The Roland TR-808 Drum Machine is a legendary piece of musical gear, instrumental in the formation of several styles of music including rap and techno. It’s best known for its impossibly low, deep kick, snappy snare and obnoxious cowbell sounds, but all of its sounds are near iconic. Ironically, the thing was a near-total flop when it was released in 1980, and it didn’t achieve widespread popularity until years later. Now, on 8/8/08, we bring you eight great moments in 808 history.
1) Yellow Magic Orchestra – "1000 Knives" This pioneering Japanese electropop group gets the first entry on the list because, well, they were first. They used an 808 in a live performance of 1000 Knives in 1980, the same year the box was first released.
2) 808 State – You’ve really got to love a piece of kit to name your band after it, and this seminal rave act did. Sure, the group was pretty much shit, but it did play a huge part in the U.K.’s rave scene and its crossover success paved the way for later acts like the Prodigy and Chemical Brothers to break through to non-dance-music audiences both in the U.K. and here.
3) Beastie Boys – "Brass Monkey" I’m fairly certain this was the first time I ever heard an 808, although I had no idea what it was at the time. I knew I liked it though. Hell, I still love this song. You can’t really go wrong with a little “Brass Monkey,” even to this day.
4) Miami Bass – This rap subgenre/spinoff would never have existed if not for the awesome 808. That means no 2 Live crew, and maybe more importantly, no Dirty South or crunk, which are more or less direct descendants. You like your OutKast records? Thank the 808.
5) Cybotron – "Clear" Techno pioneer Juan Atkins utilized the 808 on this classic proto-techno/electro track. His influence then and later shaped techno immensely, putting yet another genre in the “Forever Indebted to the 808” club.
6) Plastikman – Sheet One Speaking of techno, this minimal masterpiece of the genre was born of Roland, too – the 808, 909 and 303 were all the ingredients Richie Hawtin needed to make one of the greatest albums of all time. Hypnotic and spooky at times, beautiful and harsh and abrasive all the way through.
7) Marvin Gaye – "Sexual Healing" The first mainstream hit to utilize the 808, proving Marvin Gaye was a visionary – or just that he recognized that the ultra-low pitch of the kick drum was the exact frequency of sex.
8) Afrika Bambaata – "Planet Rock" This seminal, incredible, influential electro/rap classic is almost all 808. When Juan Atkins (see entry five, above) heard it, he said he realized that he’d been outdone at his own game. It still sounds fucking futuristic and far out today, decades later. Not only is it the greatest 808 track of all time, it’s arguably one of the best songs of all time.
-- Cory Casciato
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