808 Day: Celebrating an Iconic Drum Machine

Source: Ableton Website: https://www.ableton.com/en/blog/808-day-2014-drum-machine/

“Nothing sounds quite like an 8-0-8.” Those words, from the legendary Beastie Boys, sum up how pretty much all hip-hop, house, electro, and techno producers feel about Roland’s legendary drum machine. First introduced in 1980, the TR-808 (“TR” standing for “Transistor Rhythm” – now you know) was an all-analog drum machine, know for it’s bassy kick, snappy snare, tinny hi-hats, and a rather alien “cowbell” sound. Today – on August 8, aka 8/08 – we’re going to celebrate the legacy of this rhythm box, and share some of our favorite 808 tracks.

“Nothing sounds quite like an 8-0-8.”

Like a number of now-legendary analog instruments, the 808 was initially scoffed at for it’s electronic sounds – especially compared to alternatives like the sample-based Linndrum (the TR-909, a follow-up machine from Roland, would incorporate some samples, while the later TR-707 consisted entirely of samples). Some immediately saw it’s charm, however – listen to Marvin Gaye’s 1982 classic, “Sexual Healing”:

The real legend of the 808 was born via electro and hip-hop producers, who took to the machine in the early- and mid-’80s. Its tinny, alien sounds provided a jolt of futureshock – and it didn’t hurt that it was often available for cheap, in second-hand stores. New York electro and hip-hop artist Africa Bambaataa used the 808 heavily on the breakin’ essential, “Planet Rock”:

Not to be left out, the burgeoning West Coast hip-hop/electro scene also took to the 808 – throwback to LA-bred Egyptian Lover’s ironclad “Egypt, Egypt”:

Meanwhile, in Detroit, the seeds of techno were sewn by electro group Cybotron, featuring techno pioneer Juan Atkins and Richard “3070” Davis:

Cybotron’s “Clear”

Flash forward a few years, and the UK’s burgeoning Northern acid house scene finds a lot of inspiration in the 808. Formerly a member of 808 State (named after the machine, naturally), A Guy Called Gerald strikes out on his own with “Voodoo Ray”, anchored by an infectious groove featuring the conga and rimshot sounds of the 808:

Into the ‘90s, Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman project strips back acid techno to its bare elements, such as on “Spastik” – a track made entirely with an 808 and effects. Paying homage to his legacy, Richie was known to end Plastikman gigs between 2010 and 2012 by emerging from behind his LED cage to perform Spastik solo on an 808:

Richie Hawtin as Plastikman plays “Spastik” at Detroit’s Movement Festival 2010.

It’s been 34 years since the release of the 808, and it doesn’t seem to be going away. Last decade, Kanye West made the 808 a household name by titling his album, 808s and Heartbreak, after the machine. Since then, a new generation of hip-hop, house and techno producers have embraced the 808 anew – in particular, trap and footwork/juke make frequent use of its bassy and tinny/snappy sounds. Here’s an aggressive footwork melody to dance to, in Chicagoan RP Boo’s fiery “Speakers R4”:

And repping trap, here’s 2 Chainz with “Trap Back”, featuring the ubiquitous hi-hat trills:

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