Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation, died on April 1st at the age of 87. Roland has produced a huge range of electronic musical instruments and effects since its founding in 1972, and Kakehashi developed MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that sits at the heart of electronic instrument communication. But no product or invention by Kakehashi and Roland has had more impact on popular music than the TR-808 drum machine.
Manufactured for three years beginning in 1980, the 808 has been used by innumerable artists for nearly 40 years, and it’s said that the 808 is to hip hop what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock and roll. The 808 was built just before sampling became widespread and produced 16 synthesized approximations to sounds from a bass drum to a handclap.
The first hit record to use the 808 appears to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from 1982. Listen to the opening bars and you’ll immediately recognize the iconic sounds.
Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, also from 1982, is credited with cementing the 808 into hip hop’s early vocabulary.
Whitney Houston used the 808 to set the beat for her 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.
In 2008, Kanye West built his fourth studio album around the sounds of the 808, and even named the album “808’s and Heartbreaks”. The drum loop in “Say You Will” is all 808.
If you want to get the full scoop on this history of this important piece of technology, here is the trailer to “808” the movie!