Owning an E-mu SP-1200 sampler/drum machine was Canadian turntablist Kid Koala's teenage dream. Released in 1987, just a year before Koala (a.k.a. Eric San) started DJing, the SP-1200 pretty much defined the sound of hip-hop's golden age. Everyone from Public Enemy to Gang Starr to the Beastie Boys expertly deployed beats crafted on the machine, making the SP-1200 San's ideal sonic weapon. But at around $5,000, San was totally priced out of owning one himself, and he was forced to shelve his dream of working with it for many years to come. 12 Bit Blues, his fourth solo LP, is the sound of that dream becoming a reality.
Only recently, more than two decades after he got into DJing, was Kid Koala finally able to obtain the mythical machine. Still thrilled by its gritty, 12-bit sound, San decided to create his new album around the SP-1200, working with its limitations—such as only having slightly more than 10 seconds of sampling time—to produce something of a tribute to the famed device, an aptly titled patchwork of stripped-down vintage blues samples and classic Koala scratching.
Split between heartbreaking slow burners and funky, uptempo party tunes, it's an odd mix of beats and tones. San doesn't dwell on any one sound for too long; as soon as you think you catch a few lines from a B.B. King song, they're gone, and it's on to the next cameo from a blues master. The sheer technical skill behind 12 Bit Blues is impressive, too. No sequencer was used—the entire thing was recorded in real time with pads and a multi-track, leaving San to juggle a huge amount of source material with his own added beats and cuts. He does so with great sensitivity to the music he's drawing from—it's almost exclusively slices of old blues giants, though there are old airplane announcements and other odd clips throughout—but still manages to make new sounds that are distinctly his own, marked by tasteful scratching and clever juxtapositions. Even more impressive, the whole record was in the can after only three days.
That said, the album has a couple of issues. The vocal stutter and echoes on "7 Bit Blues" are irritating, with little to no payoff for sitting through the song. "10 Bit Blues," a hodgepodge of awkward conversation clips, isn't in itself problematic, but it's a bit out of place sandwiched between warbling instrumental "9 Bit Blues" and dizzying piano piece "11 Bit Blues." On the whole though, 12 Bit Blues is an enjoyable record and an exciting addition to Kid Koala's catalog.