As It Happens

Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, whose drum machine 'influenced the world of music,' dies

The music world is mourning the loss of Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi. The pioneering Japanese engineer invented the 808 drum machine — a synthesizer that revolutionized the music industry.
The late Ikutaro Kakehashi created many iconic musical instruments like the Roland TR-808 drum machine. (Wikipedia/CC)

Story transcript

If you've listened to any hip hop, dance or electronic music in the past 30 years, then you've probably heard the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often known simply as the 808.

The device was released in 1980. At the time, it was a commercial flop. The drum sounds it created didn't sound anything like real drums. But, the machine was programmable, meaning people could create their own custom beats without needing a drum kit. 

For that reason, the 808 became hugely influential in early hip hop and electronic music. Since then, it has been used by artists like Marvin Gaye, The Beastie Boys, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Kanye West. Vintage 808s still sell for upwards of $4,000 online.

Ikutaro Kakehashi was the founder of Roland. He's the inventor of the 808 and many other electronic instruments. He died over the weekend at the age of 87.

Alex Dunn is a London-based filmmaker. His 2016 documentary "808" profiles the Roland TR-808 drum machine and its creator — the late Ikutaro Kakehashi. (Alex Dunn/alexanderdunn.co)

Alexander Dunn is a London-based filmmaker and director of the 2016 documentary 808. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about Kakehashi's legacy and how his iconic machine revolutionized the sound of music.

Carol Off: Alexander, how would you describe Ikutaro Kakehashi's contribution to music?

Alexander Dunn: I think just looking at the 808, you can see how a drum machine that he made and developed with his company just influenced the world of music so heavily — electronic music, hip hop and dance music. It would have just been completely different without that machine and other machines that he made like the 909, and of course the 303, and various synthesizers that he was involved with as well — and that his company continues to make today. 

Ikutaro Kakehashi, right, speaks in Japan during a press conference after he received a Grammy, for developing MIDI technology, or Musical Instrumental Digital Interface, which digitally connects instruments. (Kyodo News/AP)

CO: We were reviewing all the places where the drum machine or the synthesizer is used, like Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing or One More Night by Phil Collins. People would say, "Oh yeah, that sound." But it's such a varied sound, isn't it?

AD: That's the funny thing with the 808 specifically. I mean, it's a sound that's very much renowned within hip hop. It was something that was one of the building blocks of early hip hop, certainly in New York, and with a lot of the people working out of there such as the Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin, LL Cool J, Afrika Bambaataa. Then, obviously, it kind of spread across the world and into different genres — almost by accident in some places and by design in others.

One of the things about the 808 drum machine is it didn't really sound like drums. So, that was something really unique and interesting about it. The kick drum was very deep and low and resonant. It was really, really loud in a club or on a big system. People just wanted that big, loud sound. Like in Miami for example, the Miami bass movement was all about how they could get it as heavy and as deep and as loud and bass-y as possible.

CO: Do you think that music movements, like that, were even possible had it not been for the kind of percussion they could get with this tool?

AD: It's hard to say. I wouldn't like to say that they weren't possible or that they wouldn't have happened. But, they would certainly sound different. I think the world would sound different without the machines. With the 808, one of the primary reasons why they made it was that it was meant to be used in the studio as a writing tool. But as it turns out, not many people really used it for that. It was more about the people who grasped hold of it and found an accessible piece of kit that opened doors that perhaps otherwise weren't available to them.

CO: Was it a commercial success? Did Mr. Kakehashi immediately have something successful in his hands?

AD: No, the 808 wasn't really a commercial success. It was fairly limited in its production run. It was around 12,000 units that were made, which worldwide is quite low.  It was discontinued fairly quickly after it was launched. But I guess what is really amazing about the 808, and similarly with the 909, and other drum machines that he made, is the fact that the sounds lived on outside of the machines.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Alexander Dunn.

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