How Egyptian Lover charmed the 808

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings true to nobody more than it does to Greg Broussard, the Los Angeles-born electro musician better known as Egyptian Lover.

From the early 1980s, Egyptian Lover has pretty much kept things the same: same records, same beats, same blueprint and the same globetrotting, fun-loving spirit that encourages the freaks to come out and play.

A key player in the Eighties LA electro scene and an influencer of the Miami bass/booty sound, Egyptian Lover bears testament to the timeless futurism buried beneath the apparent simplicity of the 808 drum machine. In this interview, he speaks about its significance in the history of his career and music in general.

Can you remember the first time you came across an 808 drum machine?

The very first time I ever knew a drum machine existed was when a friend of mine named Afrika Islam told me about it. The next day we went down to the Guitar Centre and I saw one, and one of the employees helped me program a beat on it, and man, I fell in love with every sound in there: the kick drums, the snares, the claps, the hi-hats, the rim shots.

I started changing the beats. It sounded like a record already. It sounded so good, and everybody at the Guitar Centre started crowding around me and were like, wow, this guy just changed this beat and it sounds really, really good. I had to have it, so I bought it, and about two weeks later I was sitting at home, just filling it with different beats and programming different beats inside of it.

I brought it to my next party, which was at the LA Sports Arena with 10 000 people. I played the drum machine while mixing in a record and they didn’t know it was a drum machine and I was kinda scared, like, I don’t know if they are going to dance to a drum machine or not. So while I was playing people were asking me what record it was that I was playing. I knew I had them, and that was the beginning of me and the 808.

What do you think is the 808’s place in music history?

In electro and the beginning of hip-hop, what was important was the sound of it. It didn’t sound like any other drummer or any other real drums. It had a toyish kind of sound, which became the club sound. It sounds futuristic to this day when I play it at my parties. The kids still love it and they still party to it. It’s just a wonderful thing.

What do you think makes it timeless?

It’s just the very sound of it. Because it is limited in the sounds used, you use the sounds differently. I can go into the studio and use reverb to it, it just depends on how you program it. The way I program it is purely connected to dance. When I go to the studio I have it pumped up loud, so I can hear what it’s going to sound like in the club, or what it’s going to sound like in the festival. I program the beats very loud so that I can hear the kick and the snare together. The rim shots and the claps, you can put one in the left speaker and one in the right speaker and change it up a little bit and add some times to it. I love the sound of it, and the patterns can be just endless.

Do you think an LA sound evolved differently to what was happening on the East Coast, in terms of electro and hip-hop?

I think LA was starting to have its own sound of hip-hop when I got out of high school, like 1981. I met Mixmaster Spade, who was doing what we called street rap at the time and I met Ice-T. He was also doing the same thing: street rap. I had a cassette tape I was selling that had some street rap on it. Then I heard Afrika Bambaataa, I knew that he had got his sound from the Kraftwerk sound and that was the sound that I really, really loved. So I was like, you know what, I really need to do a record like that [Planet Rock]. Afrika Bambaataa really inspired me to take it to another level and come up with what I call the Egyptian Lover sound.

So I took the chant style of rap from Prince and Afrika Bambaataa beats from Kraftwerk and melded those together to form the Egyptian Lover sound. And that sound started happening in LA and becoming more and more popular than the underground street rap sound, and eventually the street rap sound became popular with [hip-hop group] NWA.

As part of the Red Bull Music Festival, which is taking place at various venues in Johannesburg until April 8, Egyptian Lover will play on April 6 from 9pm at And Club, Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown, alongside French electroclash producer The Hacker. Tickets are R80 at the door

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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