808: the beat that changed music

Chronicling the incredible story of the Roland TR-808 drum machine: a small but powerful piece of technology that changed the course of music history forever.

by Matthew Whitehouse
28 November 2016, 5:49pm

You might not know what a Roland TR-808 is, but you sure as hell know what it sounds like. Hard, aggressive and with an internal, inimitable groove all of its own, this little machine redefined music in the first part of the 80s: transforming dance at a time when styles were changing and new musical movements meant new musical instruments.

The Roland TR-808 left such an large footprint in fact, it is now the subject of its own film, 808, released exclusively via Apple Music on December 9. Directed by Alexander Dunn and featuring contributions from -- take a breath -- Pharrell Williams, Afrika Bambaataa, Questlove, The Beastie Boys, Damon Albarn, David Guetta, Phil Collins, Diplo, New Order, Norman Cook and Rick Rubin among others, it chronicles the cultural impact of the machine, culminating in a meeting with Roland founder Mr. Ikutaro Kakehashi in Japan. Accompanied with a soundtrack to rival any -- and out now via Big Beat Records -- it is a fitting document to the influence and legacy of this most iconic of musical instruments.

"When the idea came to make a movie about the 808 we wanted to go beyond the pictures and make it a musical voyage and experience," says Alex Noyer, CEO of You Know Films and the man behind the project. "The soundtrack tells a beautiful story about the legacy and reach of the 808. The team worked hard to curate the musical journey in partnership with Atlantic and Big Beat Records. From watching the movie with insights from the artists to immersing yourself into the soundtrack, we hope the story of the 808 stays with our audience and gives them the energy it gave us across the fiver years of work that lead us to this exciting release." Press play as director Alexander and musical supervisor Matthew Jarman talk us through the key tracks below.

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force, Planet Rock

Alexander: This is a seminal hip-hop track and one that helped change the foundations of hip-hop and dance music. The 808 beats and Kraftwerk melody created a futuristic sound that not many people had heard before and by all accounts smashed up some sound systems in the clubs of New York when it was released. This track was the starting point for the film and was hugely influential in how the 808 sound came to prominence around the world.

Beastie Boys, Paul Revere

Alexander: The Licensed To Ill album has plenty of amazing 808 based tracks on it. The reason we chose to include Paul Revere rather than any of the others was that it was a prime example of how pioneering artists and producers took the 808 and turned it on its head. Here Adam Yauch literally played it backwards... and it wasn't a simple process back then! The story of how this came about is certainly one of our highlights from the film.

Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show

Matthew: Hank Shocklee gave us such a great interview, when talking about using a sampled 808 to get a huge sustained kick sound, Yo! Bum Rush the Show was one of his examples. He cites Marley Marl as having this amazing sound which added an 808 kick drum under another sampled kick so Hank went in and sampled that, adding it to all the tracks he worked on. He then states, "...without that it's not hip-hop, it's not authentic!"

Man Parrish, Hip Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)

Matthew: Of all the tales we heard about the 808, this one was rather unexpected. Man Parrish was discovered by some A&R guys after scoring the soundtrack to a porn film. They asked him if he could write something similar for a release and after an intensive recording session this song came out. He has a nice anecdote about the song's hook, created as an attempt to impress the DJs at the Funhouse and get the song played!

Planet Patrol, Play At Your Own Risk / Shannon, Let The Music Play

Matthew: These two tracks appear together in the film. Play At Your Own Risk is described by Armand Van Helden as being an R&B track with an 808 that led to people using a slower beat. The song is also referenced by Chris Barbosa, the producer of Shannon's Let The Music Play. He told us the story of their drum sound imitating the one from Planet Patrol. He loved the echo on the kick but wanted it the whole way through the track. In order to not overpower the vocals they then gated that sound and created this big, sustained kick drum.

Strafe, Set It Off

Alexander: Another massive 80s New York club hit, this record was once hailed by Billboard as being "the most sampled song of all time". Strafe felt the 808 was perfect for this track as he could tweak and tune the toms and add decay to the kick. Looking for the 808 boom, Strafe wasn't happy with the first mix of the record by legendary DJ and remixer -- and recently born again Christian -- Walter Gibbons. In Strafe's own words at that time, Walter "felt that bass was an instrument of the devil".

T La Rock / Jazzy Jay, It's Yours

Alexander: This is the first, in what I'm sure most people will agree, was a hugely successful list of hip-hop records produced by Rick Rubin. It was also the first release on Def Jam. We had the pleasure of speaking to both Rick and T La Rock about It's Yours. Rick said he wanted to make a hip-hop record that reflected what he was hearing in the New York clubs and after a bit of back and forth got T La Rock involved.

808 State, Flow Coma

Matthew: When we spoke to Graham Massey and A Guy Called Gerald you could tell these guys had really lived the 808. They were at the center of the movement that looked to turn it on his head and see what you could get out of the machines. This track really personifies that spirit.

Felix da Housecat, Kickdrum

Alexander: Big.
Matthew: Fat.
Alexander: Kick.
Matthew: Drum.
Alexander: This is just huge, very, very loud with an emphasis on the 808 kick drum, as the title of the track suggests. As Felix himself says "you hear that 808 blastin'? I'm doing shit with the 808 that's never been done". Turn this one up loud and blow up your speakers.

Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, What U Gon' Do (feat. Lil Scrappy)

Alexander: Unfortunately we had to lose this track from the film but luckily it's made it to the soundtrack. Speaking to Lil Jon about this was great, he really worked to make the sounds as big as possible, layering the 808 kick drum with a bunch of other kicks to make it sound huge. The fact that the image in the music video shakes every time the kick hits gives you a good idea what he was aiming to do here!

Flux Pavilion, Vibrate

Matthew: We were introduced to Josh during the making of the film and he came to the studio to check out what we were up to. He loved what he saw and wanted to get involved so adapted one of his tracks for our use. It was nice working with him in this way as he and Alexander could rearrange the track as that part of the film was being created.

Jamie xx, Gosh

Matthew: We were putting the finishing touches to the film when Alex Noyer called us from a meeting at Atlantic to inform us that Jamie had been using the 808 on his new album and had a track we could use. An early version of Gosh was sent over and we immediately knew this was what we had been waiting for as our intro! Alexander had this Tron-esque treatment for the titles, old vs new and this track, with the samples and beat, was spot on.

Lil Wayne & Charlie Puth, Nothing But Trouble

Matthew: When we partnered with Atlantic and discussed the soundtrack that could be released alongside the film, they suggested one of their head of A&R (Ian Cripps) should contribute a track as an example of the 808 living on in today's popular music. Lil Wayne & Charlie Puth had just written this track and he thought it fitted the bill perfectly. 


Text Matthew Whitehouse

Damon Albarn
lil wayne
David Guetta
pharrell williams
new order
Phil Collins
Public Enemy
afrika bambaataa
Norman Cook
the beastie boys
music history
music interviews
808 film