The History of the 808

Oftentimes, legendary inventions don’t exactly start off their journey with a bang.

The 808 was no different.

Many know an ‘808’ nowadays to be a booming bass drum sound, frequent in almost all modern hip hop music. But the term 808 came from a drum machine that Roland produced in 1980: the TR-808 Rhythm Composer. 

Let us set the scene for you: it’s the late 1960s, skinny ties and bowl haircuts everywhere, primarily due to the Beatles being the biggest thing in the world since, ever. 

The well-established Hammond Organ company had recently hired American musician and partial mad scientist, Don Lewis, as a product demonstrator. Most notably, Lewis was appointed to show off an electric organ with a built-in drum machine. This was designed by the Japanese company Ace Tone and was incredibly innovative for the time. Drum machines themselves were a budding instrument, having one built into an organ was rare.

Hammond C3 MKII Organ

At such a time, the most common purpose of a drum machine was to accompany an organ. Users weren’t able to program their own rhythms, only use the machine’s preset patterns. 

Lewis had built a bit of a reputation for performing with custom electronic instruments that he’d modded himself. This was decades before this became common practice amongst producers and engineers – he was a pioneer. 

Lewis had made extensive modifications to the Ace Tone drum machine, allowing himself to create his own rhythms within it – yes, that same machine where you could only use the available presets. Ace Tone was flawed, and not quite able to believe how this American guy had managed to understand the inner workings of their drum machine more than they had, hired him instantly. Lewis was brought on by Ace Tone president and founder Ikutaro Kakehashi to, first and foremost, show him how he did it. 

Ikutaro Kakehashi and Don Lewis

After working together for a while, Kakehashi formed the Roland Corporation, establishing Lewis as a principal designer for their drum machines. By the late 1970s, microprocessors began appearing in instruments, and Roland used this development as a way to program their drum machines. 

In 1978, they released the CompuRhythm CR-78 – the first drum machine in the world where users could write, save and replay their own patterns. It was well-loved. But Kakehashi wanted to go bigger and better. 

Cue the Roland TR-808. Roland wanted to develop a drum machine that could be used by professionals for writing demos and experimenting with sounds. Users would be able to edit parameters, such as decay and tuning, having more control over their sound, tweaking it to their liking. 

The 808 was launched in 1980 to poor reviews. It was quickly dismissed by producers, saying that the sounds available were too simplistic and synthetic.

But that was exactly it. The 808 wasn’t using samples – it was using synthesis. It was creating those sounds, not regurgitating them. 

After the disappointing release, the 808 attracted a cult following among musicians in the 1980s. Initially because of its affordability on the secondhand market. As producers started digging deeper, word of the peculiar sounds you could achieve with the 808 began to spread far and wide, especially its deep, booming bass drum sound. 

That was the kicker. That’s why modern producers often refer to deep, sub-bass samples as ‘808s’. From there, The TR-808 became a pillar of the structure of (then-emerging) electronic, dance and hip hop genres. It played a starring role in Mavin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’, which was the final tick.

Now, the 808 has been used on more hit records than any other drum machine. Its popularity and influence in hip hop has been well documented – its sounds substantially influencing the direction producers took on beats they made. It has been said to be ‘one of the most influential inventions in popular music’, with frequent comparisons to the same kind of influence the Fender Stratocaster had on rock music.

So there you have it. From humble, albeit disappointing beginnings, came one of the most impactful instruments that you might not have heard of. The next time you hear a booming bass drum sample in a Kanye West song, remember that it started with someone tinkering with wires in his garage to see if something could happen.