This episode was written and produced by Fil Corbitt.
The 808 is arguably the most iconic drum machine ever made. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve definitely heard it. It’s in dozens of hit songs -- from Usher to Marvin Gaye, Talking Heads to The Beastie Boys -- and its sounds have quietly cemented themselves in the cultural lexicon. In this episode, we try to understand how that happened and follow the unlikely path of the 808. Featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff and Paul McCabe from Roland.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
Bus Stop by Red Licorice
Your Own Company by Laxcity
Ventana by Slowblink
Lost Without You by Vesky
I Know (No Oohs and Aahs) By Red Licorice
MUSIC EXAMPLES FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince
The Robots HQ Audio by Kraftwerk
Heart of Glass by Blondie
In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins
Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force
Funk Box Party, Part 1 by The Masterdon Committee
Egypt, Egypt by The Egyptian Lover
Just Be Good To Me by S.O.S. Band
Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye
Raga Bhairav by Charanjit Singh
Scorpio by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Play At Your Own Risk by Planet Patrol
Just One of Those Days by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince
Cars That Go Boom by L’trimm
Kickdrum by Felix da housecat
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.
Follow the show on Twitter & Facebook.
Become a monthly contributor at 20k.org/donate.
If you know what this week's mystery sound is, tell us at mystery.20k.org.
Consolidate your credit card debt today and get an additional interest rate discount at lightstream.com/20k.
Go to forhims.com/20k for your $5 complete hair kit.
View Transcript ▶︎
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz, I'm Dallas Taylor.
[SFX: Cybertron 808 Beat]
The 808 drum machine is everywhere. And even if you don’t know it by name, you have definitely heard it before.
[Music clip: Usher - Yeah!]
[Music clip: Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance with Somebody]
[Music clip: New Kids on the Block - Please Don't Go Girl]
[Music clip: Beastie Boys - Brass Monkey]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: I laugh because if I listen to the radio for an hour, there's not one record that you hear that's not an 808.
That’s DJ Jazzy Jeff. He’s a world renowned DJ, musician, and one of the early innovators of Hip Hop.
[Music clip: He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: There was nothing that was more distinctive and more sought after than an 808.
Paul McCabe: The Roland TR-808 is a drum machine...
This is Paul McCabe from Roland. Roland is a company that makes electronic instruments. When they released the 808 in the early 80s, drum machines weren’t exactly sought after. For 20 or 30 years, they had been used mostly in the home.
Paul McCabe: We have to remember in the '70s, the '60s, the '50s music being played in the home was still a very popular thing. And television hadn't taken over the living room quite yet. So families would often gather around and they would play music, people would play music as a pastime. A high percentage of the population was playing music.
And though families were hanging out in the living room playing music, they typically didn’t have a drum kit laying around.
They’d possibly have a guitar [SFX: Guitar strums], maybe a piano [SFX: Quick Piano riff] or a home organ [SFX: Organ riff]. As you can imagine, people wanted a rhythmic instrument that wasn’t as big or loud as a live drum kit.
Paul McCabe: If you see photos of some of the earliest drum machines, in fact you'll even see drum machines that are designed to sit on top of an organ where the music rest would normally be.
[SFX: Roland TR-66 Rhythm Arranger]
Paul McCabe: So they have typically, particularly the earliest drum machines were really working to try to recreate the sound of a small acoustic drum kit. And so there would be a kick drum and a snare drum and cymbals and tom toms.
Drum machines were used for casual purposes and weren’t that useful to professional musicians.
But in time, musicians did start to find uses for Drum Machines. By the 1970s, many songwriters would program a drum beat and write to it - a practice Phil Collins used often…
[Music Clip: Phil Collins - One More Night]
But as people found uses for drum machines, early versions of electronic music were starting to go mainstream.
[Music Clip: Kraftwerk - The Robots HQ Audio]
This is “The Robots HQ” by Kraftwerk, a four piece band from Germany...
Paul McCabe: Kraftwerk is one of the founding fathers of techno.
They helped introduce new, weird technology to popular music.
Paul McCabe: They built their own instruments so they were playing some of the earliest electronic rhythm instruments that you could play and strike..
It’s here in the 70s when electronic rhythm machines started to catch on. These drum machines slowly morphed from family novelty instruments into something professionals were using.
Paul McCabe: They started to become used more in live performance in a situation where either an acoustic drummer wasn't available or to enhance a rhythm section, and then they started to appear in recordings.
One of the machines that started appearing in recordings was a predecessor to the 808 -- a drum machine called the CR-78.
Here it is in Blondie's Heart of Glass.
[Music Clip: Blondie - Heart of Glass]
And here’s the CR-78 in Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight.
[Music Clip: Phil Collins - In the Air Tonight]
These songs inspired an early demand for a stage-ready drum machine. That demand ultimately inspired Roland to create the 808. [SFX: 808 clip keeps playing] They wanted to build a machine that was relatively durable, movable, and affordable to the average musician.
Paul McCabe: When one sees a TR-808 it almost looks military in its design. It's kind of a drab olive color and there's a reason why TR 808s are still being used today 'cause you could drive a truck over them and probably many of them would still work. That was what was in our mind at the time.
There have been a few instruments in history that changed music forever. The piano revolutionized classical music history... electric guitars defined rock and roll… and the 808 transformed hip and hop and electronic music.
Paul McCabe: When we think about the sound of the 808, and again, we think of it in terms of its influence on hip hop and R&B and when we think of hip hop of course we start with Afrika Bambaataa and Planet Rock.
[Music Clip: Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force - Planet Rock]
It's this other worldly mashup of this kind of east coast New York with Kraftwerk.
You can also hear some funk influence too. This all combined into a sound that felt new... and it blew up.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: In the early '80s, it was so new that you were trying to get your hands on whatever drum machine you could to basically make your beats.
And like a lot of musicians at the time, DJ Jazzy Jeff heard Planet Rock and was captivated by the drum sounds.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: There was no drum machine that had a kick drum that sounded like that. That had a snare that sounded like that. That had a crispness to the hi-hats like an 808. So it was definitely sought after so that you could kind of make these records. We emulated whatever we heard, so you know, when Planet Rock came out, it was kind of like, "I need that machine."
Once these DJs got their hands on an 808, they found themselves expanding on its possibilities.
[music clip: The Masterdon Committee - 1982 - Funk Box Party, Part 1]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: There was a record, Funk Box Party by Masterdon Committee, and he was a DJ that was very, very good on an 808.
Musicians were experimenting. Here’s Egyptian Lover, over on the west coast.
[Music clip: The Egyptian Lover - Egypt, Egypt]
And here’s S.O.S. Band. They’re kind of like a pre-hiphop funk thing.
[Music clip: S.O.S. Band- Just Be Good To Me]
Here’s Marvin Gaye’s more minimalist use of the 808.
[Music clip: Marvin Gaye - Sexual Healing]
As musicians began experimenting with the 808, it wasn’t clear if this sound had staying power. It could just be a flash in the pan that would be replaced by the next version. But it didn’t quite go like that.
Paul McCabe: There was all these moments that were happening, these musical moments that were very serendipitous in New York, in the early '80s. That, ya know, if they'd gone left instead of right, if this guy did this on a Tuesday instead of a Wednesday, we probably wouldn't be talking about the 808 in this context today. It was literally that kind of magical.
And believe it or not a huge factor in that magic, was that when the 808 came out in 1981 it wasn’t a big hit like Roland had hoped. We’ll explain why, and how that ultimately was a good thing, after the break.
[music in - 808 beat]
What’s amazing about the 808, is that it seemed so unlikely to succeed. Imagine a Japanese engineer in the late 1970s creating these synthesized drum sounds -- and those drum sounds crossing the ocean and revolutionizing hip hop forever. But before it did all that, it was off to a shaky start.
Drum machines at the time were largely meant to replace a live drummer, so it was all about getting it to sound like a real drum set.
Paul McCabe: Right about that same time, 1981, the first drum machine that used recorded sound clips or samples came into being.
At the time, companies were putting out these drum machines that were sample based - which is another way of saying, they played back real recorded drum sounds. [SFX: Sample based drums in] And the 808 was fully synthesized. [SFX: 808 drums in] Meaning, it did not sound like a real drum set.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: To me, this is very Nintendo and Atari-ish. Here's my computer version of what I think a drum kit is supposed to sound, and it doesn't sound anything like a drummer or a drum set at all. It was their interpretation, but their interpretation became the backbone of electronic music.
An Atari/video gamey-sounding drum kit was not at all what people wanted. Well, Initially.
[Music clip: Raga Bhairav - 1982 - SYNTHESIZING: TEN RAGAS TO A DISCO BEAT - Charanjit Singh]
Here is Charanjit Singh, an Indian musician making 808 music in 1982.
Bizarrely enough, since the 808 wasn’t that successful in the beginning, they began to show up at pawn shops for super cheap.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: I ended up getting mine from a pawn shop. Because you couldn't really walk into a store and see an 808.
People started picking them up because it was a piece of equipment they could actually afford. Recording studios often had one on a shelf collecting dust, or somebody’s friend might lend them one for a live show. But the jury was still out on whether the 808 was anything more than just a cheap drum machine.
Paul McCabe: The 808 was really facing quite an uphill battle to gain any kind of acceptance. But in a kind of, one of these classic your strength is your weakness paradoxes where the strength of the drum machines that were based on recordings of actual drum sounds was that at first glance they sounded more natural. On the other hand, certainly with the technology available at that time, you couldn't really adjust the sound that much.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: We were used to having a drum machine that you were stuck with basically the sound that came out of it. There wasn't too much manipulation that you can do, so to have this machine that you can take the snappiness out of the snare [SFX: Snare samples with snappiness being removed], and you can add more boom into the kick [SFX: Kick samples with boom increasing]. This one machine could sound a hundred different ways.
Adjustability was the key.
As other machines began to sample recordings of real drums, Roland was doing the exact opposite. Using synthesizers, Roland engineers tried to recreate the essential elements of drum sounds. Instead of recording a kick drum, an engineer figured the kick drum is supposed to be bassy and bottom-heavy. So using synthesized sounds, they created a bassy, bottom-heavy tone.
Paul McCabe: And so with that in mind, you look and you've got these 11 sounds...
Here’s the Kick [SFX]
Closed Hi Hat [SFX]
Open Hi Hat [SFX]
Paul McCabe: crash cymbal [SFX]
Paul McCabe: There's toms [SFX]
Paul McCabe: hand clap [SFX]
Paul McCabe: Rimshot [SFX]
Paul McCabe: cowbell [SFX], you always got to have more cowbell. [SFX]
And finally Clave [SFX]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: When you start getting into the clave and the cowbell, those were two very distinctive sounds that if you put them on anything, you knew they came from an 808. Because it was kind of like an artificial sound, but it had its own texture and it was very distinctive.
The clave, the cowbell, the hand clap -- so many of the 808 sounds were super distinctive. But one of these distinctive sounds seemed to change music forever. That’s the low, bottom-heavy kick drum. [SFX: Kick drum]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: There was a point in time that I felt like people were afraid of kick drums. You couldn't have the kick drum too loud, you couldn't have it too boomy.
[Music clip: Scorpio - Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five]
Here’s Scorpio by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. You can hear that the kick drum is relatively low in the mix.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Someone had the heart to put an 808 kick drum that it was round, and it was boomy, and it felt really good.
Here’s Planet Patrol, with a rounder, louder kick drum.
[Music clip: Planet Patrol - Play At Your Own Risk]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Then somebody on a record opened up the decay, and when that kick drum rang out, it was nothing like that that you've ever heard.
Here’s DJ Jazzy Jeff himself opening up that decay, and letting the kick drum drive the song.
[Music clip: DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince - Just One of Those Days]
The sound of the 808 kick drum became synonymous with hip hop. The idea of young people driving down the street with a big boomy subwoofers was largely because of the 808 tone. And that connection stuck.
Here’s L’trimm - a Miami Bass hip hop duo -- singing about boomy car stereos in 1988.
[Music clip: Cars That Go Boom]
20 years later - Felix da Housecat released the song “Kick Drum.” Which does the same thing, and pushes the 808 kick drum decay to its absolute limit.
[Music clip: Felix da housecat - Kickdrum]
[music in: 808 beat]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: You're not supposed to have your bass drum driving that much, and it's kind of like, "Why not?" Everybody's riding around in their car playing this music, and it's vibrating their car and they enjoy that. There's no right and wrong in it. I really feel like the 808 kick drum was one of the first things that started shattering the rules of what you could, what you couldn't, or what you should or shouldn't do when it came to recording music.
People didn’t know they wanted a boomy kick drum or a funny cowbell. But once they heard those sounds, it seemed so obvious. It was like a ringing kick drum should have existed all along.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: What made you put a decay on the kick drum? Like, no one ever thought to make a kick drum ring, and what made you think of putting this on there? And did you ever think that it would become this iconic?
[808 beat out]
Paul McCabe: If you've ever been in a recording studio or seen photos of a recording studio where there's an acoustic drum kit, set up, if you're able to have a close look at the kick drum, more often than not you're going to see all kinds of materials, either stuffed into the shell of the kick drum, often it's blankets or towels or things like that. You'll sometimes see things that are taped to the head of the drum as well, and these are all to dampen or muffle the ring of the kick drum because left unmuffled, you strike a kick drum, it's gonna sustain for quite awhile.
What they were trying to achieve was the sound of an acoustic drum set. But since it was a synthesized sound, this rebuilding of a kick drum took on a life of its own.
Paul McCabe: So recognizing that, Roland thought well okay, that's clearly what we have to do to make this thing sound like an acoustic kick drum, so we put a decay control on it.
This essentially turned into a whole new instrument, with new sonic parameters. It was so different that the studios making early hip hop records didn’t even know what to do with it.
[Music clip: He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper]
DJ Jazzy Jeff: When we did He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, was the first record that I used 808s and 80–8 samples on, that I wanted the kick drum to really resonate. I remember fighting with the engineer, because I wanted to push the envelope on how loud and how deep I wanted the 808. Because I knew there was some hip hop records That you would get in a car and you would play it, and the entire car would vibrate. And I was like, "I want that."
But since that was unheard of at the time, the engineer refused.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: I had to fight with the engineer to turn it up, and he would turn it down and turn it up, and I had to kind of explain to him like, "I understand that there is a technical way that you think you're supposed to do something. I want to push that envelope. I need this to be this loud. I need it to be almost at the brink that it's not distorting and it's not overpowering everything, but I need this to be the focal point of the record."
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Hip hop is something that the drums have to drive the record. I got him to allow me to do it to the point that I loved it, and what I never realized was I never told the mastering engineer that I wanted that. And he thought it was a mistake, and he took all of the 808 out of the album, and I don't think I've ever said this in public. I can't listen to He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper now. That is the biggest record we've ever done, and I absolutely hate the way that it sounds because they sucked all of the bottom end from the 808 out in mastering.
Here’s a clip from He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper as it is on the record [music clip] and here’s probably what DJ Jazzy Jeff was going for [music clip].
With the birth of any genre, there are growing pains. And in a completely unexpected turn, the Roland TR-808, and it’s boomy kick drum became the voice of hip hop and electronic music. The rattling car stereos, the big subwoofers at clubs. They became a new culture. And once it established itself, it spread like wildfire.
Paul McCabe: The 808 is everywhere. Now you'll hear 808s in, I don't want to say every genre of music, there's some styles of music that are so rooted in acoustic, but it's in pop everywhere. And we know just by saying pop, that's such a wide term now, it encompasses world music, it encompasses electronic music and EDM and techno and house and what have you. It's not an understatement to say that the 808 is just everywhere through pop music.
It was a perfect storm of accessibility, adjustable tones, and brand new alien sounds that made people love the 808. The engineers in Japan could never have imagined the way this machine would change the sound of pop music, and hip hop, forever.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: Hip hop is really based off of taking what you have and making it do something that it's not supposed to. We are not supposed to scratch on a turntable. We're not supposed to scratch on records. We're not supposed to drive the kick drum and push things to that level. None of these things make any sense. So as much as it doesn't make sense, it completely makes sense that this Japanese engineer made a drum machine and people started using it in a way that he didn't intend to use. And it works.
Paul McCabe: When we talk about the 808, we talk about a sound and an instrument that has actually defined culture, and so culture is the bigger context within which music fits. So a world without 808, I think it's very reasonable to speculate that fashion would be different, entertainment would be different. I think we wouldn't just be talking about a sonic notch. I think we would be talking about a cultural notch that would be profound.
The 808, sort of by accident, became the instrument that shaped hip-hop, just like the electric guitar shaped rock and roll. But at the end of the day, no matter how useful and no matter how distinctive, these are tools. Cultural moments have a way of clinging to new tools, which help communicate new ideas… or help say something that hasn’t been said before, or at least... say it in a new voice.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: This is why I love music so much, because there's a thousand different combinations and ways to get to a result.
DJ Jazzy Jeff: At the end of the day, you realize that someone who had a crappy week at work, depending on how you present this music, you can change their day. You can introduce two people together that end up spending the rest of their lives together just by playing music in a certain way to bring people together. I've been blessed to have a thumbprint in music, in making it or playing it, that affects people's moods. That's the coolest job in the world.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound a sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com
This episode was produced by Fil Corbitt and me, Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound design and edited by Soren Begin, it was mixed by Jai Berger. Fil Corbitt is the host of Van Sounds, a podcast about movement. It’s a unique blend of music journalism, travel writing and experimental radio. You can find Van Sounds on apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
Thanks to DJ Jazzy Jeff for speaking with us. You can find his work, merch and updates at DJJazzyJeff.com. And thanks so much to Paul McCabe from Roland. If you’d like to play with an 808, Roland has recently reissued it as a smaller machine with a USB connection.
All additional music in this episode was from our friends at musicbed. Check them out at musicbed.com.
Finally, if you have a comment, episode suggestion, or just want to tell us your favorite track featuring the 808… reach out on Twitter, Facebook, or by writing hi at 20k dot org.
Thanks for listening.