The Roland TR-808 is one of the most important and influential electronic instruments of all time, crucial to the formation and development of countless genres. This is the story of how a small plastic box changed the musical landscape forever.
The Roland Transistor Rhythm 808, popularly known as simply the 808, can be heard on thousands of songs from the past thirty five years. Its tones grace songs from all over the musical spectrum: from the biggest hits of the 80s to underground classics of the present day. But the machine is more than just a popular instrument; its role in popularising and developing new genres of music is unrivalled. The origins of house, techno and electro can be traced back to ambitious 808 owners in the early 80s, and the direction of hip hop was hugely influenced by this instrument. The key to what makes the 808 so special to so many people lies in its origins in 1980.
Best 808 Songs
A drum machine that didn’t sound like drums
Roland Corporation released the 808 in 1980, and manufactured and produced it until early in 1984. Its only major rival at the time was the Linn LM-1, a drum machine that prided itself on simulating the sounds of an acoustic drum kit. At $5,000, Linn drum machines were only affordable to the wealthy, and their use of digital sampling enabled them to produce the highly accurate drum sounds.
The 808, on the other hand, was relatively affordable at only $1,000, and its sounds were almost entirely removed from real drums. The affordability of the 808 meant thousands of young music enthusiasts were able to purchase the machine and find unique ways to use it in their music.
One of the early pioneers of the 808 was Japanese electronic outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra. The band immediately embraced the instrument, using it live in concert and on their highly influential 1981 album BGM. The 808 soon made its way up the charts and onto the radio sets of listeners all over the USA thanks to R&B hits by artists such as Marvin Gaye and Rick James. Gaye’s instant classic ‘Sexual Healing’ was perhaps the most high profile use of the 808 at that time. Its entire groove was built on a beat that made use of nearly all of the 808’s functions.
Although ‘Sexual Healing,’ along with other 808-utilising hit songs like Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ brought the instrument to the mainstream, it was underground innovators that brought out the best of the 808 and used it to forge new genres of music.
A versatile instrument with unique sounds
The idiosyncrasy of the 808’s unique sounds is what endeared producers of burgeoning electronic music styles in the first place, and what maintains the instrument’s popularity to this day. Take for example the 808’s famous hand clap that sounds absolutely nothing like hands clapping. This sound offers producers a wide, sharp stab of treble frequency, often replacing the traditional role of the snare in electronic music. The 808 hand clap has become so ubiquitous in house and dance music genres that we call it a hand clap with no trace of irony. Heard here in one of its earliest uses, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1981 track ‘1000 Knives,’ the 808 hand clap is instantly familiar as a sound we hear in all kinds of music today.
One of the godfathers of hip hop and electro, Afrika Bambaataa, famously used an 808 to create an electro-funk beat on the 1982 track ‘Planet Rock.’ This was the song that showed producers around the world what the 808 could do for hip hop, and crossover hip hop acts such as Run DMC began to use the 808 in their music to create a hard-hitting stripped-down alternative to the music-heavy hip hop hits of the time.
Perhaps the most important of the 808’s sounds for the emerging electronic crowd was the bass drum. This low frequency boom had nothing in common with the sound of an acoustic bass drum, but its adaptability and evocative low-end coverage have made it hugely popular in many different electronic genres.
Adapting the 808 has become a huge part of why it is still such a relevant instrument. One of the first musicians to modify the instrument was Strafe, who widened the 808’s bass drum sound to great effect on the 1984 track ‘Set It Off.’ Using the 808 as a starting point to create an underworldly sub bass has become a staple of both trap and grime.
Thanks to its versatility, and the fact that the 808’s sounds struck a chord with so many composers and listeners, the 808 is still as prominent in music today as it was when it went out of production thirty years ago. From the underground bombast of grime to the sombre minimalism of post-Kanye West era hip hop, the 808 is everywhere, and modern music would not be the same without it.
Play it yourself!
Even though the 808 went out of production decades ago, you can try it yourself here with this in-browser 808 reconstruction!
Banner Image by Roland_TR-808_&_909.jpg: Brandon Danielderivative work: Clusternote (Roland_TR-808_&_909.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons