How the Roland TR-808 revolutionized music


“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 1972. 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.

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.”