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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Comments (5)
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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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