Sly Stone, the Original Rhythm King

The first crew to use a drum machine was Stone Flower—new retrospective reveals remarkable beats

A few months back, I was DJing with a friend and he slapped on a funk 7-inch I hadn’t heard before. The beat was eerie, with tinny hi-hats and a snare that somehow sounded both punchy and hollow. Most of all, the syncopation was unerringly mechanical and made for a strange contrast to the organic feel of the bassline. I craned my neck over to trainspot the record, and while I didn’t instantly recognize the artist—a group named 6IX—when I saw the label, it all made sense:

Prod. by Sly Stone for Stone Flower Productions, Inc

Rewind to the late 1960s. Sly and the Family Stone were in-between albums. The group had their first taste of major success with 1969’s Stand! and by 1971, they’d be ready to unleash their epochal There’s a Riot Goin’ On upon the world. Even for casual fans, it was obvious that something profound changed for the group between those two releases. Their hits from ’68 and ’69 such as “Dance to the Music” and “Everyday People,” were bright and exuberant, serving up pop-driven blends of up-tempo, Motown backbeats and San Francisco psychedelic rock riffs. When There’s a Riot Goin’ On touched down, that sunny cheer had turned dark and dystopian, heavy and stoned out. From the outside, that shift may have seemed abrupt but Sly had been dropping hints about this impending change, all via Stone Flower.

I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969–70 includes the songs of the label’s original 45s, plus ten previously-unreleased cuts from the archives, remastered from the original tapes

Stone Flower was originally a production outfit created by Sly and his manager David Kapralik, but it quickly became the name for Sly’s independent label as well. Normally, artists start with a small, self-directed label and then try to find their way to a major. But Stone was headed the other way. As the new anthology, I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969–70 chronicles, the label’s commercial output added up to only a handful of releases split between a meager three acts. However, it was during the Stone Flower era that Stone was tinkering with musical ideas that would evolve into Riot’s muddy, murky funk.

Key to that sonic transformation was the device that I heard on that 6IX single: a Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 drum machine (featured in a great Cuepoint piece about the history of the drum machine in pop music, which identifies Sly Stone as the first pop musician to use one on an album).

The story behind Sly’s adoption of this primitive beat box falls along the blurred border between “just believable” and “probably apocryphal.” It’s no secret that by the late 1960s, Stone’s behavior was becoming more erratic, especially at a time when his drug consumption was becoming legendary. As the story goes, other members of the group began to chafe, including drummer Greg Errico. When the drummer stopped taking Stone’s calls, the bandleader fell upon the MRK-2 as a surrogate.

Sly and the Family Stone. L-R (back): Larry Graham, Gregg Errico, Freddie Stone, Cynthia Robinson; (front): Rose Stone, Sly Stone, Jerry Martini

Given how ubiquitous drum machines are to today’s pop music, it’s easy to forget that the early models from the 1960s were almost never intended for use on studio recordings. As Joe Mansfield documents in his book Beatbox: A Drum Machine Obsession, drum machines were originally created to accompany live organists or other musicians. As they miniaturized, they also became appealing for songwriters who needed a beat to write to.

In essence, drum machines were glorified metronomes, but within their sonic character, Stone began to hear new possibilities. With their weirdly burbling toms and anemic snares, the Rhythm King’s sounds don’t resemble “real” drums. The Latin preset rhythms, which fascinated Stone, felt woozy and off-kilter. Here was an unexpected foundation to an emergent funk aesthetic that Stone would eventually share globally on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but Stone Flower is where he first got to experiment.

Many of the Stone Flower recordings sound more like demo tapes that somehow got leaked onto 7-inches. For example, the song I heard at that gig was 6IX’s “I’m Just Like You,” ostensibly recorded by the group in late 1970. In reality, the side was practically all Sly, with only 6IX vocalist Chuck Higgins and harmonica player Marvin Braxton participating. “I’m Just Like You” puts the Rhythm King’s mechanical bumps and thumps high in the mix, shadowed by Stone’s bass overdubs. The whole affair feels muddled and decayed. When Higgins comes in on vocals, he’s so close to the mic, it’s like he’s swallowing it. The song has little in terms of commercial panache, yet it’s completely mesmerizing thanks to a slippery funk set against the MRK-2’s staccato rigidity.

Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2

The Rhythm King didn’t appear on every Stone Flower production but it played a prominent role on most of them. For “Stanga,” a single by the all-female trio Little Sister (which included Stone’s actual sister), the machine runs double-time against the bass line, pulling the listener between competing tempos. The MRK-2’s also lurking in the background of the previously-unreleased demo version of “Just Like a Baby,” where Sly and his brother Freddie purposefully sing the hook slightly off-beat, with each voice slurring across the other. The final version of the song that appears on Riot leaves off the drum machine and it’s more sparse and lumbering. This demo version on I’m Just Like You feels fresher, more playful by comparison.

Several of the tracks, including “Just Like a Baby,” and “Africa,” would evolve into Family Stone songs on later albums and in general, much of I’m Just Like You feels like a warm-up session for ideas that would find their eventual completion later, many on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. You’d expect that with such a hit album, Sly would have been the one to inaugurate the era of the drum machine, but surprisingly that sea-change didn’t happen then.

In hindsight, major evolutions in the technology of music-making feel like they happen overnight, but in reality those shifts stumble along in fits and starts. Cher debuted the “Auto-Tuned voice” in 1998 but it took over half a decade to catch on with R&B singers/producers like T-Pain and Akon. Likewise, though Sly Stone used the Rhythm King to gird the Family Stone’s biggest hit, 1971’s “Family Affair,” there wasn’t a rush by other artists to adopt the drum machine as a production tool. Outside a few prominent exceptions in the early-to-mid ‘70s such as Timmy Thomas and Stevie Wonder, the drum machine’s true rise wasn’t until the early 1980s when pop, new wave, R&B and hip-hop acts began to explore the device’s broader potential. By that time, Sly Stone’s career had all but disintegrated and the Stone Flower records were, at best, collector curios.

Thinking of the songs on this anthology as ideas-in-formation is certainly one compelling way to approach them. However, it would be a mistake to only treat the Stone Flower songs as bridges rather than unique recordings with their own identity and merits. Stone had discovered something about the drum machine that few had truly heard before: a potential for a new kind of sound, an unsettling, alien percussive presence that resonated with an artist who already seemed to dwell in his own dimension. Either way, Stone Flower represents more than just a missing link between hit albums. Listening to its output is like secretly eavesdropping into the noisy, confounding and exhilarating process of creativity itself.

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Follow Oliver Wang on Twitter @soulsidescom.
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