We select 8 pinnacle tracks made with the Roland TR-808 drum machine to celebrate 808 Day (the 8th of August). The drum machine has remained one of the most important advancements in the history of electronic music, helping to craft formative tracks from Egyptian Lover, Cybotron, Whitney Houston, Drexciya and more.
The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, better known as the 808 is a drum machine produced by Roland between 1980 and 1983. The machine is one of the most important advancements in contemporary music production as it was one of the first drum machines to allow users to design their own rhythms rather than relying on preset patterns.
The 808 was quickly dropped by Roland and was considered a failure upon its initial release in 1980 due to its sounds not equating to a real life drummer. The machines failure would soon amount to its success as the forgotten piece of hardware soon found its way into the hands of younger producers with tighter budgets, and a new train of thinking.
Coined as a favourite machine from hip-hop and electro artists the 808 soon became an inseparable piece of kit for those making contemporary music in the 1980’s. What would follow after would be an explosion of new and daring electronic crafted music from a machine that was initially considered a flop.
We look at 10 tracks that helped to define the history of the Roland TR-808.
The Egyptian Lover – Egypt, Egypt [Egyptian Empire Records]
One artists that is synonymous with the 808 is LA born producer Egyptian Lover. Taken from Gregory James Broussard’s debut album ‘On The Nile’, ‘Egypt, Egypt’ was the perfect introduction to sexy sounds of West-Coast electro & hip-hop from a now bonafide legend.
Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing [CBS Records]
One of the first commercially successful tracks to use the 808 came from Marvin Gaye‘s 1982 hit ‘Sexual Healing’ which was the first single since his exit from his long-term record label Motown. The single signified a shift in sound from Marvin Gaye, but also within pop music itself as Gaye championed the rejected drum machine.
Cybotron – Clear [Fantasy]
The quintessential electro anthem ‘Clear’ by Cybotron remains a cornerstone of electronic music history. Written and recorded by Detroit royalty Juan Atkins & Richard Davis in 1983, the funk-laced track incorporated Kraftwerk samples and hard-hitting 808 rhythms, ultimately forming a cult classic that would help shape the Detroit sound as we know it.
Shannon – Let The Music Play [Emergency Records]
Staying in 1983, we move to Shannon‘s classic hit ‘Let The Music Play’ which peaked at 8 in the US Billboard Charts. The track famously used both the Roland 808 & 303, achieving a groundbreaking sound that served as a rebellion towards the backlash of disco, as dance music ,made a triumphant comeback in the US charts.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock [Tommy Boy Records]
Afrika Bambaataa‘s 1982 hit Planet Rock marked a new era for recorded hip-hop & rap, as the single became one of the first original rap records to receive commercial success. New York based DJ Afrika Bambaataa was infusing Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra into his DJ sets, ultimately crafting the idea for ‘Planet Rock’ which sampled Kraftwerks ‘Numbers’. This was a pivotal moment for both rap and the 808.
Drexciya – Andreaen Sand Dunes [Tresor]
Taken from Drexciya‘s pioneering LP ‘Neptune’s Lair’ released on Tresor in 1999, Andreaen Sand Dunes is gleaming Detroit anthem that tells an aquatic story of land far from the Motor Town. This is dreamy electro at its very finest, and arguably known as Drexciya’s finest & most eloquent moment. The 808 was fundamental to the Drexciya sound, laying the foundation for contemporary electro that still haunts dancefloors to this day.
Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) [Arista]
‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ remains one of Whitney Houston‘s most iconic singles. The Roland 808 was pinnacle to the tracks success, giving the track a dancefloor focussed groove that was heavily associated with the synth-pop craze of the 80’s. Houston won her second grammy for best female pop vocal performance for ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’, making it an indispensable part of her discography.
Aphex Twin – Xtal [R&S Records]
Xtal is the opening track on Aphex Twin’s fabled ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’. The album is one of the most important body’s of work in electronic music history and earned Richard D James a wealth of devoted fans. ‘Xtal’ is a blissful piece of ambient-techno that sets the tone for the influential album perfectly. Aphex Twin famously mutates his 808 on this record into a booming beast that oozes low-frequency power yet on his bass drum and creates intricate and delicate grooves with the hi-hat’s. Richard D James once again dismantling a formative piece of hardware to create an idiosyncratic sound.