Sunday April 09, 2017

From Sexual Healing to 808s and Heartbreak: The drum machine that shaped the sound of music

1980 Roland TR-808

1980 Roland TR-808 (Joseph O. Holmes/Flickr)

Listen 8:35

What is an 808, and how did it shape music from the 80s to today?

352 Ikutaro Kakehashi

Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi, creator of the iconic 808 drum machine, passed away on April 3, 2017. He was 87. (Kyodo News via AP)

Digital music pioneer, Ikutaro Kakehashi, died recently, at the age of 87.

The engineer and digital pioneer was perhaps best known as the driving force behind the Roland TR-808, one of the first programmable drum machines.

The 808 was introduced back in 1980.

Its distinctively futuristic, artificial-sounding beats went on to influence the sound music.

You can hear it everywhere, in rap, '80s pop, acid house, drum 'n' bass, and more.

Alexander Dunn made a documentary film about the iconic drum machine, simply called 808.

352 Alex Dunn

Alexander Dunn

"It's a drum machine that went on to become something more than that," Alexander explains.

It's become "one of the primary instruments in electronic music, dance music, hip hop music, and really helped define modern music cultures."

The 808 wasn't considered a success at first.

Although it started turning up in some of the pop hits of the early to mid '80s.

Like Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing.

But the most musically influential early use of the 808 was likely Planet Rock, by Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force.

"It amalgamated a few different things that were coming out," Alexander says.

"There was that hip hop sound that was coming out of the Bronx and around New York at the time...And then there was the...electronic movement that was coming from different places, but obviously Kraftwerk. And it kind of fused those things together in a way that no one had really done before."

"I think these movements would have happened anyway but they would sound completely different."

Artists and producers went on to use the 808 to shape the sound of a wide range of dance music, and rap styles.

"I think these movements would have happened anyway but they would sound completely different," says Alexander. "It was such an iconic, identifiable group of's left a long-lasting legacy on all of these types of music."