Last Friday, a Stradivarius violin that had been stolen in 1980 was returned to family members of the deceased virtuoso Roman Totenberg. It had been made by Antonio Stradivari in 1734, purchased by the Totenberg in 1943, and served as his career instrument before vanishing thirty-five years ago. On Saturday, a different set of classicists commemorated their own thirty-five year milestone: the 1980 arrival of another paragon in musical-instrument construction. They chose the celebration’s exact date, 8/08, for the device’s numerical name; they sang Roland’s TR-808 drum machine. Saturday was 808 Day.
The 808 inspired events in Los Angeles and New York. On Central Park’s SummerStage, the South Bronx d.j. and producer Afrika Bambaataa performed his 1983 electro-funk hit “Planet Rock”—the 808 heard round the world. Post-hip-hop neologisms such as “mash-up” and “curator” probably best describe both this song and its creator—an extremely open-minded d.j. whose blend of a Kraftwerk song, a U.K. prog-rock cut, and a Japanese electronic composition was wrought, intensified, and defined by the producer Arthur Baker’s emphatic use of the 808. While digital competitors already delivered more authentic snare, cymbal, and bass-drum sounds, an ascendant, more budget-minded coterie embraced the 808 as a primary instrument, effectively creating a new, more potent meaning for the word “drums.”
“Planet Rock” began a revolution that is breathlessly narrated by Alex Dunn’s new documentary, “808,” which describes “a movement in music, headed by the 808.” You have to wonder if this movement’s members actually considered a piece of audio gear their Dear Leader, but this summary of the 808’s impact does foreshadow a sentiment that is common in today’s electronic-dance-music scene, whose luminaries, such as David Guetta, credit their genre’s innovations to tech upgrades. The introduction of Roland’s magic box was indisputably the Big Bang of pop’s great age of disruption, from 1983 to 1986. The 808’s defiantly inorganic timbres—robot handclaps, turn-signal cowbells, a compressed-air punching snare—sketched out the domain of a new world of music, its effective atlas being the self-titled 1984 début album by Run-D.M.C. While most of the 808’s sounds dated instantly, its bass kick had a life of its own. Less a product of engineering than a force of nature, this bass-rolling subsonic boom has come to be what people mean when they refer to “an 808.” Similar to the oceanic crescendo that runs through Wagner’s Vorspiel to “Das Rheingold,” this bass is felt before it’s heard, the downbeat swooning to fill a space, tuned to its own harmonic center.
This 808 sound was also crowd-sourced, with artists building on one another’s modifications of the device. One of the first major innovations came about in 1984, by the producer Strafe, who, in the film, describes fine-tuning the 808’s low frequencies and further widening its bass kick drum to create the sound of an underground nuke test, heard on his 1984 hit “Set It Off.” The song’s original mix, by the disco producer Walter Gibbons, lacked Strafe’s low-end contribution because, according to Strafe, the born-again Gibbons felt “that bass was an instrument of the Devil.” He was probably right. The trembling feeling of that sound, booming down boulevards in Oakland, the Bronx, and Detroit are part of America’s cultural DNA, the ghost of Reagan-era blight.
The moment was brief, just more than three years long. The twenty-year-old Rick Rubin tried to replicate the experience of a hip-hop club on the T La Rock single “It’s Yours” by using an 808 in his NYU dorm room. He tweaked the bass-drum setting to widen the tone and stretch the decay, creating a new reference point for 808 users ever since. After co-founding Def Jam, Rubin produced a string of albums by the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J, frequently using the house 808 of Chinatown’s Chung King Studios, which had been purchased by the Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. “If you don’t have it, it’s not authentic,” the producer Hank Shocklee tells the filmmakers in “808.” Shocklee based Public Enemy’s revolutionary noise bricolage on a sample of the filtered, processed 808 kick from Rubin’s “It’s Yours.” “It’s not hip-hop without that sound,” Shocklee says.
But Shocklee was already working in the post-sampler age of eternal recursion, when an 808 kick was a highly attenuated version of what could be found as a pre-set on the Roland device. It’s true that the 808’s sound and interface begat styles of music around the globe, as British, Belgian, and Swedish stars of electro, techno, house, and synth-pop attest in “808.” But, by the late nineties, the drum machine that replaced its own referent had accrued other, non-musical meanings as Southern rap styles such as bounce, crunk, and trap fused its ominous bass with lyrics painting the drug-trade lifestyle in the neon and gold-flashing hues of “Scarface,” relaunching the vintage bass sound nationally while upgrading its latent menace. Today, this 808 is the bedrock of the urban-youth-culture soundtrack, particularly for trap artists, who mix its avenue-shuddering bass with verbal threats from hip-hop tracks, handgun clicks, bursts of machine-gun fire, and other adrenaline triggers. In five seconds, an adept of this style can turn a packed nightclub into a joyful frenzy of stage-diving, rhythmic gymnastics.
What’s truly new about the contemporary embrace of Roland’s ur-drum-set is how quickly it aligned so many artists around its sound. The blend of electronic dance music and retro-hip-hop that the machine has helped to create derives from digital sound and social media rather than any geographic region or artistic movement, its hyphenated sub-genres signifying combinations of sound, mood, tempo, pacing, lyric content—all of it cut, pasted, curated. It’s effectively a crowd-sourced music genre that embraces and fetishizes the “iller,” “sicker,” cheaper sound of street music from the past. True visionaries saw this coming decades ago. “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable, and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature,” Brian Eno wrote in 1996’s “A Year With Swollen Appendices.” He predicted that CD distortion, digital video jitter, and crappy 8-bit sound would be “cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.” The sound of the 808, one of early hip-hop’s most cherished signatures, was avoidable nearly as soon as it arrived.
The film “808” closes by giving viewers an audience with the Creator. Roland’s wan founder, Ikutaro Kakehashi, sits at a desk in a navy suit wearing nasal oxygen tubes and, in labored, heavily accented and subtitled English, spins a familiar yarn. He claims that the 808’s distinctive sizzle was produced by the faulty transistors that he chose for the sound generator. As semiconductor improvements made them impossible to restock, “we could no longer buy the defective transistor,” he says. “So, no way to come back!” The film’s closing titles reveal that, in its three years of production, Roland made only twelve thousand TR-808s, a fact of little practical significance but tremendous resonance as a cultural myth. Some of those twelve thousand boxes created the most dynamic sounds of the past century. Countless musicians still hope to conjure the ghost in the analog machine.
Amulets, charms, and picks of destiny appear in many styles of music. Jazz hopefuls still seek out Selmer’s vaunted Mark VI tenor saxophone, whose lustrous sound is heard on canonical Blue Note and Impulse! albums. Rock alchemists extol the germanium transistors in the distortion pedal Hendrix played at Monterey, casting this semi-metallic element as the golden key to the guitar god’s warm yet edgy sound. Even the peerless Stradivarius has an oddly 808 myth to it.
In September of 2010, a study conducted at Indianapolis’s International Violin Competition tested some of the world’s élite violinists for their actual, unbiased preference for either a rare, antique Italian or a high-quality new violin. The study used two Stradivari and one del Gesù, whose combined worth of ten million was a hundred times higher than the new violins that turned out to be the most widely preferred. (One of the Stradivari was the least preferred.) No correlation was found between age, value, and the instrument’s tonal quality or expressiveness. “Notwithstanding all the above,” the published study reported, “the particular visual beauty and historical importance of old Italian violins will no doubt maintain their hold on the imagination of violinists and their audiences for a long time to come.”
The same lesson resounds in a chapter from 808 history. By 1982, Marvin Gaye had fled drug, money, and family problems to the small Belgian city of Ostend, severing his ties with Motown. Fragile and paranoid, Gaye began working on new music, gravitating to an instrument that would preserve his isolation. “He wanted to use synthesizers and drum machines so he could do it all himself,” the engineer Frank Butcher says in the documentary. “He didn’t want anyone else involved.” Butcher recalls Gaye pushing buttons, setting levels, programming beats and cueing rhythms, without singing or saying a thing. Once he was finished building the song, Gaye pushed “play” and sang the vocal line to the song “Sexual Healing.”
It was the highest-charting hit of his career and sounds nothing like hip-hop or techno, despite being made almost entirely with an 808. That song sounds like it does because it was Marvin Gaye using the 808. Surprisingly often, the ghost in this machine is the human standing beside it.