I want to mark the passing of a genius who changed the soundscape of popular music in the 1980’s. Ikutaro Kakehashi (1930-2017) died earlier this month at the age of 87. He founded the Roland Corporation, maker of synthesizers, electronic instruments, and the now-legendary TR-808 drum machine. Though he wasn’t a household name, Kakehashi’s little drum machine—and later iterations of it like the TR-909—has been heard by millions of music fans in countless hit songs. Kakehashi also won a Technical Grammy for co-inventing the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which allowed electronic instruments to talk to each other regardless of the brand. With MIDI, a keyboard player could become a digitally-controlled orchestra, albeit a synthetic one. I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto around 1984 and recall him telling me that he had the first MIDI studio in Japan. Sakamoto—a classically-trained pianist, fashion model, and icon of the burgeoning J-Pop scene—was making new and interesting music with the latest electronic technology.
The Roland TR-808 (known simply as “808” to its fans) wasn’t supposed to sound like real drums or even sampled drums. It debuted in 1980 and made drums sound bigger and louder, with more visceral impact than acoustic drums. Other distinctive 808 sounds included a snare, a cowbell, and hand claps. It became a producer’s paradise and part and parcel of 1980’s music across genres—heard on hits by Marvin Gaye, New Order, Beastie Boys, and the list goes on. A blog post by Roland claims that the 808 has been heard on more hit records than any other drum machine. A 2015 NPR feature on drum machines noted that “by the early ‘80’s, major pop acts had latched on to drum machines in a big way—but many just used the machines’ built-in rhythms, as in Hall and Oates 1981 hit “I Can’t Go for That.” Around the same time, such hip-hop pioneers as Grandmaster Flash began to make beat boxes a prominent part of rap music production.” There was even an English electronic band called 808 State in the late 1980’s. The 808 has since attained legendary status among producers, and a documentary about the 808 was recently released.
The inevitable backlash also occurred, as pop and jazz drummers lost gigs because of the new device. As recently as 2004, pianist John Wood started a campaign called “Drum Machines Have No Soul,” with bumper stickers, tee shirts and other promotions dedicated to the “rehumanization of American music.” It’s all to little avail, however. If you want to hear real drums, fans can simply go to a jazz, salsa, or African show. Real drums speed up and slow down, like the human heart. Drum machines were supposed to sound like machines, not real drums, which was Kakehashi’s intention. For those who are interested in learning more about Kakehashi’s life, he wrote a memoir called I Believe in Music which was released in 2002 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Roland Corporation.
Here’s a short playlist of hit songs that use the 808:
Watch the trailer for the 808 film documentary:
Banner photo by Brandon Daniel, modified by Clusternote (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.