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Hip-hop veteran celebrates allure of drum machines with new book

Joe Mansfield surrounded by his drum machine collection at his office in Malden.

Jonathan.Wiggs /GLOBE STAFF

Joe Mansfield surrounded by his drum machine collection at his office in Malden.

Joe Mansfield’s collection of drum machines has been photographed for a new coffee table book, “Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession.”

Jonathan Wiggs/GLOBE STAFF

Joe Mansfield’s collection of drum machines has been photographed for a new coffee table book, “Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession.”

The photographer thought it might be fun to blow up one of his subjects. When Gary Land agreed to shoot Joe Mansfield’s collection of vintage drum machines for their collaborative book project, Land suggested they dynamite a Roland TR-808 and photograph the results.

Forget it, Mansfield said. Never mind that the classic 1980 beatbox, heard on countless hits from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” on, can sell for thousands of dollars per unit today. Mansfield simply couldn’t bear to watch a drum machine — any drum machine — be blown to smithereens.

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The collector, who is the majority owner of the boutique record label Get On Down and its affiliated distribution business, Traffic Entertainment Group, has amassed what has to be one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of classic drum machines. His hoard of about 150 machines covers the simulated gamut, from the canned cha-cha and bossa nova rhythms of consoles designed in the 1960s to the thumping beats and chintzy handclaps of 1980s staples such as the Oberheim DMX and the E-Mu Drumulator.

Long determined to showcase his collection in a coffee table-style book that would appeal equally to hip-hop heads and thrift-store junkies, Mansfield is finally set to beat the drum for the finished product, “Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession.” On Saturday he’ll host a book release party at Fourth Wall Project. A deluxe boxed edition of the book will be available on Back to Black Friday (Nov. 29), the music fanatics’ version of the shopping-spree day after Thanksgiving, brought to you by the people behind Record Store Day.

Mansfield, 45, says he first became fixated on the sound of drum machines when he found the Sly and the Family Stone album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” in his mother’s record collection while growing up in Medford. Her tastes leaned more toward the rock and folk music of the time: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cat Stevens. But the tinny syncopation of the Maestro Rhythm King, as Mansfield would later identify the machine, captivated the boy’s imagination.

“I knew it sounded different,” he recalls, standing amid shelves neatly lined with his prized beatboxes in the brick-walled offices of his business, located in an old factory in Malden where they used to make Monopoly money, he says. “I don’t know if it stood out to people like it did to me.” To coincide with the publication of “Beat Box,” Get On Down recently produced a limited edition boxed reissue of the Sly Stone album, one of the first commercially successful releases to feature a drum machine.

Mansfield refined his ear for the beatbox in the early ’80s, when he started DJing with extended-play 12-inch singles. When he got excited about the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight,” a rock ’n’ roll kid in the apartment next door scoffed.

“That’s terrible. That’s disco,” said the kid, “a huge Kiss guy who dressed like Gene Simmons.”

That only made Mansfield, by then a full-grown gentle giant, more enthusiastic than ever about the new music that was so heavily rooted in the sound of synthetic beats. By the early ’90s Mansfield was a fixture on Boston’s hip-hop underground, producing tracks for Edo G. (then Ed O.G.)’s first two albums, including the aptly titled hit “I Got to Have It.”

While on a record-hunting excursion to Detroit, Mansfield stumbled across a Wurlitzer Side Man, the first home-use drum machine, introduced in 1959. Looking more like a veneered night table that might have a secret bar inside than a beatbox, the thing was gathering dust in a junk store. Mansfield bought it for $25, if he recalls correctly: “It cost me four times that to ship it back home.”

As a producer, he already owned a classic 808, but the discovery of the Side Man helped spark what has become a true infatuation, as the book makes clear. He started searching for records by forgotten acts like Timmy Thomas and the ultra-obscure Simtec Simmons and scrutinizing liner notes to learn which songs used which machines (Herbie Hancock’s crossover hit “Rockit,” for instance, featured an Oberheim DMX).

By the time he began talking about publishing a book, his basement was stacked with machines of all shapes (well, mostly quadrilateral) and sizes. Traffic was then located on an industrial block in Quincy, and when Mansfield told a new neighbor, the photographer Land, about his idea, they quickly decided to work together.

“It was definitely a no-brainer for me,” says Land, an accomplished commercial photographer who collects vintage rayguns: “I understand what it’s like to be a passionate collector of weird stuff.”

Land has made his living photographing star athletes and other celebrities for promotional campaigns; his portraits of Red Sox players just ran as promos during Fox’s World Series broadcasts. Growing up in Virginia Beach (where, he says, he hung out with a young Pharrell Williams), he got his start working in the world of skateboarding and snowboarding. He once shot the legendary rapper Rakim, sitting on a big boombox, for a Reebok campaign.

“That was a moment of being starstruck,” he says. “He was huge for me.”

For “Beat Box,” Land used dramatic lighting and shadows to give each instrument its own allure. “Some product stuff can be pretty simple,” he says. “I think what we did came out very dynamic.”

Reproducing schematics, record labels,
pages from old manuals and ads and more, the book makes Mansfield’s obsession contagious. It’s a prime example of the mission at Get On Down, which specializes in high-concept, limited-run reissues with unique packaging that bring back the tactile appeal of record collecting.

“On the digital music scene, the art of the visual is going by the wayside,” says Mansfield. With “Beat Box,” Mansfield wants to bring that beat back.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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