When the news emerged last April) that Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi had passed away aged 87, tributes poured in from all corners of the music world. The Japanese pioneer’s inventions didn’t just become a mainstay of electronic music, they had a huge impact on mammoth pop singles, classic R&B, contemporary hip-hop, new wave – you name it, Kakehashi had a hand in it.
His most famous and well-loved invention was the TR-808, a relatively affordable drum machine made with Don Lewis that launched in 1980. A novel device, it allowed musicians to create their own drum beats, instead of relying on standard presets. At first it was a commercial flop, discontinuing in 1983. Electronic music wasn’t in vogue, and to many, the 808’s programmed beats weren’t palatable. Over time, the device began to be embraced by chart-bothering electro-pop acts and underground hip-hop producers alike. By the time of Kakehashi’s death, his original invention had managed to influence just about every genre. The 808 even has its own yearly celebration (“808 Day” falls on August 8) – you can’t say that about most music gear. Below is a guide to the best 808-stuffed songs to have emerged in the last 38 years.
Marvin Gaye – ‘Sexual Healing’ (1982)
Tightly-wound, tap-tap electronic percussion became cool thanks to Marvin Gaye. Recorded in Ostend, Belgium, after cutting ties with Motown, this was a daring, ultra-experimental move that quickly birthed Gaye’s most successful song. The stroke of genius is in how he couples the 808’s threadbare, spacious drum parts with fidgety, hyperactive guitar lines and one of his strongest vocal lines. Just when Kakehashi’s device was beginning to look like an unpopular, unloved mistake, Gaye started the 808 revolution.
Kanye West – ‘Love Lockdown’ (2008)
In a sparring match comparing his best work, Kanye West’s 2008 full-length ‘808s and Heartbreak’ rarely comes up in conversation. Usually, it’s a competition between magnum opus ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ or ‘Yeezus’’ vicious wall of noise. But this was a record that helped shape some of today’s biggest stars: The Weeknd credits it as his biggest influence, and who knows where Drake might be without it? Yeezy’s ‘808s’ had no peers – nobody else even considered applying autotune to raw 808 beats. And ’Love Lockdown’ embodied this best – the sound of real heartbreak being hyper-digitised.
Beyoncé – ‘Drunk in Love (ft. Jay Z)’ (2013)
A stone-cold classic from her 2013 ‘BEYONCÉ’ album, ‘Drunk in Love’ pushed the 808 to its bassiest limits. There’s plenty of distractions – not least Jay Z’s slightly limp but loveable “eat the cake” verse – but harsh, processed beats are front and centre throughout. They’re riding a wave of their own, side by side with Bey’s surfbort.
Hudson Mohawke – ‘Chimes’ (2014)
Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke was one of the first to pay tribute to Kakehashi when learning of his death, tweeting: “Imagine there’d never bn a 808 909 101 303 etc. Wud all b stuck listening to guitars. (How many can I offend).” On the title-track of his 2014 ‘Chimes’ EP, HudMo wields the rawest form of deathly noise from Roland devices, to the point where every digital hi-hat feels like a jab in the chest.
Frankie Knuckles – ‘Your Love’ (1986)
Legendary New York via Chicago producer Frankie Knuckles, the Godfather of house, used processed beats as a tool in helping to evolve his signature, thumping template. Knuckles’ love was for the TR-909, a rhythm composer launched after the TR-808, this time the creation of Roland engineer Tadao Kikumoto. He was sold his first 909 by Chicago DJ Derrick May, and the rest was history.
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force – ‘Planet Rock’ (1986)
It might have been an underground hit, but ‘Planet Rock’ was also a game-changer for electro funk. Applying samples from Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’, its use of the 808 was revolutionary, spinning madness from a previously formulated style. Partly thanks to Bambaataa, the 808 was no longer associated with simple, robotic, plastic beats – it became a form of expression. Bambaataa later claimed that ‘Planet Rock’ was responsible for house and freestyle rap. In a documentary about the TR-808’s legacy, Pharrell Williams picked this song as a pivotal moment. “We never heard anything like that before,” he said.
Whitney Houston – ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ (1987)
By the late ‘80s, the 808 was everywhere, and it became used in more hits than any other drum machine. It can be heard in the opening, rat-a-tat seconds of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, before being swept aside by the song’s sugary ‘80s crush. The track was initially panned by critics, but it went on to become one of Whitney’s most well-loved hits.
Talking Heads – ‘Psycho Killer’ (live) (1983)
Although ‘Psycho Killer’’s recorded version is punctuated by straight-up, standard drums, this live edit is a well-loved edit. Part of Talking Heads’ legendary ’Stop Making Sense’ film, it sees the ever-evolutionary David Byrne somehow combining the 808’s fidgety taps –played out of an old school boombox – with rhythmic acoustic guitar strums.
Daft Punk – ‘Doin’ it Right (ft. Panda Bear)’ (2014)
The 808 was still being redefined in 2014, thanks to everyone’s favourite forward-thinking robots, Daft Punk. Their collaboration with Animal Collective’s Panda Bear – aka Noah Lennox – is a stripped down gem from most recent album ‘Random Access Memories’, using Lennox’s Brian Wilson-nodding trademark vocal for a new purpose.
Lil Wayne – ‘Let the Beat Build’ (2008)
“Heh, c’mon / Just a snare and a 808” raps Lil Wayne on this highlight from 2008 LP ‘The Carter III’. Kanye West, then championing the device on his own full-length, made the beat for this track. He was clearly obsessed.