How the TR-808 drum machine added the low end to modern music.


[From Excellent Reception : Episode 9]
By lil’dave

The classic drum machine known as the “808”, has maintained a place in the backbeat of popular music since it’s creation in the early 1980’s all the way up to today. It’s unique sound has helped to define numerous genres, such as Techno, Miami Bass, Electro and Trap. On this episode of Excellent Reception, we are going to explore the syncopated world of the TR-808 Drum Machine.

Just in case you have ever wondered, the “TR” in TR-808 stands for “Transistor Rhythm”. Its distinctive sound comes from the fact that it is actually uses analogue sound synthesis instead of digital sampling to create its drum tones. Just like with keyboard synthesizers, this device works by tweaking and sculpting white noise and various waveforms. These raw tones are processed through envelopes and filters until they are shaped into the classic 808 drum kit. Every time one of the drums gets triggered, that sound is generated from scratch, which causes a slight bit of variation. This means that you never get the exact same drum sound twice.

The legendary 808 drum kit consists of a kick drum, a snare drum, 3 toms, 3 congas, 2 hi-hats, a rimshot, a clave, a cymbal, a handclap, maracas, and a cowbell. These 16 standard drum sounds each have their own special properties that make them memorable. The cowbell is a bright metallic chime that can quickly become annoying if overused. The handclap is thin and brittle yet it delivers a powerful impact. The snare drum is a harsh slap that sharp enough to cut through layers of music. Most importantly, the highly sought after kick drum is a long drawn out bloom of bass that hits tones so low that it rattles your soul. All of these sounds seem to be EQ’ed to just the right frequencies to play off of each other perfectly.

Japanese electronic instrument manufacturer, Roland, only produced the TR-808 between 1980-1983. The original intent was for it to be used by musicians as a way to help with recording demos without the help of a real drummer. This was one of the very first programmable drum machines to hit the market. Unfortunately, at the time it wasn’t a huge success. This was largely due to the fact that the 808’s drums had a cold toy-like sound, while most of it’s competitors (like the Linn LM1) used samples that emulated the warm organic feel of real drums.


The TR-808 was never built with the intention of being used on professional recordings.54 It’s inexpensive price tag made it a great piece of equipment for an up and coming artist or a producer on a budget. While many of the popular drum machines were $5000 and over, you could get your hands on an 808 for under $1500. Somehow, these machines seemed to get in all the right hands.

The very first time an 808 drum machine was heard on a commercial recording was in 1980 for the song “1000 Knives” by the highly innovative Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, which was an electronic cover version of band member Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Thousand Knives”. In 1982, legendary producer Arthur Baker took inspiration from Kraftwerk, Ennio Morricone, and more to create the beat for what could possibly be the most iconic and influential 808 song ever, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. This song would help bust open the doors for a new era electronic rhythm in popular music.




Throughout the 80’s, more and more artist could be found incorporating the sound of 808 into their music. It is found in the percolating backing rhythm for Marvin Gaye’s sensual slow groover “Sexual Healing”. New Wave and Synthpop bands like New Order incorporated these sounds into songs like “Confusion”. The Beastie Boys used a tape machine to play the 808’s backwards on their hiphop classic “Paul Revere”. B-Boys could be found poppin’ and lockin’ to the hi-tech break beats of Electro-Funk songs like The Egyptian Lover “Egypt Egypt”, which fully embraced the TR-808 as the instrument of the future. This drum machine helped spawn a host of new musical movements like Miami Booty Bass and Acid House.

These days you can hear the 808 being used by artists of all genres. Groups like Outkast praise it on songs such as “The Way You Move” and Kanye West built his whole “808’s and Heartbreaks” album around it. Producers making trap music, EDM, and pop songs can be heard layering samples of that infamous kick drum into their compositions to give it the extra impact it needs for the club. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of the TR-808’s saturation into musical culture drying out anytime soon.

Let’s take a look at some classic songs that use the legendary Roland TR-808 drum machine to the fullest.

Cybotron – Clear

One of the most memorable Electro songs ever, “Clear”, was created by a band out of Detroit known as Cybotron. Band members Juan Atkins and Richard “3070” Davis pooled together their influences, from midwestern funk and Kraftwerk to science fiction novels, in order to concoct a musical style that is light years ahead of anything out at the time.

On “Clear”, Juan and Richard build a hyperreal environment out of richly layered synth chords, bubbly arpeggiated melodies, and long whooshes of white noise. The skeleton of the track is a thumpin’ 808 driven drum arrangement. This commanding rhythm would be sampled over and over by booty bass pioneers like Poison Clan and DJ Magic Mike, as well as on big hits like Missy Elliot’s “Loose Control”.

The songs Cybotron created helped to lay the groundwork for what would become techno, a genre that Juan Atkins is considered to be one of the originators. Atkins would continue to use the 808 as his “secret weapon”. In addition to it being a staple piece of equipment in the studio, he would go on to incorporate it into his DJ sets and his live performances.

Loose Ends – Hangin’ On a String

During the recording of their second album “So Where Are You?”, British R&B group Loose Ends were hoping to find a way to penetrate the American market. In 1985, the hit they were looking for came in the form a dreamy yet club friendly tune called “Hanging On A String”.

At the time “Hanging On A String” was already written and most of the musical elements were already recorded. It was unlike a lot of records out at the time, it was a slow paced club record with male and female vocals playing back and forth off of each other. It just needed one more element to make it work.

In came a DJ from Philadelphia named Nick Martinelli. Nick was part of a new breed of producers, the remixers, that were changing the industry by using their knowledge of nightclub culture to make hit songs. He felt they should change the drums on “Hangin’ On A String” so that they use the TR-808 and he suggested that they use the drum pattern from “No One’s Gonna Love You” by the S.O.S. Band as inspiration. Loose Ends went back to the studio and programmed a beat almost exactly like the S.O.S. Band’s classic.

The brand new rhythm section gave “Hangin’ On A String” the magic it needed. The song went on to become a number one hit in the United States. Of course, the producers of the S.O.S Band, the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, took notice of what they did with the drums and they weren’t too happy about it.


T-La Rock – It’s Yours

January 28, 1984 was a big day in hiphop history. This was the day that the very first rap record with a Def Jam logo, T-La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours”, was released (Though it actually was released with the help of Arthur Baker’s Partytime label).

Rapper T-La Rock along with with his brother Special K (of the Treacherous Three) worked together to carefully construct the lyrics for what would soon become an archetypal rap masterpiece. The rhymes they wrote would go on to be quoted, imitated, and sampled for years to come.

The production took inspiration from producer Rick Rubin’s experiences witnessing DJs cut up records live, as well as, what Run DMC’s was doing on songs like “Sucka MC’s”. T-La Rock and Rick created a demo of the original beat on an 808 drum machine while hanging out in Rick’s dorm room at NYU.

Later they would finish off the song in a recording session at Power Play Studios in Queens. During this session, T-La Rock would put his unforgettable raps on tape and DJ Jazzy Jay of the Zulu Nation would lay down his now infamous scratches. The finishing touch to “It’s Your’s” is the celebratorial atmosphere created by the sound of a hyped up crowd in the background. This was actually the multi-tracked chants of a few of the guys who happened to be hanging in the studio session, including a few members of the then unknown Beastie Boys.


Hashim – Al-Naafyish (The Soul)

When it comes to songs that really define the early 80’s B-Boy era, there is no song that resonates with people as hard as “Al-Naafyish” by Hashim. The title “Al-Naafyish”, was an incorrect Arabic word that was intended to mean “The Soul”. The song was a certified breakdance anthem in the streets, it hit number #43 on the Billboard ‘Dance Disco Charts’, and it became an overall hit worldwide. Even until this day, it continues to be used in movies, licensed for video games, sampled by new artists, and placed on compilations.

Many people don’t know that “Al-Naafyish” was the handy work of a 16 year old kid from Upper Manhattan named Jerry Calliste, Jr., who found Islam at an early age and was given the name Hashim by a mentor. Hashim was heavily involved with DJing and making music from throughout his teenage years. After playing some song ideas to his friend Aldo Marin, an other local dj, the two decided invest in some equipment and get the tune recorded. The result was “Al-Naafyish (The Soul)”. Hashim and Aldo joined forces to found the now legendary Cutting Records to release the song as a 12″ record and the rest is history.

It’s hard not to start dancing as soon as you hear “Al-Naafiysh” start playing. The song kicks off full force with a cowbell crazy 808 breakbeat and continues to build with a pulsating bassline, synth stabs, dj scratches, and a distorted robotic voice chanting the title of the song. Occasionally, the beat drops out to let a haunting synthesizer melody play.

One of the things that helped “Al-Naafiysh” to be so culturally significant was that it was one of those songs that DJs loved to cut back and forth. Hashim and Aldo Marin strategically decided to record 3 slightly different versions of the song to put on the single. Each version had a different robotic voice in at the beginning of the track that was setup perfectly for a DJ to scratch before the music dropped in. The most famous intro is the one where the voice yells out a long drawn out command that lets you know “It’s time!”.


Rick James – Cold Blooded

During the early 80’s, a lot of artists who hit big in the 70’s were searching for ways to modernize their sound. Funk musician Rick James was no different. He felt the pressures of the changing musical landscape, as well as, the pressures of trying to have the one up against his musical rival, Prince.

For his 1983 album Cold Blooded, he went for a less guitar driven and stripped down sound. On the title track, he created the drum section using the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The backing beat is a bare bones rhythm with just the right amount of swing to bring out the funk. As the song moves along, little stabs of synthesizer, rhythm guitar, and bass are scattered throughout to fill in the gaps. Overall it’s the interplay between Rick’s vocal arrangements and the 808 drums that really help to carry the song.

During the time he wrote “Cold Blooded”, Rick was dating actress Linda Blair (who is best known for her role as the possessed child Regan in the 1973 movie The Exorcist). While hanging at his studio one time, Rick decided to show Linda how he comes up with his music. He ended up laying down the drums, bass, synths, and more for what would eventually become the backing track for “Cold Blooded”. He also took inspiration from his relationship with Linda for the lyrics to this song. One particular incident that is said to have influenced the theme of the song is when Rick got Linda pregnant and she had an abortion without his knowledge. In his biography, GLOW, he said that the song “was about how Linda could freeze [his] blood”.

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