Ikutaro Kakehashi and the impact of the Roland TR-808

Ikutaro Kakehashi and the impact of the Roland TR-808

Ikutaro Kakehashi and the impact of the Roland TR-808

Ikutaro Kakehashi and the impact of the Roland TR-808

Over the weekend on April 1st, the founder of the Roland electronics brand, Ikutaro Kakehashi, died at the age of 87 – leaving behind an entire legacy of contributions that not only impacted the world of music, but changed it altogether, especially with his most famous creation, the Roland TR-808. Born in Osaka, Japan, Kakehashi got his start on electronics after World War II repairing watches and broken clocks, and was inspired by predecessors like Robert Moog and Don Buchla, who invented synthesizers that pushed him to create his own electronic instruments. In 1960, Kakehashi founded Ace Electronic Industries, which is also known as Ace Tone, and designed electric organs, effects devices and amplifiers, and then “rhythm machiense” which was his first foray into making drum machines. He founded the Roland brand 12 years later, and the rest, was history.

Responsible for creating the iconic Roland TR-808 (Transistor Rhythm 808) drum machine, known simply as the 808, it changed the modern day music landscape forever, featuring sounds such as the cowbell and snare hit. Millions of artists around the world embraced this powerful beat-making box, and is still considered one of the most important and influential electronic instruments of all time. It’s sounds can be heard on thousands of songs, spanning from the 80s till present day, with strong origins that can be traced back in the genres of house, electro and techno, and especially in the development of hip-hop. What made the 808 unique was that the drum sounds did not resemble real percussion, and was very futuristic sounding. The machine was most well known for its extremely powerful bass sound that sounded like no other – and if you make a powerful enough 808, it can blow your speakers.

The 808 was first released in 1980, and did not receive much commercial success. Music makers did not see the instrument as a serious commitment, but rather as a toy that simply made robotic sounds. It also had a rival at the time which was the Linn LM-1, which not only had a crisper sound that prided itself on emulating an acoustic drum kit, but achieved more sales success. However, with a high price point of $5000, the Linn drum machines were only available to those who can afford it, the 808 slowly built a cult following amount underground producers, who also appreciated its easier and more accessible interface, with a lower price tag of $1200. It’s affordability meant young burgeoning producers were able to purchase the machine, and eventually found new and adventurous ways of using it in their music. The 808 made it’s way into popular music, and hits like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” are just few of the songs at the time that used the drum machine to build it’s groove.

The impact of the sound of the 808 stretched far and wide – not only in the genre of hip-hop where it’s had it’s main contribution to it’s progress, but also in subgenres such as acid house, Miami bass, and Detroit techno. With the emergence of drum machines, producers need not engage a live drummer to produce beats and samples for loops, and was able to tweak their own patterns our of it’s unique toy-like sounds. The 808 produced a new era of producers, such as hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa, who credited the machine on his 1982 release “Planet Rock”, Rick Rubin, and Pete Rock. Acts such as the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run-DMC and LL Cool J, used the 808 to create hard hitting beats that were stripped down, compared to the music heavy hip-hop hits of the time.

What makes the 808 so unique to the bedroom producers of the thriving electronic music styles at the time, is the idiosyncrasy of it’s sounds – for example, it’s famous hand clap sounds nothing like real hands clapping, and replaced the traditional snare sound in electronic music with it’s high treble frequency. It became so ubiquitous in house and most dance music and became a very recognisable and essential element to the genre. Yellow Magic Orchestra was one of the first to use the hand clap to it’s fullest in it’s 1981 track “1000 Knives”.

40 years down since the 808 appeared in the music market, hip-hop producers still rely heavily on the sounds of the machine, with countless kits created that mimic its iconic features that made the genre’s defining sound, though producer’s claim they are nowhere near the same tone. Kanye West dedicated an entire album to this sound called “808s & Heartbreak”, with the track “Love Lockdown” being the most famous, featuring the strong 808 sound in it’s heartbeat intro. Other hip-hop artists such as Lil Jon has beed accused of overusing the handclap sound, and the 808 also sparked the formation of groups such as the 808 Mafia (Southside and Lex Luger) who are most well known for being the forefathers of the Atlanta “trap” sound, using the 808 bass drum to full effect. Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital, who are responsibly for most of Future and Migos’ records – relied on the 808 sound heavily as well. Beyond hip-hop, present-day EDM producers such as Diplo and David Guetta use the 808 sound in their productions, and footwork/jungle/dubstep producer Addison Groove had an album called “Transistor Rhythm”.

In 2015, a full length documentary called the 808 was released, featuring artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Questlove, and Pharrell tracking the history and importance of the drum machine.

Till today, the 808 is still as prominent as it was almost 40 years ago when it was first launch, thanks to it’s versatility and ease of use – encouraging many music makers to produce and experiment in countless ways. It forced producers to think not only on the construction of beats and patterns, but also working with flows and melodies. Being a predominant presence in modern day electronic music, the 808 is a critical element that also has to be considered in the design of club sound systems, and many producers today create records with this in mind. The legacy of the 808 will continue to thrive for many years to come, and we leave you guys with a little tasty bite from Addison Groove playing a live 808 set for Factmag:

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