10 Great Songs Built Around the 808

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Some rather exciting news crept by almost unnoticed yesterday — according to this report, synth manufacturers Roland might be reissuing their iconic drum machine, the TR-808, along with the TB-303 bass synth. These two pieces of equipment were commercial failures on their release in the early ’80s, but they’ve become hugely sought after since, changing hands on eBay for thousands of dollars. Why? Because you hear them everywhere. The 808, in particular, defined the sound of early hip hop and also a whole lot of dance music, and it’s as ubiquitous today as ever. Here are ten songs that demonstrate its versatility and its iconic sounds.

Marvin Gaye — “Sexual Healing”

The first that most of the world heard of the humble TR-808 — “Sexual Healing” was the first big hit on which the machine appeared. The beat utilizes several of the 808’s signature sounds: the kickdrum, of course, but it’s the gloriously artificial handclaps and the echo-laden claves that really stand out from the intricate pattern. (If you’re interested, there’s a tutorial on YouTube here on how to program it — and of course, these days you don’t need to shell out for a real 808 in order to have fun replicating the beat, although purists will tell you loading samples into a DAW doesn’t sound quite the same.)

Charanjit Singh — “Raga Bhairav”

You could really choose any of the tracks off the Indian composer’s remarkable and much-heralded Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, a 1982 album that did strange and wonderful things with the sound of the 808 (and also its cousin, the bass synth TB-303, later to be much beloved of acid house producers). Largely ignored on its release, this album was rediscovered in the 2000s and greeted with astonishment — Singh had created the sound of acid house, at least five years before anyone in the West started playing with the weird sounds you could get out of these boxes.

Afrika Bambaata and the Soulsonic Force — “Planet Rock”

The sound of the future, circa 1982. The combination of the crazy-sounding kick (programmed in a distinctly ass-shaking pattern) and the insistent hi-hats — and, of course, the sample of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” — created a track that would inform the development of both hip hop and techno.

SOS Band — “Just Be Good to Me”

The 808’s versatility is demonstrated pretty neatly by comparing and contrasting “Planet Rock” with this track from a year later. “Just Be Good to Me” is what you might call future soul, built around what was essentially a hip hop beat: kick, snare, and the 808’s weird cowbell sound. (And, of course, there was also Beats International’s Clash-sampling “Dub Be Good to Me” a decade later, too.)

Cybotron — “Clear”

Techno! Juan Atkins’ classic was one of the very earliest examples of the genre, and as in many of the tracks that would come after “Clear,” the sound of the 808 stands out strong and true.

A Guy Called Gerald — “Voodoo Ray”

It’d be remiss to let this list go by without a mention of 808 State, although your correspondent’s favorite track related to that band actually came from only one of its members — namely, the guy called A Guy Called Gerald. As Gerald explained later, this came from very early experiments with the 808: “I had a TR-808 with no manual, just got it from the shop. I found it was easy to trigger the other machine I had, which was a Roland SH-101. At the time, I got into the idea that if both machines had the same name, I believed they could talk to each other. I took them apart to see what they were and I realised you could go from ‘trigger out’ of the 808 into the clock on the SH-101. I noticed there was a sequencer on there, but I didn’t have the manual… so it was through trial and error. I started writing stuff, writing these little notes, but it was as if the main sequencer was in my head. I’d write things that way round at first, rather than trying to do my own melodies.”

Talking Heads — “Psycho Killer” (Live)

No, it’s not really a tape — it’s Chris Frantz fiddling with an 808 (presumably at the side of the stage somewhere).

Lil Wayne — “Let the Beat Build”

“Just a snare and a 808.” This breezy composition from way back when Lil Wayne was good is built around precisely three elements: an 808 kick, an 808 snare, and a looping sample. It was produced by one K. West, speaking of whom…

Kanye West — “Love Lockdown”

The clue’s in the title: West’s 808s and Heartbreak was the sound of minimalist, late-night introspection, its beats stripped right back to the simplest of elements. “Love Lockdown,” in particular, starts with as stark and spartan an 808 beat as you’ll ever hear — a single, echoing beat, its sound quickly decaying into silence.

HTRK — “Ha”

The 808 has become so ubiquitous over the years that its beats are almost a language of their own — you known the sounds even if you have no idea what a drum machine is, and as such, you also notice when somebody messes with them or uses them in unusual contexts. So it went with HTRK’s Marry Me Tonight; its songs are a dark, narcotic haze, all built around the sound of the 808, but used as you’d rarely heard it before. Here were beats that were slow and dark, laden with echo and portent. As much as anything, they were a reminder that even three decades later, people are still finding interesting things to do with this simple but infinitely versatile drum machine.