You don’t have to be a gearhead to instantly recognize the sound of the Roland TR-808. Introduced in 1980, the legendary drum machine is all over the 80s, 90s, and the retro 2000s, from dance progenitors like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” to formative Def Jam releases like Run DMC’s debut and the Beastie Boy’s Licensed to Ill (one of the original machines used on such classics recently went on sale). The 808 provides the backbeat for Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” New Order’s “Shellshock,” and LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali”… track after era-defining track pulses with the iconic drum machine’s deep, thudding kick drum and comically synthetic congas, claves, maracas, handclaps, and cowbells.
The 808 inspired a tribute celebration around the world on August 8th (8/08) and stars in its own full-length documentary, “a nerdy love letter” to the electric instrument, writes Slate. You can buy 808 Adidas that actually play beats, play with a virtual TR-808 in your browser, and enjoy the sounds of Kanye West’s oddly influential 2008 album 808s and Heartbreak. With all this renewed attention, you might think it’s a good time for Japan’s Roland to bring the device back into production, just as Moog briefly reissued its Minimoog Model D (since discontinued) amidst a swirl of renewed mainstream interest in analog synthesizers.
Roland has obviously felt the pop cultural winds blowing its way. Yesterday, on 808 Day, the company announced a new iteration, now called the TR-08, as part of its Boutique line. (A previous revival, the TR-8, saw Roland combine the 808 with the classic 909, renowned in rave circles.) The video at the top features some of the 808’s original adopters—producer Jimmy Jam, rapper Marley Marl, and DJs Jazzy Jeff and Juan Atkins—marveling over the new product. Just above, in case you’ve somehow forgotten, we have a demonstration of famous TR-808 beats from tracks like “Planet Rock” and Cybotron’s “Clear,” songs that made innovative use of samples and which themselves became choice material for dozens of sample-based productions.
The 808 was the choice of drum machine for tinkerers. Its sound was “crowd-sourced,” writes Chris Norris, “with artists building on one another’s modifications of the device. One of the first major innovations came about in 1984,” with the “fine tuning of the 808’s low frequencies and further widening of its bass kick drum to create the sound of an underground nuke test” heard on producer Strafe’s club hit “Set it Off.” The new TR-08 has a much smaller footprint and expands the machine’s capabilities with contemporary features like an LED screen, controls over gain and tuning, battery or USB power, and audio or MIDI through a USB connection.
Arguably “one of the most impactful pieces of modern music hardware,” writes The Verge, upon its debut the 808 “received mixed reviews and was considered a commercial failure as its analog circuitry didn’t create the ‘traditional’ drum sounds” most producers expected. This meant that 808s could be picked up relatively cheaply by bedroom producers and local DJs. As a result, “the trembling feeling of that sound,” Norris writes, “booming down boulevards in Oakland, the Bronx, and Detroit are part of America’s cultural DNA, the ghost of Reagan-era blight” and the renaissance of creativity born in its midst. To get a sense of the breadth of the 808’s musical contributions, listen to the playlist above, with everyone from Talking Heads to 2 LIVE CREW, Phil Collins, and Whitney Houston putting in an appearance.
All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music
See the First “Drum Machine,” the Rhythmicon from 1931, and the Modern Drum Machines That Followed Decades Later
The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6-Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sampling Revolution
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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