What’s an 808?

A drum machine’s journey from obscurity to ubiquity.

Click here to read a review of Kanye West’s new album, 808s and Heartbreak.

Kanye West

The title of Kanye West’s stark new album, 808s & Heartbreak, doesn’t mark the rapper’s foray into numerology. The title refers to the Roland TR-808, a drum machine whose indelible thump has bullied its way into nearly every chapter of hip-hop history.

If you’ve stopped at a nightclub or a traffic light in the past 20 years, you know the 808. Its unmistakable kick drum comes pummeling out of club speakers and car stereos with a distinct, low-frequency boom that rattles the kidneys as much as the eardrums. After a 28-year journey through the subterranea of electro, techno, and regional hip-hop, the 808 has achieved an influential presence in today’s popscape—almost by accident.

The TR-808 was never intended for life in the spotlight or even a place on professional recordings. Roland introduced the machine in 1980 as a behind-the-scenes tool for rock musicians who wanted to record inexpensive demos when a living, breathing drummer wasn’t on hand. Users could create a beat by tap-tap-tapping on the machine’s trigger pads or by programming their own sequenced drum patterns.

The 808 was easy to use, but the percussive sounds that came spurting out of the machine felt artificial and bizarre. The snare drum was a harsh slap. The high-hat was a synthetic swoosh. The kick drum was a blunt, unforgiving thud that didn’t come close to resembling the sound of an actual drum. Unlike competing models that used digital sampling to replicate the timbre of acoustic drums, the 808 was unconcerned with approximating real life, instead offering an otherworldly vocabulary of tones that most pop musicians deemed unusable.

As a result, the 808 was a commercial flop. Its main rival, the Linn LM-1, was the first drum machine to utilize digital sampling, offering a sound so crisp that session drummers began fretting over their imminent obsolescence. And perhaps with good reason—the machine soon began showing up on pop tunes. It was the ideal beat machine for a sexy young control freak like Prince, who first used the LM-1 on his 1981 album Controversy.

But the LM-1 wasn’t cheap—it retailed for about $5,000. The 808, by contrast, sold for just $1,000, putting it within reach of an emerging DJ from the South Bronx who was planning a trip to deep space on a limited budget. His name was Afrika Bambaataa, and his 1982 masterstroke “Planet Rock” is widely believed to be the first hip-hop single to utilize the 808.

The song would become hip-hop’s sonic Magna Carta. Bambaataa pushed the 808’s resonant kicks to the fore and put a premium on the speaker-rattling bass frequencies that would eventually become a fixture in all strands of hip-hop.

Soon enough, the 808 could be heard rumbling beneath the raps of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. The drum machine even appeared on a couple of mainstream pop hits, including Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Phil Collins’ “One More Night.” But most pop acts continued to ignore it. Linn extended its dominance with the LinnDrum, the successor to the M-1, while Oberheim’s DMX, a model that also used digital sampling, surged in popularity with Madonna’s “Holiday” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” New Order’s “Blue Monday” shows how the DMX’s kick offered a satisfying punch.

808s started collecting dust. Roland took it out of production in 1984, banishing the 808 to pawn shop purgatory. Though hip-hop would continue to rely on the machine for beats throughout the ‘80s, its influence was otherwise limited to the regional fringes of pop music.

In 1983, a young Detroit producer named Juan Atkins recorded the visionary jam “Clear” with his group Cybotron, a tune that would lodge the 808 in the spine of Detroit techno and make it a tool of the trade for fellow techno pioneers Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May.

Meanwhile, producers in South Florida got their hands on the 808 just in time for hip-hop’s puberty, creating the über-lewd, über-loud woofer-spasms of Miami bass. The 808 kick became an essential component of MC A.D.E.’s “Bass Rock Express” and 2 Live Crew’s 1986 anthem “Throw the D,” whose kicks take on an almost surreal, subsonic quality.

This was music designed for club systems and car speakers, where underground hip-hop would flourish across the South during the 1990s. Even on subpar car systems, the 808’s unmistakable boom could be heard blocks away, making it a remarkably effective publicist.

Throughout the late ‘80s and deep into the ‘90s, New York maintained its hold as hip-hop’s power center. Numerous producers fell under the spell of sampling and swarmed around the E-mu SP-1200, a machine capable of both processing samples and programming beats. But down South, the 808 maintained a foothold. “All the rap records we grew up on back in the day was all 808 kits,” crunk architect Lil Jon toldRemix magazine in 2005. “In the South, we ain’t never really let that shit go.”

The 21st century found Southern rap moving from the margins to the mainstream, and the 808 began to enjoy new pop cachet. It figured prominently in the beat (and sometimes even in the lyrics) of OutKast’s 2003 chart-topper “The Way You Move,” Beyoncé’s “Deja Vu,” numerous riotous crunk singles, and regional hits like “Tell Me When To Go” by Oakland rapper E-40.

All of a sudden, the 808 sound was in demand. Various so-called clone units have tried to replicate the 808’s circuitry at a cheaper price, while sample libraries have proliferated on the Web, putting the 808 sound in the hands of home-studio producers and bedroom beatsmiths the world over. (Most producers will tell you, however, that the 808’s superpowers are compromised unless taken directly from the source.)

Today the 808 stands as hip-hop’s answer to rock’s Stratocaster—an iconic instrument that’s changed the way we hear music. And while no one’s burned one to a crisp onstage, its praises have been sung in the lyrics of  Lil Wayne, Kelis, T.I.—even Britney Spears. (“You got my heart beating like an 808,” she cooed on 2007’s “Break the Ice.”)

West, however, pays more than just lip service to his beat box of choice—his new album is full of thick, resonant 808 brawn. In a recent MTV interview, one of the album’s producers, Mike Dean, said West wanted to move away from “typical hip-hop beats”—as if employing hip-hop’s most venerated rhythm machine were some kind of risk.

Then again, despite the role the machine has played throughout hip-hop history, the 808 has never lost its outsider’s mystique. And West, to his credit, manages to make the machine’s artificial throb sound both alien and pedestrian all at once. The chorus is particularly striking, not for West’s gooey, auto-tuned refrain, but for the sound of two hands (presumably Kanye’s) clapping slightly out of sync with 808 tremors below. Somehow, it’s the clapping hands that feel unnatural, not the track’s familiar electronic pulse. Having adopted the 808’s heartbeat as our own, it’s hard to tell what sounds fake and what sounds real.