The soundtrack of my youth was played on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It’s so much a part of the music I grew up with that my love for it has turned into a lifelong obsession. Still, I was probably nineteen or twenty years old before I knew what it was that I was hearing.
I’m talking about the sounds of psychedelic disorientation you hear on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, or “Summer Madness” by Kool & the Gang. It’s a warm, almost-hypnotic swirling that drifts from right to left and just envelopes you. It’s the distinct sound of 1970s soul music and subsequently, fundamental to the instrumentation of 90s-era hip-hop.
I first heard those sounds on my parents’ records. When I started listening to my own music, when I was around twelve or thirteen, I started getting into groups like Gang Starr and Wu-Tang Clan who were sampling those same records. DJ Premier is one of my biggest musical influences, so much so that I learned to play the piano based on the way he cut up samples. Songs like “Mass Appeal” or “Soliloquy of Chaos” are great examples of how hip-hop incorporated and recontextualized the Rhodes.
Around the time when digital electronics came into play, the Rhodes became less popular, and then they stopped making them altogether in ‘84. The sound’s popularity in pop music waned drastically until about the mid 90s when it started reemerging on records by more experimental bands like Portishead, Massive Attack, or Radiohead (a good example of this is on OK Computer’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien”).
As live instrumentation started making its way back into contemporary Soul and R&B, the Rhodes also saw a renewed popularity among artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, The Roots, and Lauryn Hill. So, as the Rhodes became more ubiquitous in the music I was listening to, I was finally able to identify that sound I’d been chasing all my life. Then I had to figure out how to get my hands on one, but it would be a while before I did.
By my early twenties, I’d been moving around Europe trying to dodge adult responsibilities in a desperate attempt to establish myself in a music scene. (These were the very first days of Algiers.) After living in a different city every year for a period of six years while looking for work and fighting for a visa, I made a decision to come back to the States.
I moved to New York in 2008, started working various part-time jobs, and found an apartment. I finally had the stability I needed to start seriously recording music and looking for gear. After a few years of stalking a Rhodes online (and after a few weeks of not eating) I bought one from a mortuary in St. Louis for about $900. Other than the fact it had been sitting around in a basement for God knows how long, they didn’t have too much in the way of description. I think they just needed to get rid of it, which is usually the case because the only way you can find these things is if the seller doesn’t really know what they have.
When it arrived from UPS there were two massive boxes in the corridor of my apartment building. When I opened the one with the keyboard it was just as beautiful as I imagined, but when I opened the one with the speaker section—the amp that it plays out of—it was completely smashed to bits.
I tried in vain to get the shipping company to pay for the damages but they refused. For the next three years, it lay broken in my apartment until I finally found a place in New Jersey that could fix it for me. Parts are hard to come by and the new cabinet cost about $500, but the wait was finally over and I was able to get into this thing as much as I wanted to. It was worth it.
What I love about my Fender Rhodes, which I’ve named Rhoda, is that it’s an actual electric piano with seventy-three wooden keys. When you open up the insides, you can see all of the mechanics, the little hammers that hit on what’s essentially a xylophone, with a pickup attached to each key. There are also four speakers on the inside, which produce the most magical, incredible sound. When you play it, it takes you somewhere else.
My Rhodes is a tone and a half out of tune right now because I can’t afford to have it tuned. The keys are so stiff it hurts your fingers to play because it probably hasn’t been serviced since the 70s. For practical reasons, it’s not on any of our recordings and I don’t take it on the road. It’s called a “suitcase” piano because in theory, you’re supposed to be able to fold it up like a suitcase, but it’s huge and it weighs about three hundred pounds. I do however use it to compose music, for example this song, which appears on our new record.
There’s lot of debate going on now about what’s better, analog or digital instruments—the latter of which are easier to find and definitely easier to transport. But for me the physical act of playing an instrument is just as important as the sound you get from it. The imperfections that come with analog are part of an experience that can’t be duplicated no matter how good the technology.
To be honest, it’s a real pain to play this thing. But when I’m composing, sometimes I just sit down and let my hands do what they want to do. It’s sort of like a dance, except the music is generated by my movements. It’s about passion… not convenience. I sit by my window, and look out at New York City. I have to work to get the sounds, but then the magic kicks in. Playing Rhoda can be punishing but it has made me that much better as a musician.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Franklin James Fisher is a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist in the protest band Algiers, whose name evokes the anti-colonial struggle. Deftly incorporating elements of post-punk, soul, and gospel, the band has recently released its second album The Underside of Power on Matador. The A.V. Club says of the new record, “It’s galvanizing, uncompromising, and uplifting, and it should speak to everyone who still has some fight left in them.” Algiers is currently on tour.