TR-808 Changed Music For Better – And For Worse

Aside from bass and rhythm/electric guitars, the instrument I most would like to master isn’t even a real instrument.

That is a Roland TR-808 drum machine, 30 years old now but still used by some producers and beatmakers in various genres of music. It came along early in mainstream hip-hop’s lifetime and at a time when R&B was forced to adopt the synth sound that pop music was dominating the charts and airwaves with.

It was originally intended to be a demo instrument, for producers to give drummers an idea of what cadence and rhythm they should play on a particular song. By the end of the 1980s, synthesizers and drum programmers had wiped out R&B/urban music bands altogether, which was the curse of the TR-808.

Its gift however, stands true in two songs that cause all sorts of bodily undulations over 25 years later – Afrikaa Bambaata and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” and “Just Be Good To Me” from the S.O.S Band.

On “Planet Rock,” the rapid-fire kick drum along with the laser-sounding synth was black Star Wars, a sped-up space mission feeling that gave the Zulu Nation the necessary tools to pump up the crowd.

For the Sounds Of Success out of Atlanta, the TR-808 had a different meaning. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a budding young production duo at the time were experimenting with the synth sound and used the programmer for the bulk of the songs on SOS’s 1983 album “On The Rise.”

“Just be good to me” was arguably the first synth cut to hit big in the R&B market as it topped out at #2 on Billboard’s Black Soul Singles charts during the summer of 1983. Mary Davis’ voice rode the so-called “cowbell sound” effortlessly as she spun a tale about a wayward lover who she only requires total affection from while they are together.

The precedent was set – computerized sounds were becoming the norm and while rock and metal bands sustained their relevance in pop music, R&B bands failed to do so to a large degree.

Still, the 808 stands as a game-changing instrument that gave producers the thick/hard hitting or slippery/subtle drum licks they desired, a thumping bass you couldn’t get from guitar strings and various sound effects that usually required a totally different synthesizer added in to produce.

As a music geek, since I didn’t have the funds to acquire – or the insanity to go searching for one – a TR-808, I found the next best thing – a winrar file of all the drum licks, cowbell sounds and bass womps of the original 808 programmer. I haven’t been able to put one track together yet because of my ancient desktop (hopefully to be replaced soon), but I’ll probably have more fun trying to make my own sounds than anything else I could do away from work.

That’s mainly the reason for this post – and the fact I haven’t posted in over two months. But I’m sure you understand the significance of the Roland TR-808 to me and to music history.

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One thought on “TR-808 Changed Music For Better – And For Worse

  1. First off, solid post, and you definitely hit some points I didn’t know/hadn’t realized. The link of the 808 to the decline of live bands is an unfortunate side effect. It makes me think about marching band/drum corps (since I have a one track mind) and how synthesized instruments are in some instances creeping and in others busting wide into that activity, and the potential ramifications–why field a full tuba line when you’ve got an electric bass and an amp that goes to 11?

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