Nothing beats the TR-808

Nothing beats the TR-808

It’s August 8th, in case you didn’t notice that’s 08-08, so today we’re going to focus on the Roland TR-808. Its full name is the Roland Transistor Rhythm 808 but it is most commonly known simply as the 808. First released in 1980 and discontinued in 1983, this drum machine became legendary and continues to move listeners, dancers, DJs and musicians to this very day. Here are 8 interesting facts about the 808… 

8. Ikutaro Kakehashi – a man obsessed with sound

The man behind the machine, Ikutaro Kakehashi (1930 – 2017), from Osaka, Japan is to be thanked for this glorious invention, many other devices and the MIDI system. He started out by repairing watches and clocks, building his own radios and constantly trying to improve the sound of the tubes inside them. He became obsessed with sound quality and started experimenting with rhythm machines. In 1972 his obsession led him to start the Roland  company with which he released the TR-808 in 1980.

7. The 808 hits public ears

The first time the TR-808 was heard by the mass public was in 1982 when Kraftwerk‘s song “Trans Europe Express was interpolated by producers Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaataa and released as “Planet Rock” (by Afrika Bambaataa & The soul Sonic Force). People heard this and needed to get their hands on an 808, and they did! Lots of new hip hop / dance / electronic music emerged almost instantly…


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Some honourable mentions that came out around the same time:

Play At Your Own Risk” Planet Patrol
It’s Yours” by T. La Rock & Jazzy Jay
I Need A Freak” by Sexual Harassment
Knowledge Me” by Original Concept
Everlasting Bass” by Rodney O & Joe Cooley
Egypt, Egypt” by Egyptian Lover

and the list goes on…

6. Things get sexy

The 808 was really heard worldwide when Marvin Gaye wrote the instant classic “Sexual Healing”. Gaye was on a retreat in Belgium, feeling the need for isolation to escape his problems at the time. He somehow found an 808, locked himself up, turned knobs and pushed buttons till it sounded just right and sang the vocal line over the beat. A super hit was born, almost entirely because of this special drum machine.


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5. Genres Created & Defied

The 808 is famous because from its beats spawned many of the most popular genres of today. These include Hip Hop, R’n’B, Techno, EDM, Trap, Miami Bass, Detroit Techno, Acid House and Grime among others. The beauty of the 808’s beats is that they are like a secret ingredient for any genre of music to give it that extra “hit appeal” and this can be proven successful throughout its history.

4. A flop at first

The 808 initially didn’t do very well. People didn’t like the sounds because they were too alien sounding, far from what a real drum kit sounds like. It didn’t sell much so Roland discontinued it in 1983. It wasn’t till the price dropped drastically that it got into the hands of more musicians and producers. People started to like and embrace the 808’s futuristic sounds and from there a revolution boomed.  

3. Its competitors

The 808’s main competitors at the time were drum machines that had more “realistic” drum sounds. The Linn LM-1, which was also released in 1980, was much more expensive and not affordable by most musicians and it had a much different sound because it used real acoustic drum samples. The Roland TR-909 was the successor of the 808 and was quite popular but, like the LM-1, didn’t have that signature 808 sound that we’ve grown to love.

2. Finding the 808 today

Because of its limited production period (1980 to 1983) the original TR-808 is a rarity these days and can cost over €4000. Luckily, the Roland TR-08, a compact version of the original, was invented, and runs you only €322. Skeptical? The electronics are said to be a replica of the 808 and therefore outputs exactly the same sounds as the 808. You be the judge.

Roland TR-08

1. The 808’s Legacy

The TR-808 has left behind some of the best records in history and has moved so many people, on dance floors and in their headphones, over the years. Its beats are still sought after in new productions, for example in 2008 Kanye West released an album called 808s & Heartbreak where the rhythm of every track features the 808. In 2016 Jamie XX used the 808 in his hit Gosh” and it certainly won’t stop there…

Have you used the TR-808? Do you know another drum machine that was just as legendary? Let us know in the comments below or in the Facebook post. ?

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Joe has been singing since he can remember and started playing guitar when he was 10. He's been using it as a songwriting tool ever since. He is passionate about melody and harmony and admires musicians who create these in unique ways. Check out his alternative / indie projects Best of Feelings and Zef Raček.

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