When the Roland TR-808 rhythm machine first came out in late 1980 most musicians were not impressed. It was a drum machine that didn’t sound like drums, with a handclap feature that didn’t sound like hands clapping. One reviewer said the machine sounded like marching anteaters. But as Rhodri Marsden wrote in a 2008 article for The Independent, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
For some, the 808 was so bad it was good. They embraced the sheer artificiality of the thing. Its idiosyncratic noises began showing up on hit records like 1982’s “Sexual Healing,” by Marvin Gaye. “Booming bass kicks, crispy snares and that annoying cowbell sound made famous during the 80’s are all part of the 808 and it’s famous sound,” writes Vintage Synth Explorer. Yes, that annoying cowbell sound. On Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” writes Marsden, the effect is like that of “a distressed woodpecker.”
But as Nelson George explains in his new video, All Hail the Beat (above), the 808 has remained a vital element in much of the pop music since the 1980s, in genres like hip hop, techno and house. Even though Roland stopped making the 808 in 1984 and many young musicans today have never even seen one (a vintage 808 can cost over $2,000 on eBay) the machine’s 16 drum sounds have been widely sampled, and have been built into many of the machines that have come later.
Even the phony handclaps have become indispensable. “Of course, they don’t sound like handclaps,” producer Jyoti Mishra told Marsden, “but strangely, they have somehow become the sound of handclaps. Every drum machine produced since then has had to feature that same kind of noise.”
To hear the 808 in its heyday–along with several other electronic instruments, including Micromoog and Prophet-5 synthesizers–you can watch the video below from 1982, featuring Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force performing “Planet Rock.”