The TR-808 Drum Machine – The Commercial Flop That Re-Defined Music

The TR-808 Drum Machine – The Commercial Flop That Re-Defined Music

Everybody loves a great comeback story. In the original Rocky Film starring Sylvester Stallone, the hero and main character Rocky Balboa is assumed to be a “soup can” and matched against a much more experienced Apollo Creed (Carl Withers). He stands toe to toe with the fictional champ and ends up going the distance for  the”win”, even though he “loses”

There is a Japanese proverb, “Nana korobi, ya oki” which means “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” It means no matter how hopeless the situation seems, or how hard you hit life’s canvas, you muster up the strength to fight another day.

The TR-808 Drum Machine

Long before the days of providing  the back beat to Kanye West’s critically acclaimed album 808 and Heartbreaks, the Roland TR-808 Drum Machine was designed to be a less expensive alternative to the Linn LM-1, (which used samples of actual drum kits). When released in 1980 it retailed for about $1,200 (about $4,000 in 2020)

Although the sound engineers, attempted to make realistic percussion sounds, the price of  memory at the time limited them. This forced them to design sound-generating hardware instead of using samples. Company owner and founder Ikutaro Kakehashi deliberately purchased faulty transistors that created the machine’s distinctive fuzzy  and warm sound. The TR-808 was the first drum machine that allowed users to program percussion tracks from beginning to end, complete with breaks and rolls. It also synced with other machines.

From Zero to Hero

After being panned by critics, the TR-808 initially sold 12, 000 copies. Only three years later it was common for TR-808’s to be found on the used market for $100 dollars. However thanks to early adopters like Marvin Gaye (who loved being able to create music with no musicians) the TR-808 would quickly become the backing sound to modern music. Ultimately it would become the drum sound heard on the most hits in the history of recorded music. Gaye’s 1982 smash “Sexual Healing” brought the underground sound of the 808’s to the pop charts. It would be  Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock that would bring the sound to the Hip Hop world.

The Most Popular Drum Sound In Recorded Music

The TR-808 still drives the sounds behind some of the biggest hits ever crafted. In Hip Hop, the TR-808 has pack dance floors and fueled hits for everyone from Run Dmc and Too Short, all the way to the Black Eyed Peas and The Migos. We can’t overlook it’s contributions to the sound of pop staples like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and Phil Collins’ “Air of Night”. Not bad for a machine that one critic is reported to have said “sounds like a bunch of ant eaters walking”

Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones play around with early sequencer technology

Early TR-808 Television Commercial

The TR-808 has been used from the beginning of Hip Hop to today

Kanye West’s hit album 808’s and Heartbreaks pays homage to the TR-808

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