808: The movie, the long-awaited feature-length documentary about the TR 808 drum machine made by Roland just had its premiere at SXSW in Austin, Texas and in addition to telling the story technically and culturally, it features everyone from Diplo to David Guetta to Phil Collins waxing poetic about that magical machine.
The device behind those three little digits helped push forward the early days of house, techno and acid like no other musical instrument or piece of equipment even came close to. As Lil Jon, Pharrell Williams, or even Goldie corroborate in the film, it was essential piece of hardware, and still is.
Without the 808, everyone from the Beastie Boys to Kraftwerk to Kanye West would still be searching for a signature sound. Instead, dance music in particular sequenced their way to cultural relevance on the back of it's twiddly knobs and flashing lights.
Still, it's one thing to talk about the 808, it's another thing to hear it. With that in mind, here are eight key tracks featuring the 808, plucked out of history and into your airwaves.
Cybotron – "Clear"
The first track from our list was released in 1983 by a duo named "Cybertron", formed by Richard Davis and Juan Atkins. Yeah, you heard right. Juan Atkins, as in: the inventor of techno. Atkins himself said about the 808: "My whole career is based on this machine." Listening to "Clear", you might recognize the part at 0:30. The marvellous Missy Elliot based "Lose Control" from a "Clear" sample, as did T.I. in "Lay Me Down," feat. Rico Love.
Yellow Magic Orchestra – "1000 Knives"
Tuning into this track, you might be listening to the first song ever to be produced with an 808. And what did we all learn from it? Everyone starts small. Even the Roland TR-808 and the Yellow Magic Orchestra (from whom even Kraftwerk learned a thing or two).
Kraftwerk – "Musique Non Stop"
Kraftwerk, the inevitable grand masters of electronic music, even owned a prototype of the 808 before its official release in 1980 and used it in their studio. They must've been tweaking and/or fiddling around with it for some time, because this song came out in 1986 – two years after Roland had already stopped producing this drum machine. Nonetheless, it still charted at number 13 of the German Top100 Singles and at number 1 of the US Dance Music Charts.
Afrika Bambaataa – "Planet Rock"
One of the most influential songs of electronic music is based on the beat of an 808. "Planet Rock", originally released in 1982, was sampled and covered more than 300(!) times. Lana Del Rey, Redman or LCD Soundsystem – almost every little corner of music history has had its fair share of "Planet Rock"., this song by Afrika Bambaataa aka Kevin Donovan also reassembles bits and pieces from tracks by Kraftwerk like "Trans Europa Express" and "Nummern." And you might just hear the influence of Yellow Magic Orchestra shining through as well.
Plastikman – "Spastik"
Actually, we could've chosen any track by Plastikman at this point, because he brought his 808 back into service in the 90s, developing his minimalistic when the rest of the world was raving like crazy to Happy hardcore. Plastikman aka Richie Hawtin, who also is the head of record label m-nus, would go on to shape the sound of the 00s.
S.O.S. Band – "Just Be Good To Me"
As early as 1983, this group was successful in showing the world that electronic beats are not simply abstract, mechanical or "coolish", but can also convey a completely different feeling, combined with Soul music for example. Hey it may not be cutting-edge from today's point of view - but come on, those were the early 80s.
A Guy Called Gerald – "Voodoo Ray"
The trio 808 State were so thrilled by this drum machine, that they copied the three digits into the name of their band. This track right here was made by on third of 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald. This song is almost 30 years old now and you could still merge it into a warm-up set today!
Addison Groove – "Footcrab"
Our last pick is a perfect example of how the Roland TR-808 still finds its way into new releases of electronic music. Eagerly waiting for this film to be released, knowing that the history of this drum machine is not yet concluded, we can at least take a look at this trailer: