The Roland TR-808 drum machine is regarded as a standard in the music and music culture.
It’s difficult to imagine that a drum machine developed in 1980 would be appreciated to this day by fans of music, culture, and design. Future, The Game, Kelis, Britney Spears, and Frank Ocean are just a few to name-drop it in their song.
But how did this drum machine become so Famous?
The Beginnings (1960-1970)
Ikutaro Kakehashi was Born in Osaka, Japan, and started fixing watches and clocks and eventually received a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1960, he made his way into electronic instruments at Ace Electronic Industries.
He established a reputation for himself in 1972, when he formed Roland Corporation, and led the development of synthesizers and drum machines, notably the TR-808.
That was one of the first programmable drum machines in the business, and it ultimately revolutionized the sound of popular music. The machine especially stood out for its powerful bass drum sound.
The Golden Era (1980s)
At the start of 80s, Yellow Magic Orchestra used the 808 at a live performance then Mark Moffatt produced the song ‘Nobody Told Me’ by The Monitors making it the first actual record produced with the TR-808.
Then, ’82 would prove to be a pivotal moment in the fame of the TR-808. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force with elements from Kraftwerk, YMO and Gary Numan would make the hit Planet Rock (an 808-fuelled Electro/Hip-Hop tune)
Immediately after, Marvin Gaye’s smash hit single “Sexual Healing” will bring the 808 into the mainstream.
In the mid-80s, producer Rick Rubin Collaborates with the Beastie Boys for the infamous “Licensed to Ill” becoming the first hip hop album to top the billboard chart.
The diamond-certified record is filled with 808 sounds over sampled loops, and thriving genres like Techno, HIP HOP, House and Electro all started to adopt the machine rhythms and heavy bass kick.
Rubin also used the machine in production for RUN DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.
The TR-808 became synonymous with Detroit Techno, Electro, Miami Bass, and R&B and more, the machine especially stood out for its powerful bass drum sound.
Coming into the 90s the 808 obtained global popularity amongst producers like Michael Jackson and Prince.
Musicians have likened TR-808 in hip-hop and dance music to that of the Stratocaster guitar’s influence on rock music.
The Modern Age of the 808 (90s to Present)
The 808 became a staple in hip-hop culture, not just as an instrument for producers but as a signature sound of the genre.
When the New York hub of hip-hop began to veer toward other machines, the 808 maintained its roots in Southern hip-hop with producers like Lil Jon who went on to start the whole Crunk genre.
Kanye West’s ‘808s and Heartbreak’ is devoted entirely to the sound, with every song utilizing an 808, the most popular song on it being “Love Lockdown.”
The 808 sound at the beginning of the music is compared to a heartbeat, probably the best depiction of what a powerful 808 sound is.
But this was an album that helped mold a few of today’s biggest artists: The Weeknd and Drake cite it as their biggest inspiration.
It’s still as important as ever, and it’s generated production groups like 808 Mafia (Southside & Lex Luger), who are frequently credited with creating Atlanta’s “trap” sound.
Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital, two trap producers that largely rely on the 808 sound, are responsible for 90 percent of today’s most popular Migos and Future songs, the most recent of which being “Mask Off“
The TR-808 pushed musicians to think differently about not just the beat structures but also flows and melodies. With no shortage of festivals and clubs in 2017, the 808 is the essential piece intended for large speakers and club systems. It’s fair to assume that producers nowadays make tracks with this in mind. Although the 808 established itself as a wonderful instrument for studio geeks and creative musicians in a short period, its legacy is still growing every day.
The options are limitless, and we have Ikutaro Kakehashi to thank for that.
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