The iconic Roland TR-808 tracks that made a legend

Roland TR-808
(Image credit: Roland)

Released in 1980, the Roland TR-808 was designed as an alternative to an acoustic drum kit for musicians to record with, but took on a new life in hip-hop, pop, R&B, techno, house and electro, as producers reveled in its defiantly synthetic tones.

With sounds based on analogue synthesis, the 808 is renowned for its booming kick drum, snappy claps and unique cowbell, all of which are instantly recognisable. The majority of the sounds can be edited, and each one has its own audio output.

Of course, the TR-808 didn't earn its place in music history without being used on countless classic recordings. Below are just a handful of the key tracks that cemented the beatbox's legendary status.

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock (1982)

Hugely influential (though the drum beat actually bears more than a passing resemblance to the one used in Kraftwerk's Numbers), Planet Rock demonstrated that the 808 was capable of delivering harder-edged sounds.

Produced by Arthur Baker and John Robie, this 1982 single boasts the booming kick that would soon become ubiquitous in hip-hop.

Marvin Gaye - Sexual Healing (1982)

The intro to Marvin's pained plea for carnal redemption almost sounds like an advert for the 808, with its kick, clap, hi-hat and snare sounds all cutting through.

The 1982 hit proved that the 808 was a tool that, despite being a machine, had enough groove and character to make it sound almost human.

The S.O.S. Band - Just Be Good To Me (1983)

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were big 808 fans in the early days of their partnership, using it in countless productions.

Janet Jackson would later have TR-propelled hits, but this 1983 single demonstrates that The S.O.S. Band were early beneficiaries.

New Order - Confusion (1983)

Coming off the back of great drum machine classic Blue Monday - which was programmed on an Oberheim DMX - New Order decamped to New York to work with Arthur Baker, the producer behind Planet Rock.

Appropriately, the single that result from their collaboration, Confusion, is another slice of 808 gold, built around a rattling beat of snappy snares and crunching claps.

Phil Collins - One More Night (1984)

The 808 isn't just there for the pounding or rhythmically complex things in life - it can do straight-up balladeering, too.

One More Night demonstrates the inspiring power of Roland's beatbox; Collins came up with the chorus as he was fiddling with his, and the rest of the song quickly followed.

Loose Ends - Hangin' On A String (1985)

It's that cowbell - along with judicious use of the 808's toms - that keep this groove moving.

This is another track in which the Roland machine's sounds are given space to breathe, and they're fully deserving of their airtime.

Paul Hardcastle - 19 (1985)

It may have been most notable for its innovative uses of sampling - so much so that Reason's NN-19 sampler took its name from it - but Hardcastle's 1985 anti-war anthem is also an iconic 808 production.

Hardcastle is on record as saying that he was a fan of Afrika Bambaataa at the time, and you can certainly hear the influence.

Kraftwerk - Musique Non Stop (1986)

Kraftwerk were early 808 adopters. In fact, when percussionist Karl Bartos spoke to Future Music in 2013, he told them that they actually had a pre-production model.

Musique Non Stop wasn't released until 1986, but has a quintessentially '808' sound.

Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) (1987)

It might not sound anything like the real thing, but the 808's cowbell is one of the most recognisable percussive tones in electronic music.

We think there might be some other drum machines at work here too, but that cowbell is a distinctive feature of Whitney's Narada Michael Walden-produced 1987 smash.

The Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May) - Rhythim Is Rhythim - Nude Photo (1987)

The TR-808 and TR-909 played a major role in the development of the early, rough-edged techno sound by Detroit icons the Belleville Three - Derrick May, Jaun Atkins and Kevin Saunderson.

When we spoke to him in 2013, Saunderson credited the 808 and 909 as being responsible for the swing of those early house and techno tunes. Meanwhile, in several classic interviews, Jaun Atkins has discussed how himself and his then-classmate May used to bring an 808 to parties in order to create rhythm tracks to transition between records.

2 Live Crew - Move Somethin' (1987)

Florida hip-hop group 2 Live Crew are probably best remembered for the string of profanity and copyright lawsuits imposed on them in the early ‘90s.

Sexually explicit lyrics and uncleared samples aside, however, the act - or more specifically, their main beatmaker Mr Mixx - were possibly the most visible proponents of the heavily 808-focussed Miami Bass style of hip-hop production that grew out of electro-funk towards the end of the ‘80s.

[Warning: unsurprisingly, the lyrics in the video below are fairly NSFW]

Aphex Twin - Analogue Bubblebath (1991)

Acid house producers were all over the 808, as this 1991 release from AFX (AKA Aphex Twin) indicates.

The kick is predictably boomy, but there's plenty of nice percussion work in here, too.

Richie Hawtin - Plastikman - Spastik (1993)

Roland’s TR groove boxes were instrumental in the development of techno icon Richie Hawtin’s early Plastikman releases. Of particular note is his ’93 single Spastik, one of defining tracks of his early-‘90s minimal techno output, which is effectively one long, rapid-fire 808 experiment.

Three 6 Mafia - Tear Da Club Up '97 (1997)

The booming, sub-heavy kick of the 808 has pretty much been the cornerstone of the past 20 years of southern hip-hop.

Much of the time, it’s hard to say whether an actual TR-808 has been used on any specific hip-hop track, as - particularly as time has gone on - the machine’s sound has often been sampled or emulated using other synths. Still, whether it’s an authentic 808 or not, that kick, the tight snare and tinny hats of the TR-808 provided the sonic driving force behind much of the work of southern rap icons Three 6 Mafia - and the legions of artists that followed in their wake.

Si Truss

I'm Editor-in-Chief of Music Technology, working with Future Music, Computer Music, Electronic Musician and MusicRadar. I've been messing around with music tech in various forms for over two decades. I've also spent the last 10 years forgetting how to play guitar. Find me in the chillout room at raves complaining that it's past my bedtime.