The 808 Drum Machine Is One of Music's Most Important Inventions

Music legends and producers of the 808 documentary explain the machine's legacy.

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Even if you've never heard of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, you've definitely heard it. Developed in Japan as a user-friendly way to produce an electronic drum beat, the 808 grew into one of the foundational elements of hip-hop after Bronx rapper Afrika Bambaataa used it on his seminal 1982 track, "Planet Rock." The 808's sound has been sought after across genres ever since, and so elemental are the textures of its kick drum, snare drum, and high-hat effects that producers have never really needed to upgrade.

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The trailer for the documentary "808" shows just how important the 808 machine was in changing music—and gives you a taste of how widespread it is in some of our favorite songs.

"How many artists and producers now, 30 years since the 808 came out, are still using sound?" asks Alex Dunn, who along with Alex Noyer made a documentary about the surprisingly captivating history of the machine. "They're not looking for something new. They're twisting that sound and going with that. It's interesting in itself."

Though even diehard fans of the music it inspired are largely unfamiliar with its story, the 808 is revered within the industry. The documentary, which premieres Friday on Apple Music, includes commentary by everyone from Lil Jon, to Pharrell, to the Beastie Boys, to Rick Rubin, to Afrika Bambaataa himself. "You get all of these guys, these big, big names throughout music, and they were all willing to give us time to talk about a drum machine," says Dunn. "That's the most amazing thing."

Though even die-hard fans of the music it inspired are largely unfamiliar with its story, the 808 is revered within the industry.

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The only artist whose insight Dunn and Noyer coveted but weren't able to get was Kanye West, whose 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak represents the majority of the public's exposure to the actual name of the machine responsible for 30 years of iconic beats. As Noyer notes, though, there was no way they could have painted anything close to a complete portrait of the 808's influence in a single documentary. "Have we covered it all?" he asks. "No. Are there more storylines? Hell yes."

In anticipation of the documentary's release, we asked Dunn, Noyer, co-producer and Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman, and legendary producer Arthur Baker, who helped convince Dunn and Noyer to make the documentary, to give us a tour of some of the songs that define the story of the Roland TR-808 drum machine.

1. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force, "Don't Stop... Planet Rock"

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Africa Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" created a musical revolution. It was an amalgamation of hip-hop and dance music like we had never heard before. It gave birth to the electro movement, and with the 808 changed the way music was made from that day on. I remember vividly when it came out in 1982. I was a resident deejay at Danceteria, and it instantly became my peak hour record that put everyone into a hypnotic frenzy. It was seven-and-a-half minutes minutes of dance floor bliss that became the sound inside every New York City dance club and every block party boom box. –Craig Kallman

2. The S.O.S Band, "Just Be Good To Me"

The first time I heard the Jam & Lewis production of The S.O.S. Band's "Just Be Good To Me," it was coming out of an alarm clock radio, waking up my then-wife to get to her day job as a lawyer. Hearing that opening cowbell pattern was more of a shock to my system than a cold shower—someone else had used my secret weapon: the cowbell of the 808. While Marvin's "Sexual Healing" was the first R&B song to make use of the machine, he laid on the clavé and those big claps—for some reason he didn't use any cowbell. But being DJs, Jam & Lewis must have witnessed the dance floor's reaction to that strange space cowbell sound. —Arthur Baker

3. LL Cool J, "Jack The Ripper"

This was one of the tracks that really got me interested in hip hop. I remember hearing it when I was starting high school and it just resonated with me, literally! The decay on the kick—as with the rest of the LL Cool J tracks that used the 808—is just so beefy, and along with his trademark lyricism you just can't help but sit up and take notice. —Alex Dunn

4. Beastie Boys, "Paul Revere"

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This track is an emblem of 808 creativity. Reversing the beat was a moment of genius. It's crazy to think how mad this track is. It's featured in the film and still blows my mind every time I hear it. The enthusiasm of the Beastie Boys when talking about it still today shows that this track is rightly one of the landmarks of their awesome discography. —Alex Noyer

5. T La Rock, "It's Yours"

Unfortunately, I don't remember many specifics of my first hearing of the Rick Rubin production of "It's Yours" by T La Rock & Jazzy Jay. It was probably at my Streetwise Records office on Madison Avenue where Rick played it for me, or maybe it was Jazzy Jay, whom I had worked with. But I do remember immediately thinking it was a real game-changer. Here was a rap record that sounded like it was recorded live at a hip hop club. And that booming kick drum—I had never heard anything with a sub low end like that. I signed it on the spot and put it out as the first Def Jam Records release through my Partytime/Streetwise label. This record was definitely the blueprint for all those Def Jam LL Cool Jay & Beastie Boy Records to follow. —Arthur Baker

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6. Kanye West, "Love Lockdown"

The one that got away. Kanye was the one artist we wish we had in the film, and this track is my favorite of 808s & Heartbreak. It's deep and cold like the 808 can be, but feels passionate as it goes on and intensifies. A great track and great example of how relevant the 808 remains today. —Alex Noyer

7. Klein, "Dirty Talk"

I first heard Dirty Talk while listening to Jellybean Benitez at The Funhouse. His friend, another DJ, Tony Carrasco, who lived between Italy and the Bronx, had made this track that JB wanted to let me hear. It was a slow building track with a tight pumping bass synth, great guitars, lush strings, and the best use of the 808 rim shot/tom-tom combination to this day. There was a vocal, but no one ever played it. Search out the USA/European Connection mix—the percussion drops are genius. This song was one of the first (and best) of Italodisco, and influenced groups like New Order on both "Blue Monday" and "Confusion." —Arthur Baker

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8. Felix Da Housecat, "Kickdrum"

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It's a tribute to the most famous drum from the 808's arsenal: the kick. Felix takes it on a journey and ramps it up to the maximum. One of the things that's so great about the 808 is how it's been taken on so many different tangents and has been twisted by so many different producers and artists. "Kickdrum" really encapsulates the idea that I feel makes the 808 so special, taking the sound of the kick to an extreme place that Roland could never have imagined it would go. —Alex Dunn

9. Strafe, "Set It Off"

The strangest back-in-the-day track featuring the 808 would have to be Strafe's "Set It Off," which, again, I first heard at The Funhouse. From the vocal call to party, to the dirtiest hi hats I'd ever heard make it to record, to the hypnotic tom pattern, this is a classic that still rocks the dance floor. The lack of low end was due to born-again remixer Walter Gibbons' belief that bass was a tool of the devil. —Arthur Baker

10. Lil Louis, "French Kiss"

This track haunted my club nights in my youth. It is depraved and sensual. It is hypnotic and erotic. But it is not about the climax voice; it is the pacing and the way it builds and controls its audience. Incredible record. As a big house fan, it stands as one of my favorites of all time. —Alex Noyer

BONUS TRACK:

New Kids on The Block, "Please Don't Go Girl"

My wife and sister will appreciate this shout out. How broadly does the 808 reach? It was everywhere, including in teen pop, which shows how this beat suited music production. I bumped into Joey McIntyre the other day and he reminded me of that song and told me how big a fan of the 808 he was, so there you go. The New Kids need a mention. —Alex Noyer

From: Esquire
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