Have you ever heard of Ice Cube or Dr. Dre? What about the Beastie Boys, Aphex Twin or P. Diddy? If any of those names sound familiar, you’ve doubtless heard the Roland TR-808 Drum Machine more than once or twice. First launched as an affordable alternative to Roger Linn’s LM-1 Drum Computer in 1980, Roland’s TR-808 began it’s unlikely rise to success as a financial disaster. For all its merits, the 808’s deeply electronic sound garnered little interest among production enthusiasts of the day; even being priced at less than a quarter of the value of its competitor, Roland’s offering simply couldn’t compete in the larger market and was discontinued just three years after its release. This failure to launch, however, proved to be a great asset for the next generation of producers, who were suddenly able to pick it up on the cheap at their local pawn shop or electronics reseller. By the end of the decade, the venerable drum machine had formed the backbone of some of the most popular hip-hop, techno and electro tracks of the day, some of which you can check out here: http://flavorwire.com/433944/10-great-songs-built-around-the-808
So what makes the 808 so great, and so ubiquitous, even 30 years after it entered the market? Perhaps known most commonly for its booming, compact kick drum or its strikingly bizarre cowbell, there are sounds on the machine that are as iconic and revered as the machine itself. Yet at the end of the day, there is no single sound that makes the 808 special so much as the expansive palette of different sounds it brings to the table - not to mention the musical heritage that they’ve come to represent. From Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’, the 808 came at a crucial time in the evolution of music where electronic sounds left the experimental workshop and hit the airwaves for the first time. Anyone who’s ventured into music production since its inception has undoubtedly been struck by its familiar sound. So, it should come as no surprise that artists such as Diplo, Kanye West, 2 Chainz, and Zed’s Dead (to name a few) bring it back time and time again to produce that hard-hitting, analog beat associated with that era. Love it or hate it, there’s no escaping it - the mighty 808 has stood the test of time and is here to stay.
By Oliver Herman