How Casio accidentally started reggae's digital revolution

The real story behind the mysterious 'sleng teng' riddim.

The Casio Casiotone MT40 was released in 1981. Four years later it would change reggae music forever.

Looking at the Casio Casiotone MT40, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was an unremarkable keyboard. You may even have owned one just like it. Launched in 1981, the cream machine came with 37 keys, 22 different instrument sounds, six onboard rhythms and a dedicated mini bass keyboard. It cost around $150 or, adjusting for inflation, about $400 if it were on sale today.

Beneath that beige plastic, however, the MT40 hid a secret. A "rock" preset that, once discovered, would reverberate in popular music for the next 30 years. The preset would become one of reggae's most famous "riddims," inspire many imitations and force the genre into the digital age. The story of the "sleng teng" riddim (as it is known) in reggae history is well documented, but its origins are based on myth. This is the real story of how Casio's MT40 became the most influential keyboard of its kind.

For the uninitiated, this is the three second melody that started it all:

If you've heard a version of the sleng teng story before, it probably went something like this: The rock preset on the Casio MT40 was meant to sound like Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else," but whoever programmed it didn't quite get it right. The wonky rhythm was later stumbled upon by reggae artists Noel Davy, King Jammy and Wayne Smith in the mid-'80s. The trio used the preset as the bassline for the 1985 single "Under mi sleng teng" (a patois ode to the perils of drugs) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most of this story is true, but it's mixed with folklore. The preset isn't based on the Eddie Cochran track at all. Nor (as others theorize) was it a facsimile of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK." Though the Casio preset does share some elements with both of those tracks, Casio's Product Development and Music Engineer Hiroko Okuda tells Engadget it's categorically not inspired by either. How does Okuda know for sure? Because she created that preset. Okuda's role is the untold, yet arguably more unexpected half of the sleng teng story.

Hiroko Okuda started at Casio in 1980, straight after graduating in Musicology from Tokyo's Kunitachi College of Music. She remains at Casio to this day, but the MT40 was the first project she worked on. Despite creating that rock preset, she has no idea where the Eddie Cochran rumor came from, or why it's so persistent. Okuda is also keen to point out that most people assume the preset was taken out of musical context by King Jammy and co., this giving the story half of its charm. A misused rock rhythm, birthing reggae's monster riddim. But again, the real story is stranger than the legend.

Davy, who owned the keyboard used in "Under mi sleng teng," had actually wanted to buy a (technically far superior) Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, but couldn't afford the pro price tag. Instead, he ended up with the MT40, not even technically a synthesizer (it only has pre-made sounds). Had Davy been able to afford the DX7, the sleng teng riddim might have remained locked in the MT40's circuits forever.

Okuda, however, is the true twist in this tale. Prior to her job as Music Creator and Music Engineer at Casio, and working on the MT40, she was a fan of reggae -- avidly listening to it during her time at college. Okuda would even write her thesis about it. "I guess there was something reggae-like about the [sleng teng] rhythm. I recall being touched by the fact that what I had been listening to everyday, seemed to show in the product," Okuda told Engadget. This raises a tantalizing thought: Was the preset on the MT40 the chicken, or in fact, the egg? Did Okuda subconsciously give the rock preset a little reggae feel, making King Jammy and Noel Davy's discovery of it more about destiny than delightful accident?

Soon after its release, the single "Under mi sleng teng" was taking on a life of its own. It was common in reggae at the time for different vocalists -- confusingly called Deejays -- to record and release their own performance on top of popular riddims. The sleng teng would quickly become so popular, and so influential in reggae, it's estimated that more than 250 records featuring the motif would be released over the following years. Many of them on the same label (Jammy's eponymous imprint), and often without a lot of musical variation from the original, as the hour-and-a half-long compilation below illustrates.

It wasn't long before Casio's MT40 keyboard earned a cult status among musicians, and the sleng teng soon spilled over into other genres. Hip hop was fairly quick at dabbling with the Casio sound. Examples include 2 Live Crew's "Reggae Joint" on the controversial 1989 album "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." It wasn't long before it would take root across the Atlantic, and eventually weave its way into the burgeoning UK rave scene -- showing up in warehouse classics such like SL2's "Way in my brain" and Moby's remix of The Prodigy's "Everybody in the place" among others. Yes, there was a time when Moby did remixes of the Prodigy, and neither of their music sounded like it does now.

The '80s were the years when music really started going digital. The sleng teng would wriggle into the musical lexicon around the same time as its distant cousin the Amen break -- a six-second drum sample featured in countless recordings, and heavily influenced Drum & Bass. Unsurprisingly, these two musical memes have met on more than one occasion over the years. Like the Amen break, the impact of the sleng teng was two-fold. Not only would it become one the most recognizable motifs of a genre; its accessibility (the Amen sample was freely exchanged, the MT40 was "affordable") would democratize music making. Budding reggae artists no longer needed session musicians or expensive equipment. Now, anyone with a microphone, tape machine and a modest keyboard or sampler could make "pro" riddims.

If you think you're too young to have been touched by the Casio MT40's velutinous tones, think again. The rhythmic pulse of the sleng teng has continued to penetrate pop culture ever since. Maybe you heard it on a TV show, or during a skit on an album. Perhaps your first sleng teng experience was on Four20 FM on Saints Row IV, or during a mix battle on DJ hero. Maybe you've heard it via one of the many modern tracks remixed to include it, or you went and bought the plushie. There's pretty much a sleng teng for everyone.

But what makes a three-second pattern from a keyboard in 1981 remain relevant today? That's a question best answered by a new generation of musician, one using the Casio MT40 in their performances today. French keyboard wizard Manudigital has made it his career to prolong the life of the sleng teng, and the Casio it belongs to. He thinks the secret is in its simplicity. "The magic side of music creation is sometimes you don't need a lot to make really good things ... the MT40 was so simple to use, but so effective and powerful that it has really surprised me," Manudigital told Engadget.

Like all good legends, the sleng teng riddim has come full circle. Today's artists might be too young to know the original, or the keyboard it came from back in the day, but still their own musical journey leads them there. And when it finds them, it inspires their own versions, and -- as Manudigital's YouTube channel demonstrates -- can even reconnect them with artists from the original era in new ways. The Casio MT40 is no longer a retro novelty; it's a musical bridge between generations (albeit a beige, plastic one).

Despite all the fuss made about the sleng teng, the original rock preset that spawned it remained exclusive to the MT40 (Casio retired the keyboard after about a year). The company never cashed in by putting it on more instruments. Until now, of course. Casio continues to make new keyboards, and finally, after all these years, the sleng teng has returned to its spiritual home (models SA-46 and SA-76 are the ones you want). This time around, though, it has a new name. It's no longer the "rock" preset; it's been renamed the "MT40 riddim."

Okuda, the mother of the sleng teng, has one final twist to make sure the story of her famous riddim maintains an air of mystery. Despite revealing to Engadget that the Eddie Cochran and Sex Pistol rumors are false, she did admit the preset was based on a rock track. A British rock record from the 70s is all she would confirm. "You would immediately notice it once you hear the song."