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Nothing sounds quite like an 808

Aug 16, 2019
We could introduce you to the Roland TR-808, but you’ve already met.

In fact, it’s impossible to imagine the modern musical landscape without it. Whitney Houston, Kanye West, Run DMC, Beastie Boys and Britney Spears, among innumerable others, all owe some of their most iconic tracks to the 1980 model. This endlessly adaptable piece of kit allowed anyone to become a producer and is responsible for tearing down some of the tallest walls between genres.

In the words of Roland, 808 Day is about the artists who ‘got’ the 808 from the start, those who used it as a tool for innovation, and most importantly, everyone who loves the music it inspired. So, if you’re wondering what this unofficial Australian holiday is all about, let's press ‘start’ on a brief history of possibly the most musically innovative rhythm composer the industry has ever seen.
beastie boys
Marching to the beat of their own drum
Turn on your TV, tune in your radio or click on Spotify and the music you hear all has one thing in common – it relies on rhythm. It’s delivering that satisfying beat that the Japanese tech company, Roland, sought out to create with the TR-808 all those years ago. Yet while this colourful little box is universally recognised today, when it was first released the world wasn’t quite ready.

The year was 1980, and the TR-808 was introduced as ‘a revolutionary computer-controlled rhythm machine’ offering more percussion variation and effects, with synchronous performance and realistic sounds. Yet, like many things which are the first of their kind, it was no instant hit. In part, perhaps because advertising an instrument later heralded as the ‘pioneer of electric rhythm’ as ‘realistic’ was a little tenuous. Of course, there was also no market for synth music, because it didn’t exist yet. This, paired with the unfortunate release of a drum machine that was comparable to the sound of real drums, the LM-1 Drum Computer, left the now legendary TR 808 was for the most part, unloved. With an ever dropping price-tag, and regular appearances in junk shop shelves, it eventually reached commercial free-fall and was discontinued after just three years.
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Processed beats
While the TR-808 wasn’t successful during its production run, this colourful drum machine was destined to become an integral component in a myriad of musical styles to emerge in the years that followed. In part due to its unbelievable affordability, this accessible, easy to use machine became rather attractive to a whole new wave of music producers who were actively looking for something different. Pretty quickly, its 16 distinctive sounds were being programmed from scratch, across all genres, and all of a sudden, the TR-808 found itself at the helm of electronic music.

This began with 80s hip-hop innovators, who used the 808 to expand the sonic pallet of the genre – transcending into the pop world with instantly recognisable hits ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, ‘Sexual Healing’ and ‘Psycho Killer’. The distinctive bass, drums, snare, cymbals and, of course, cowbell, became instantly recognisable and ultimately, a catalyst to break the mould. Later, its clap and bass-drum sounds would go on to become fundamental ingredients in sub-genres of Bounce, Crunk and other sounds of Southern Hip-Hop that laid the groundwork for what we came to call pop music in the 2000s.
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Outside the colourful box
The TR-808 defined a whole section of the early millennia. We see this in Kanye West’s ‘Love Lockdown' with the utilisation of the machine to mimic the sound of a heartbeat, and again with Britney Spears’ ‘Break the Ice’, which nods at this with the lyric: ‘You got my heart beating like an 808’. Later, Usher’s 2012 number-one ‘Scream’ was dubbed one of music’s most transcendent tracks when it comes to bridging the worlds between genres. Lil Jon notes that ‘It was an R&B singer singing over an 808 — and, really, a dance single. To appeal to super-pop and super-hood? That’s amazing’.

Online publication The Verge said that the pursuit of the perfect low-frequency TR-808 sound is a holy grail that producers grapple for in all genres: ‘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’. And it’s remained just as indispensable, ‘It’s kind of like milk, or water,’ Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee says in the documentary 808.
PHMG Hank Shocklee quote
It’s this power to break down conventions that’s granted TR-808 its staying power. It challenged rappers, pop-singers and instrumentalists alike to reconsider their constructions, flows and melodies and to collaborate to create something that appeals to a wider audience. Its rise to prominence also signalled the end to the melody-centric songs of the mid-20th Century, and welcomed the bass-driven tracks that drive modern club-culture in techno, hip-hop, rap and disco-remixes. It’s hard to comprehend that the drum machine launched in 1980 would leave a legacy so alive and beating even today. 808 The Movie, the Puma x Roland collaboration, and the recent vinyl compilations are the latest additions to the TR-808 journey, but we’ve got a feeling there’s a lot more to come.