17 Nov 2020

Tony Stamp celebrates 40 years of the TR 808

From Afternoons, 2:25 pm on 17 November 2020

It's the the 40th anniversary of the TR-808 - the electric guitar of hip hop and Tony Stamp from RNZ's music says of the drum machine that it's possibly the most influential bit of music hardware in music history and without it, whole genres of music would not exist.

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Roland's TR-808: the drum machine that revolutionised music

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Roland TR-808, a piece of equipment that changed the sound of modern music forever, giving birth to entire genres along the way. Tony Stamp looks at the history of the device, and its impact on New Zealand music.

Roland 808

Roland 808 Photo: supplied

Even if you’re not sure what a TR-808 is, you’ve definitely heard it. In fact it’s probably in some of your favourite music.

Developed in 1980 by Ikutaro Kakehashi, the 808 is a drum machine - a bank of sounds contained in a box, that lets the user programme their own rhythms. It was notable for allowing musicians to tweak each sound, and was criticised on its release for not really sounding like a drum kit. 

But its unique sounds are what have ensured its legacy for forty years - in particular its kick drum, a huge sub-bass boom that’s instantly familiar.

In fact according to Roland’s website the 808 is heard on more hit records than any other drum machine.

Marvin’s Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ was the first hit single to feature the 808. Featured on Gaye’s final album Midnight Love, it allowed him a new way to make music. He brought the 808 into the studio fully programmed, after perfecting every sequence at home. No one but Gaye was permitted to touch it.

Other notable appearances were on Phil Collins 1985 album No Jacket required - in particular the song ‘One More Night’, which spent two weeks at number one on the billboard charts - and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody in 1987.

It was 1982 when Afrika Bambataa used an 808 on his track ‘Planet Rock’, the song that really cemented its legacy. It reverberated through the New York club scene and massively influenced hip hop and dance music for decades to come. Entire genres like Miami Bass simply wouldn't exist without the 808. 

There were only ever twelve thousand 808s produced, because Kakehashi credited its distinctive sizzle to a defective transistor. After the faulty transistors were all gone, that was it.

Kakehashi explained this in the 2015 documentary 808, summing up: “No way to go back”.    

They became boutique items, heavily sought after around the world. Many products still emulate them, and most producers will have a folder of 808 samples on their hard drive. 

Of the original 12,000 units, at least one is in New Zealand. In fact it’s in the home studio of one of our most celebrated hip hop producers. 

Peter Wadams (better known as P-Money), produced Scribe’s biggest hits, and has worked with David Dallas, JessB, Arahdna, as well as internationals like Akon, Joey Bada$$, and Gappy Ranks, to name just a few. 

He’s had his TR-808  for fifteen years now, after coming across one in a second-hand music store in Auckland.

“I went to Bungalow Bill’s Used Music Emporium, and I just saw it! I saw it on the shelf behind the counter. I said, ‘What are you doing with that?’ and Bill said, ‘Ah, you don’t want that.’ I said ‘Nah I think I do!’

“I wanted it so bad. I’ve always wanted one of those. That was the first time I’d seen one with my own eyes.”

Bill sold that unit to Peter for around $1,800. 808s go for about four times that now. He’d been aware of the machine’s sounds since his early teens, after identifying it on some of his favourite records. One year at a Big Day Out festival he got to hear one in its ideal environment.

“It was Maaka Phat, who was the drummer for Moana and the Moa Hunters, hitting a drum pad to trigger that sample of the 808 kick. 

“He’s hitting these pads, and you’re getting this 808 sound coming out of this giant stack of speakers, and it’s just shaking your entire chest, and insides, and eyeballs. Your vision wobbles. 

“That’s amazing. What a feeling. And that as a teenager I was just like ‘Wooooww’.

“It’s a physical sensation. When you have sub-harmonic frequencies at that level of amplification, it moves your body. It moves through you. 

“Nothing else does that”.

It didn’t take long after its invention in 1980 for an 808 to make its way into Aotearoa, and into the hands of Alan Jansson. 

Alan would go on to co-produce OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’, and the iconic 1994 compilation Proud, but at the time he was in a punk band called The Steroids.  

In the early ‘80s he went to see British new wave band Ultravox soundcheck at Wellington Town Hall. A mate of his who was roadying for them got Alan into the venue. 

“The drummer spent twenty minutes soundchecking his drums, and about an hour soundchecking his drum machines. And he only had two of them. 

“One of them was an 808. I thought ‘What the hell is that?! It sounds amazing!’ 

“I was totally blown away, and from that minute it was the end of our drummer in the band.”

Alan formed The Body Electric with Steroids’ bass player Andy Drey. Their debut single 'Pulsing' was recorded at Radio NZ’s Broadcasting House, and was in the NZ charts for over eight weeks.

After the band went their separate ways Andy joined Shona Laing’s band, taking the 808 with him. He went on to sell it to George Hubbard, who was managing Upper Hutt Posse. The band would use it on their debut album Against The Flow.

Music journalist Martyn Pepperell explains “The 808 that The Body Electric owned and sold to George Hubbard was probably the 808 used on a lot of records in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.

“That’s the thing, this has gone from a prestige piece of studio equipment that only the wealthy could purchase, to a thing that people could hire, to a sample set or bunch of files that you can download off the internet.”

In fact before The Body Electric’s 808 was sold, Alan Jansson had sampled its sounds, and ended up using some of them on one of New Zealand’s biggest pop hits, OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’.

Over forty years the 808 has become ubiquitous in modern music, used in everything from rock, to trap, to myriad genres of dance music.

Martyn Pepperell sums up: “Once you move forward to the current day it’s more a question of what doesn’t have an 808 on it. At this point we live in an 808 world really.”

TR-808 Madness: A Spotify playlist: