Music History

The Roland Effect: 8 Songs That Use the Legendary TR-808

You might not have heard his name, but you’ve definitely heard the device he invented. Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of Roland and creator of the TR-808 drum machine, passed away this weekend. Kakehashi’s 808 was one of the first programmable drum machines, and even though it didn’t see much initial commercial success, it has certainly cemented its place in music history.

The 808 was initially marketed as an affordable alternative to other drum machines, listing at a fifth of the $5000 price tag most others carried. However, making it cheaper meant providing less memory on board, so the programmed samples on the 808 ended up sounding more synthesized and electronic than other, much more extensive drum machines. Kakehashi liked the effects – even going so far as to deliberately install faulty transistors to create them – but critics weren’t as enthused. Electronic music hadn’t quite picked up when the 808 released in 1980, and after disappointing sales. it was pulled from shelves only three years later.

So what made the 808 so popular down the road? Well, the price tag was a big part – underground producers could afford used machines running for $100, and didn’t mind the techno tones. Its interface also made it easy to use and program, and soon enough the Roland TR-808 took off. Artists across several genres started using it, and with the growing popularity of more synthesized tones – due in part to the 808’s adoption itself – it became more ubiquitous. Nowadays, modern hip hop producers crave the deep buzz the 808’s bass provides, whereas others chase the sizzling cymbals or tinny cow bell. It’s even referenced in several tracks by artists themselves – Kanye West even dedicated an entire album to using it! So where exactly does Kakehashi’s legacy extend? How different are the songs that feature his TR-808?

Yellow Magic Orchestra – 1000 Knives


Hear that hand clap right at the start? The swishy cymbals? Those are signature 808 sounds, and this 1980 track by Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra is actually credited as the first to use Kakehashi’s machine.

Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing


That loop is instantly recognizable and was one of the first big exposures the 808 got. Released in 1982, Gaye’s reported insistence to work alone made the ease of the 808 a huge draw to him.

Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance With Somebody


The 808 wasn’t limited to electronica or R&B. You can immediately hear it at the top of Whitney’s 1987 pop hit, and that peppy cowbell carries on throughout the entire track.

Talking Heads – Psycho Killer


This smash hit uses the 808 as well, but is a bit more subtle than the tracks we’ve looked at thus far. Listen carefully to how the hi-hat’s layering changes in the chorus, plus you may catch a handclap or swishy cymbal sprinkled in there too.

Usher – Yeah ft. Lil Jon, Ludacris


Remember when Usher suddenly thrust himself back into relevance with this track? The 808 is blatant at the top of the tune, but maintains less of an electronica feel in exchange for driving the beat of the song.

Kanye West – Love Lockdown


Really you can use any song from this album – there’s a reason 808 is right in the title! Believe it or not that heartbeat right at the beginning is the 808’s bass, and Kanye really showcases how Kakehashi’s machine can be fit into any situation.

Afrika Bambaata – Planet Rock


Before Kanye and the rest of the modern rap world championed the 808, Afrika Bambaata’s 1982 track was one of the first adoptions of the machine in hip hop. And once again, the drum machine is obviously prevalent.

Nine Inch Nails – Closer


Even alternative rock has had a healthy taste of the 808. Nine Inch Nail’s use of the 808 to layer in a “doomy menace” in 1994 helped the machine cross over into yet another genre, and Kakehashi’s influence on the modern music world continued to grow.

Mathew Kahansky

Once upon a time, Mat studied journalism. That's how he became Alan's one-time intern and current-time contributor, and the rest is ongoing history - get it? Mat also studied biology and music, so he has a strangely specific knowledge set that doesn't really apply anywhere other than useless fun facts. He currently works for a music tech start-up in Halifax, and is a big fan of the em dash.

Mathew Kahansky has 297 posts and counting. See all posts by Mathew Kahansky

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