Power Of Ten: The Reign of the TR-808

By Sean Lewis

When Roland released the TR-808 programmable drum machine in 1980, their intention was to offer an affordable drumming alternative for guitar and bass players. While this may have been a poor choice for the natural drum sounds sought after by session musicians, it spawned a love affair between the coveted unit and genres from hip-hop, R&B, pop, and electronic music that’s lasted over 30 years. Its signature sounds are unmistakable in early tracks like Marvin Gaye’s monumental “Sexual Healing,” to hits from the Pointer Sisters, Phil Collins, and Cyndi Lauper.

The 808 may have provided drum sounds for popular music, but that should stand as a small side note to the way that it revolutionized the electronic music world. It became the key component in entire genres formed around the foundation of its tones, which can be heard in early Detroit techno from Juan Atkins, to the electro sounds of Afrika Bambaataa and Egyptian Lover. Through the years, the tide hasn’t left any high water marks on its way out—in fact, the water continues to rise. The Miami bass movement of the ’90s gave birth to boundless tributes to the 808, and as different offshoots of the southern style migrated to hip-hop’s “trap” music and electronic styles like Chicago juke, the 808 continues to impact today’s sounds.

In this 808-themed Power Of Ten, we take note of a major shift occurring in electronic music’s landscape, and put together a chart of 10 examples from this year’s roster of producers to show how the reign of the 808 continues. Grab all the tracks below here in this chart.

Ital Tek – The Planet [Atom River]

Brighton, UK producer Ital Tek has been increasingly toying with feeling of 808s. “The Planet” appears on the EP named after the track, and shows a fondness for the more contemporary uses of samples taken from the classic drum machine on three out of the four tracks on the EP.

Kromestar – Noiz [Orgin Audio]

A brilliant adaption from South London dubstep pioneer Kromestar. Using the signature 808 hi-hats in the form made popular by America’s southern rap artists, Kromestar complements dubstep-style synth bass with rolling 808 percussion elements.

Tobias. – Girts (Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer Remix) [Unterton]

It’s pretty standard to hear 808 elements from one of its enthusiasts, but probably more so when you put three of them together. On this release, Tobias., Ricardo Villalobos, and Max Loderbauer carry the remix with attention to one of techno’s most well-known pieces of gear.

Paper Diamond – Airlift [Mad Decent]

Mad Decent’s recent draft pick, Paper Diamond, has been making some big waves. This glitch-hop-style banger rips up crowds with hip-hop fundamentals and electronic sound formulas. Built around an anchor that centers them both, the 808 kicks and claps tie each together for a perfect play.

Zombies For Money – Indonesia (Sun Version) [Trouble & Bass]

Even the avant garde electro of Zombies’ “Indonesia” can reap the benefits of the 808’s rich heritage. The depth of the 808’s kick and the contrasting crispness of the snare brings with it a proprietary vibe that stays consistent regardless of the arrangement.

Kodiak – Spreo Superbus (Girl Unit Remix) [Numbers]

London duo Kodiak gets a helping hand from fellow London resident Girl Unit. This remix takes “Spreo Superbus” into territory that’s occupied by the 808 echoes of early electro but also bridges the old with the new. Girl Unit not only shows the flexibility that the sound carries, but a fondness most producers have for its characteristics.

Nick Monaco – Bayss Feel [Anabatic Records]

Nick Monaco probably rules our Power Of Ten list for crossbreeding the most significant uses of 808s. Southern hip-hop, Miami breaks, and even a vestige of Afrika Bambaataa can be felt in the depths of “Bayss Feel.”

Traxman – Itz Crack [Planet Mu]

Juke and footwork are steeped in their own Chicago traditions. It’s probably no mistake that one of Traxman’s staples is the 808’s sound kit. The speed of the snare hits roll off the speaker cone like a lit pack of fire crackers. Few sounds can deliver the same impact.

Sian – Dangerous Liasons [Octopus Records]

As the founder of Octopus Records, Barcelona producer Sian puts 808 samples to work in a driving and hypnotic exercise. Classic sounds in a classic format that is equally effective as it was in the days when the Belleville Three dominated the minds of electronic music’s most passionate fans.

Flashmob – Need In Me [Defected]

Milan house duo Flashmob swing their 808 hats with a gracious amount of reverb and fall back to rely on the bite of the clap to break through. House music has relied on Roland products from all of its existence and many of its different iterations. Its homage to the 808 may never end.