Pollinating the 303

By Kodwo Eshun, 10 September 1997

Kodwo Eshun on machinic autocatalysis

Are humans now musical creators, collaborators with technology, or no more than bees extracting nectar from the flowers of their samplers? Kodwo Eshun on the autocatalytic properties of music machines.

We might just be insects pollinating machines that do not happen to have their own reproductive organs right now.- Manuel De Landa

Acid just happens to Phuture's DJ Pierre. As Marshall Jefferson recalls, "Acid Tracks was an accident, man. When you get an acid machine you don't pre-program anything. You just hit some notes on a machine, man." The 303 Bassline rhythm composer engineers its own audiomatter, discovers acid on its own, uses DJ Pierre to replicate itself.

Dropout ambushes King Tubby. Reverb ensnares Arkestra musician Tab Hunter. The break surprises Marley Marl. The new soundworlds of hiphop, acid, dub all begin as accidents, as machinic autocatalysis. Sound emerges by itself. Machinery generates a new sound without a human agent. A machinic lifeform emerges from the sampler.

With Marley Marl, we can follow this process of autocatalysis very clearly. "I wanted to sample a voice from off this song with an Emulator and accidentally, a snare went through." New sound emerges as a machine error. Instead of emulating a known sound, the future arrives as a mistake ruled out by the prese. "At first I was like, 'That's the wrong thing,' but the snare was soundin' good. I kept running the track back and hitting the Emulator. Then I looked at the engineer and said, 'You know what this means?!' ".

All at once there's "a sudden multiplication of dimensions of matter" as Virilio declares.

Your record collection becomes an immense time machine that you're building. Marley Marl doesn't discover how to sample the break. Rather the sampler discovers this for itself and then uses Marley Marl as a medium through which to replicate breaks. "I could take any drum sound from any old record, put it in here and get the old drummer sound on some shit. No more of that dull DMX shit."

Soundmachines transvalue taste by rerouting desire. Serious music always wants machinery to emulate an existing sound. The futurist producer, artificialised by technology, starts from the bad new sound, affirms its unmusicality. Following the trail blazed by error, the sampler breeds a new sonic lifeform through its operators.

Kodwo Eshun