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How the Roland TR-808 revolutionized music

How the Roland TR-808 revolutionized music


The drum machine that blurred lines between genres

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Kanye West.
Kanye West.
Photo: Flickr

"I’m back with the 808 ‘cause I’m bossy.” —Kelis feat. Too Short, “Bossy”

“Fresh like, uh, Impala, uh, chrome hydraulics, 808 drums” —The Game, “How We Do”

"Got some pretty good beats on this 808 CD” —Frank Ocean, “Swim Good”

“My heart’s beating like an 808” —Britney Spears, “Break The Ice”

“808, 8-0-fucking-8” —Future, “Mask Off”

If you’re into hip-hop and pop, you’ve probably heard “808” at some point. That’s a reference to the iconic Roland TR-808, a drum machine created by Ikutaro Kakehashi in 1980. Its unique dribbling bass drum sound is what artists mean when they say “turn up the 808.” The pursuit of the perfect low-frequency 808 sound is a real struggle for producers. Make a powerful enough 808, and it can blow your speakers — which can be the goal, if you’re trying to make a real banger.

Over the weekend, Kakehashi died at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy of creations that had an immeasurable impact on music all over the world. Born in Osaka, Japan, Kakehashi got his start repairing broken watches and clocks when he was 16, and later obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1960, he found his way to electronic instruments at Ace Electronic Industries. He solidified a name for himself in 1972, when he founded Roland Corporation, and spearheaded the creation of synthesizers and drum machines, including the TR-808. It was one of the earliest programmable drum machines in the industry, and it eventually changed the sound of popular music. What made the 808 different was that the sounds did not resemble real percussion, and were more like a “futuristic” interpretation of common sounds: bass, drums, snare, cymbals, and more. The machine particularly stood out for its powerful bass drum sound.

When the 808 first launched in 1980, it failed commercially. Initially, it was seen as a toy that made robotic sounds, rather than a serious instrument. Electronic music wasn’t in vogue yet, and Roland discontinued the 808 in 1983. Its main rival, the Linn LM-1, had a crisper sound and more sales success. But the 808 built a cult following among underground producers. It was more affordable (with a $1,200 price tag compared to the LM-1’s $5,000), had an easier interface, and came preloaded with 16 analog sounds. Eventually it was used on more hit records than any other drum machine, including hits like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” SOS Band’s “Just be Good To Me,” and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” 

Marvin Gaye.
Marvin Gaye.
Photo: The Selvedge Yard

The emergence of the drum machine was crucial to the formation of entire areas of music — especially hip-hop, but also subgenres like Miami bass, acid house, and Detroit techno. Before the 808, producers would dig for drum samples and meticulously loop them to create original drum patterns. With the arrival of drum machines, samples and live drummers became unnecessary. Producers were able to tweak their own patterns out of the 808’s “robotic” and “toy-like” sounds, which made it possible for nearly anyone to produce music. Drum machines like the 808 spawned the era of “bedroom producers” such as Rick Rubin (who used an 808 in his NYU dorm) and Pete Rock. Afrika Bambaataa was the first hip-hop act to put the machine on the map with his seminal 1982 record “Planet Rock.” It also hit mainstream success with Marvin Gaye’s 1982 hit “Sexual Healing.”

The 808 broke down the walls between genres

Nearly 40 years after the 808 hit the market, hip-hop still relies on the machine, and countless copycat kits have been built and shared online to mimic the original sounds of its sharp high-hat, snare, and cowbell. It’s a sought-after sound, with most producers claiming the copycats are nowhere near the idiosyncratic tones of the original. The 808 ended up being used by iconic acts such as Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy. Kanye West even dedicated an entire album to the sound, with every song using an 808, the most popular being “Love Lockdown.” The 808 sound in the beginning of the track is likened to a heartbeat, perhaps the clearest comparison of what a strong 808 sound is. There’s even a full-length documentary called 808, tracking the importance of the machine.

The 808 became a fixture in hip-hop culture, not only as a tool for producers but as a defining sound of the genre. When the New York epicenter of hip-hop started to move toward other machines in the 1990s, the 808 held its roots in Southern hip-hop with artists like Lil Jon (who has even been accused of overusing the handclap sound). It’s still as crucial as ever, and has spawned the creation of production groups such as 808 Mafia (Southside & Lex Luger), who are often credited with creating Atlanta’s “trap” sound, with one of the signature elements being the 808 bass drum. Trap producers Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital also rely heavily on the 808 sound, and they’re responsible for 90 percent of today’s most popular Migos and Future records — “Mask Off” being the most recent. Most, if not all, chart-topping hip-hop records today and in the past 30 years have probably used some element of an 808. 

Step outside of hip-hop, and the 808 legacy can be found elsewhere, particularly in pop music. Starting as early as Cybotron’s “Clear,” and heard as recently as Jamie XX’s “Gosh,” the 808 brought a new level of power into pop’s sound. It also became heavily used in present-day EDM, with artists such as Diplo and David Guetta championing its elements in singles and collaborations.

The 808 broke down the walls between genres, and spawned collaborations between some of the biggest acts from different spaces. Because the 808 was so adaptable, it was like the first open-sourced sound, with artists building on each other’s interpretations and making it their own. Lil Jon and Usher’s “Yeah” was an unlikely collaboration that showcased an R&B singer on an 808 and made Usher instantly relevant again. Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is nowhere near a hip-hop or techno record, yet it relied entirely on the 808. The 808 is like the not-so-secret sauce of hit records — sprinkle in an 808 drum, and your song instantly sounds better. 

The TR-808 forced artists to think differently about not only the beat constructions but about flows and melodies. With no shortage of festivals and clubs in 2017, the 808 is the critical element designed for huge speakers and club systems. It’s safe to say that producers today create records with this in mind. Although the 808 established itself as a magical tool for studio nerds and prolific artists in a short time, its legacy is still evolving every day. The possibilities are endless, and we have Ikutaro Kakehashi to thank for that.