Know thyself, an aphorism as true today as it was when penned by William Shakespeare. However, you can only truly know who you are by knowing how you got here, and you can only know how you got here by knowing where you came from. Of course, this principle applies to more than just people and includes virtually every development throughout human history--but especially culture.
There is arguably no more major cultural development in contemporary society than the rise of hip hop and the closely related electronic dance music. The former gave voice to a marginalized community while both have come to be almost ubiquitously infused in that most expressive of art forms: music.
Now you cannot chart the rise and evolution of these cultural artifacts to a single moment, event, or technological development, but sometimes, history has a funny way of taking a seemingly irrelevant influence and, through a combination of disparate yet complementary motivations, provide a single point that people can point to as a moment of genesis.
Such is the case with an upstart turned icon, the Roland TR 808. For anyone who has listened to new music since the early 1980s, you have undoubtedly heard the extensive influence of this drum machine--whether you know it or not. Moreover, it does not much matter what your preferred genre of music is either.
So long as you have ever been exposed to the top 40 hits on the radio, the inspiration provided to more hit makers and trendsetters in the history of music will be on full display. Still, the inauspicious story of rise for what would become one of the most well-known and respected pieces of musical hardware around the world begins with a small company in Chicago which manufactured church organs.
By the late 1960s, the experimental sounds of synthesizers had already become part and parcel in pop music spanning genres including rock, Motown, and soul. However, the preference for professional music producers still lay with analog sounds generated by real instruments or loops thereof.
Of course, there are numerous music markets that explicitly cater to amateur players. Local organizations and community groups often employ amateur musicians who require quality instruments but do not always have the ability to purchase truly professional gear that can run in the multiple thousands.
Of these amateur musicians, some of the most common are those that belong to a church--especially who play the organ. The Hammond Organ company based out of Chicago manufactured electric organs that were much cheaper than pipe organs wanted to showcase their product with a rhythm machine.
Enter Don Lewis who was contracted and constructed just such a rhythm machine that could play present patterns like the Bossa Nova. However, rather than build one from scratch, Lewis hacked the circuit of an Ace Tone rhythm machine. After discovering this, the owner of Ace Tone, Ikutaro Kakehashi, contacted Lewis and hired him to design drum machines for his new company Roland.
After successfully developing a few rhythm machines, Lewis, while under the employ of Roland, sought to conquer the professional market and began designing the 808. Unfortunately, technology was still catching up to capability, and the 808 was far from able to produce the desired acoustic sounds that the company intended. Rather than record the acoustic sounds to be used for direct playback, they literally designed hardware that could generate percussive sounds.
The team found a way to use transistors to actually create the sounds instead. While this opened a whole new avenue of potential sounds, it also carried with it the limitation of not being able to replicate acoustic sounds with any degree of accuracy. After the first pre-release models rolled were built, Kakehashi decided the unique sound added character and embraced it as a feature rather than a bug.
In fairness, the company had little choice as the transistors they ordered for production were all faulty and led to the 808’s distinctive sizzle. Still, this created a situation where none of the machines would sound identical to the others--a quality that was eventually lauded for its uniqueness but panned at the time for a lack of consistency.
Keeping with this trend of arbitrary idiosyncrasy, one of the sounds in particular, the cymbal crash, was developed when a head engineer, Tadao Kikumoto, spilled tea onto the prototype’s breadboard.
While this happy accident may have led to the creation of the 808’s distinctive “pssshhh” sound, it also found difficult to replicate. The team then spent months deconstructing the breadboard to figure out how it made that sound and what they had to to do to recreate it in a non-tea damaged breadboard.
However, the primary cymbal crash is not the only sound that the 808 makes which has both been noted for its distinctiveness as well as its ubiquity. Still, those sounds are in a large part responsible for the 808’s unlikely trajectory. Each of them features a different quality from their analog counterparts that immediately defines them as belonging to this iconic machine.
For instance, the bass drum is arguably the most famous sound produced by the 808 in a large part because of how it influenced numerous genres since its development--namely hip hop and techno. This sound can be modulated to create a clicky kind of thump, but its most common, and popular, rendition comes in the form of an almost impossibly low rumble. This nearly subsonic boom is more felt than heard and still appears regularly in some of the heavier rap music.
The cymbals were also one of the more noteworthy and widely used sounds. The cymbal crash mentioned earlier did not even sound like it was made from metal. Instead, this cymbal came out more as white noise than anything else. Moreover, the unnaturally long decay of the sound further increased this impression as the sound would simply carry.
The other open cymbal sound, the hi-hat, carried similarly odd characteristics. Both the standard cymbal crash and the open hi-hat produced a sound that was more akin to white noise and seemed to drag on forever due to its long decay, but this sound also had the odd quality of seeming to run in reverse. Rather than a strike and clash, the hi-hat sounded like a clash that sucked up into a shot.
Numerous other sounds carried with them idiosyncrasies that could be found nowhere else and--until recently--even had difficulty being replicated. First and foremost among these would have to be the cowbell which, rather than the hollow sound produced by the actual instrument, was arguably the most synthetic, most electronic voice the 808 produced.
Of course, not all of the voices were alien in nature. Some of them simply sounded like poor reconstructions of the source material. For instance, the maracas sounded like sandpaper being rubbed together, while the rimshot sounded like the ticking of clock. In fact, the handclap was potentially the most accurate voice and even managed to find its way into the following model, the TR 909.
Despite the effect and influence it would one day have, the 808’s opening into the market fare worse than anticipated. At the time, the only other drum machine which could be used to create entire beats on the spot was the Linn LM-1. However, this drum machine featured pre-recorded loops of acoustic percussion sounds.
As such, it should not be all that surprising that the mainstream professional music industry did not favor the 808. The 808 received poor reviews in magazines and was all but black-balled by professional music producers for its artificial, synthetic tones. In fact, even an incredible difference in price--the 808 was a little over $1000 while the Linn LM-1 we well over $5000--could not sway its critics.
However, most music produced at that time, including early hip hop, still relied heavily on instrumentation that could be played with a live band. Comparatively, the 808 was seen more as a toy than a legitimate piece of music making hardware and would not be taken seriously--despite a handful of successes.
As such, the 808 did not sell all that well. This was a conflux of effects where the price of the 808, while significantly less than the Linn LM-1, was still priced well out of reach of most amateurs. Roland ended production of the 808 in 1983 after having only manufactured 12,000 units.
Unable to sell, many of these drum machines eventually found their way into pawn shops, often selling for as little as $100. While the launch of the 808 may have been an unmitigated disaster, its failure also planted the seeds for its revival as the extremely low cost of the remaining units opened the door for numerous amateur and unknown musical acts to get their hands on a piece of professional beat making equipment for a fraction of the cost that other products would run them.
Of course, the 808 did not fall without demonstrating its ability to produce a number of successes first. The Yellow Magic Orchestra was one of the first bands to put the 808 to good use with its hit “1,000 Knives” in 1980. However, the band did not have much notoriety outside of East Asia, so western musicians took a bit more time to catch on.
However, veritable superstar Marvin Gaye used the 808 to produce his hit “Sexual Healing.” Interestingly, the 808 served as the perfect instrument for this project because Gaye had good reason to keep a low profile.
Known for large productions that featured full bands, Gaye fled to Belgium where he could escape the trappings and troubles of fame that saw money, drug, and family issues arise. The 808 alleviated these concerns by providing him some of the tools necessary to compose music in relative anonymity without having to include numerous people in its production.
Still, it was not until a year later when Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force released “Planet Rock” in 1982 that fans and the music industry took notice of the way the 808 changed the game. Moreover, the first time the band played this song live, Afrika Bambaataa constructed the beat in real time before the members of Soulsonic Force came in to lay vocals overtop it.
This method of construction blew away not only the audience in attendance, but numerous other amateur producers who would eventually witness the same construction of the composition as the group toured. Ultimately, this showed other DJs and especially electronic music producers that live beat making was not only possible but awesome as well.
Rick Rubin may be one of the most well-known and respected music producers in history, working with such diverse acts as Public Enemy, Slayer, Justin Timberlake, and Jay Z, but he started like many of the most prolific members of the music industry did: in a room with some inexpensive equipment that allowed him to explore music before finally getting hooked on the intoxicating expression of the human soul.
While Def Jam Records may be one of the most powerful and influential rap labels of all time, it was actually started by Rubin for Punk and Hardcore bands. However, by the early 1980s, Rubin became infatuated with the New York rap scene and started working with Jazzy Jay to learn how to produce rap music.
Shortly thereafter, Rubin teamed with Russell Simmons, a club promoter at the time, and the rest is history. However, all this occurred while Rubin attended New York University, and it was here that Rubin discovered the 808.
Sitting in his dorm room, Rubin continued to fiddle and play with the 808 until he managed to entirely recreate T La Rock single “It’s Yours” on the drum machine. However, in the course of doing so, Rubin also stumbled upon a technique that would not only be copied ad nauseum throughout all genres of music but also come to define rap music for a generation.
It was Rubin who discovered and popularized that you could stretch out the decay of the bass drum and widen its tone to produce that icon subsonic rumble that dominated the genre and still finds overwhelming representation in some of the heavier rap genres today.
With this new tool in hand as well as a record label and promoter willing to put the hottest music in the hottest live scenes of the day, Rubin was able to parlay all of this experience into producing albums for Run DMC, LL Cool J, and the BEastie Boys--all of which featured the 808 prominently in their tracks.
Once the 808 began to develop a reputation as an instrument for the underground, bigger acts wanted to capitalize on the cred of the drum machine to show that they too were connected to what went down in the street. Some of the more genre bending acts, like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys found in the 808 a machine that perfectly represented their hybridized styles and employed the instrument in a number of their biggest hits.
Run DMC could be said to have started two trends: the maturation of rap as well as the fetishization of the 808. Prior to Run, most rap hits were little more than rhythms and melodies lifted straight from R&B tracks with MCs flowing over them.
This all changed in 1983 when Run DMC made up to 15th on the Billboard’s R&B charts--with rap still not being a recognized genre at this time. With the inclusion of hard rock guitar riffs and the 808’s iconic electronic, synth sound, Run DMC helped pave the way for artists of all stripe to find a place in their compositions for the once maligned drum machine.
Another rap group that introduced the genre to a larger audience as well as make it more socially acceptable in an older, more contentious era, to use the 808 was the Beastie Boys. Much like Run DMC, the Beastie Boys were positioned as a hybrid group that mixed influences from a wide variety of genres but ultimately rapped their lyrics on top of the composition.
In 1985, the Beastie Boys officially opened the world, outside of the African American community, up to the genre of rap with their release of “License to Ill” which featured the 808 heavily on a number of tracks including “Brass Monkey,” which would later be remastered and rereleased and can still be found on various rock stations this very day.
However, the 808 has likely had more influence on the electro genre of music than any other. While rap and various pop stars all found the ability to promote the 808’s unique sound alongside the magnetic personalities of their musicians, electro found it far more difficult to do so due the DJ sitting behind a table of instruments and generally not interacting with the audience to the nearly the same degree.
However, the ability to manufacture beats live combined with the otherworldly tones of the 808’s voices inspired pre-EDM artists across the world and even spawned a few subgenres along the way. Miami bass, Detroit techno, and acid house were all heavily influenced and in many instances germinated by the 808. In fact, the “acid” moniker can be directly attributed to the funky, uncustomary voices of the 808. Without that drum machine, that whole subgenre of electronic music may not even exist.
As the 808 began to dominate the rap and electronic genres, as well as spawning brand new subgenres within those fields, artists from the pop genre began to take notice. Not wanting to be left behind in the wake of this new musical revolution, some of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s found ways to incorporate the unique sounds of the 808 into some of their biggest tracks.
The Talking Heads may currently be known as an 80s defining band, but the group actually spent most of their career pushing out a prolific catalogue of post-punk and rock fusion albums to mixed commercial success. However, all of that changed in 1983.
With the inclusion of the 808 into their smash success, “Speaking in Tongues,” The Talking Heads also charted their only top-10 single in the United States, “Burning Down the House.” This song and the album in general is celebrated for blending the more traditional pop music of white artists at the time with the increasingly popular rhythms and melodies of afro-funk, a la George Clinton and company.
However, musicians from all spectrums of pop fell in love with the 808 for their own reasons, and this universal love for a once maligned drum machine led to its dominance. Acts a popular and diverse as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, New Kids on the Block, and Phil Collins all made hit tracks that incorporated the 808.
While the 808’s failure eventually led to a Phoenix rising from the ashes to cement itself as one of the most influential developments in music history, the year after the 808 stopped production, Roland released the 909.
The 909 is also noted for featuring some unrealistic voices, but seeks to limit the sheer alienness of its sounds by also including a bank of pre-recorded loops of genuine acoustic instruments alongside the transistor based sounds.
Another technological advantage of the 909 was its ability to run the newly developed MIDI connection which could even be used to chain with an 808--using an adapter. Oddly enough, even though the 909 was arguably a more advanced model, it never quite achieved the same fame or reverence as the 808.
However, many of the same early adopters of the 808 also found room on their table for the 909 including the 80s pop star Phil Collins who featured both drum machines throughout his musical oeuvre. Still, while the 808 would eventually go on to dominate the wide majority of music genres in the 80s and early 90s, the 909 would be relegated to featuring prominently more in electronic music than other genres.
Enter the contemporary age of music and you can still see the effect that the 808 continues to have. However, these days, the 808 is often relegated more to its roots--rap and EDM--than it is in pop. Still, numerous musicians outside of those genres find themselves infatuated with the 808 such that they incorporate its unearthly sounds into their music.
Beyonce, arguably one of the most famous musicians today, featured the 808 in her single “Deja Vu”--even going so far as to start the vocals of track with “808” as a tribute. However, that is not the only track the drum machine features heavily on also finding its way onto “Drunk In Love.”
Moreover, Iceland’s favorite woodland Nymph also finds herself at a creative home with both the 808 and 909, using their otherworldly sounds to pair perfectly with her ethereal vocals in tracks like “Hunter,” as well as an appearance on “Ooops”--an 808 State track. Ultimately, the drum machine to end all others can be found in the farthest reaches of the world’s discography.
Of course, you can still find the 808 making its appearance in rap and electronic music today. Rap artists from Lil Wayne, Lil John, and Kanye West all feature the drum machine. In fact, Kanye wrote an album “808s & Heartbreak” that made it a point to include the 808 in some way on every track.
For the electronic side, perennial makers of “song of summer,” Daft Punk still feature the drum machine prominently while newer acts like Deadmau5 and Skrillex ensure that the icon will continue to live on even as the genres it first influenced continue to evolve.
As the legend of the 808 grows, Roland re-released the iconic machine in 2014. Of course, it features more modern technology and will not truly scratch that nostalgia itch for the first adopters, but it still replicates that feel with those quirky sounds remarkably well. Moreover, to accommodate a market that seeks more features in an ever shrinking package, Roland also released the TR-08, a recreation of the 808 in a pint-sized frame.
Not too many stories that begin with abject failure end up turning the tides of fortune to become a “happy accident”--especially when it comes to product being sold. However, if there ever was such success story, the Roland TR 808 has to be it.
Starting from a mixture of snafus and faulty components, the 808 weathered the storm of bad press and bad sales only to see it resurrect in the hand of talented amateurs that sought to change the way music was made. With the help of some of the most influential young names in music, the 808 became known as the sounds of 80s music.
Because of its outsized influence, there are few major genres that can claim to be untouched by its presence. And that touch can still be felt today--both in the electronic and rap genres that made it famous--as well as popular music stretching back four decades.