All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

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.”

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  • Andy Markham says:

    “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

  • mario says:

    are you comparing an ugly building to the 808?? You must not be a musician…

  • Jonathan says:

    The Roland drum machines is what made music so great to listen to and was the most popular brand that artists used

  • John says:

    I always like Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, with the exception of the drums. I never knew why they bothered me so. The song came out in 1984 (I think). And listening to the other songs mentioned here, they have a very similar type of sound. I think the TR808 must be the culprit.

  • Coolhandluke says:

    This is a thoery i have been toying with for the past 5 years or so. Not only has it changed pop music but has altered culture and technological progression. In time. In time. In time. Clean. And in time. Simple. Stream lined. The true begining (who really used the drum samples on an old, cheap organ to produce a hit?) of the waning away from live drummers and their frustrations of keeping in sync with a metronome and thus sequestering into the era of digital recorded music and quantinization of rythmn tracks. Just a 1000ms to the right. A 100ms to the left. Uniformity baby. You want it to swing? No problem. You want it to waltz? You got it. And while these are tools to be used toooooo often they are utilized as the norm thus making it the norm and whats expected. I love music that has been produced by the drum machine even if it has deadened a facet of pop music that made it breathe. Made it beat. Made it live. Like the human heart from which all rythmn originates.

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