funk that further technology seems to have fazed out. One listen to the second track, '12. Multi Level,' reveals the "ill beats" the DJ at the start speaks of, with a twisting rhythm whose changing pattern evolves over a couple of minutes, echoing out every now and then, like a mission statement for the entire record. Later, '20. Delete Sound' (the song titles are mainly buttons from the drum machine, incidentally) showcases a terribly engrossing loop of sound that you'll swear are being played live, so natural does the beat sound (Jel does often play his SP live, incidentally). Its antithesis, the automated beatbox of '21. 1st Song/Step' - yes, the song titles are awful - achieves the same goal of imitating the live sound, making Jel and the SP-1200's operation as transparent as possible.
Its a rare album that recalls the old school without being self-consciously "retro" - Jurassic 5 anyone? - but Jel manages here to make an album equally at home in 1987 or in 2002. You're going to love what '10 Seconds' can do. Ready?