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Celebrate 909 day with the greatest Roland TR-909 moments ever

Roland
(Image credit: Roland)

It’s 9 September, and that can only mean one thing: it’s our annual excuse to fawn over Roland’s immensely influential and widely beloved drum machine, the TR-909 Rhythm Composer.

Introduced in 1983, the 909 would go on to help shape the history of contemporary electronic music, playing a starring role in the genesis of techno and house before making notable appearances in iconic tracks from almost every other genre. 

Roland TR-909

(Image credit: Future)

Building on the foundations of its equally celebrated older brother, the TR-808, the machine forever etched the instantly recognisable sounds of its crunchy claps and no-nonsense kick drum into the wider cultural consciousness.

And what better day than 9/09 to survey some of the drum machine’s most memorable moments in musical history?

1. Jeff Mills - Exhibitionist 2 

The undisputed king of the 909, producer, DJ and techno originator Jeff Mills memorably exhibited his skills as part of the Exhibitionist 2 documentary, in a segment that has to go down as one of the most impressive solo drum machine performances ever put to tape. 

In a flawless fusion of man and machine, Mills showcases the 909’s abilities as much as his own, reminding us all why the instrument has earned a permanent place in the hearts and studios of electronic musicians the world over.

2. Skinny Puppy - Smothered Hope

One of the very first times the 909 popped up in popular music, Smothered Hope, from Skinny Puppy’s Remission EP, puts the unit to work, hammering out a gnarly, military drumbeat to support vocalist Nikek Ogre’s guttural vocals. 

The story goes that the band initially struggled to find inspiration in the 909, considering the sound too clean for their tastes - it was only after they hooked the drum machine up to the PA system that they struck gold.

Speaking to Roland about the making of the track, producer Dave "Rave" Ogilvie said: "I was looking around the studio, found a PA crossover, and took the three outputs from the kick into the board. Now, I had three kinds of specific frequencies that I was able to mess around with [...] All of a sudden we were like, ‘Wait a minute. This sounds brilliant now.’” 

3. Madonna - Vogue

Madonna’s Vogue is proof that, although the 909 is often heavily associated with techno, house and electronica, there’s absolutely no reason it doesn’t belong in a pop song. 

Released in 1990, the track sold north of six million copies, giving the chunky snares and zesty hi-hats of the 909 some of their broadest exposure yet as it dominated chart radio across the US and UK.

Put together by frequent Madonna collaborator Shep Pettibone, the track has a steady 116bpm groove that’s anchored by the 909’s weighty kick drum and some well-placed snare rolls.

4. Daft Punk - Revolution 909

Daft Punk loved the 909 so much they name-checked it on the fourth and final single from their classic 1997 album, Homework.

A largely instrumental track, it’s a bouncy slice of filter house that’s endearingly simple, getting by on its insistent 909 groove and a few chopped-up samples.

The 12-inch single came with some nifty remixes from Roger Sanchez and Junior Sanchez, along with a rather curious acapella version. 

5. Aphex Twin - Heliosphan

Aphex Twin seems to have a fondness for the 909, bringing it along in 2019 as part of the setup for his first live show in over a decade, at London’s Printworks.

Its most noteworthy appearance in his discography has to be found in Heliosphan, a hypnotic piece of ambient techno that washes over you like a dream. 

The drum machine’s partly responsible for that hypnotic effect, as it loops a captivating breakbeat that forms one of the most memorable tracks on the record, Selected Ambient Works 85-92.

Aphex’s abundance10edit (2 R8's, FZ20m & A 909) also deserves an honourable mention, showing off a little more of the 909’s range in what sounds like a gloriously messy jam session.

6. Schoolly D - P.S.K. What Does It Mean?

The 909 doesn’t have the same status in the hip-hop community as the 808, but it’s still made some appearances across more than a few classic cuts.

Recorded in 1983, Schoolly D’s P.S.K. What Does It Mean? is built around a head-nodding 909 beat. The production’s interesting in that pretty much every element sounds like it’s been run through some pretty heavy reverb, giving the track an unusual sound.

7. Radiohead - Videotape

The 909 forms the rhythmic backbone of Radiohead’s funereal album finisher Videotape, which closes out their 2008 opus In Rainbows. The 909 can be spotted in this live version of the ethereal song from their Scotch Mist webcast, playing a typically off-centre drum pattern. 

The rhythms in Videotape have provoked the curiosity of many fans, thanks to some cleverly disguised syncopation that throws off the listener’s perception of the downbeat.

Thom and Jonny seem to be partial to the 909, and have also used it in live performances of Thom’s solo material.

8. Mumdance ft. Novelist - Take Time

Mumdance is known for being a 909 devotee, often using it in live sets to sculpt and edit rhythms on the fly. The sounds of the drum machine partly make up the skeletal grime beat found in his 2014 breakout Take Time, which collages together screw-face samples with the 909’s hi-hats to produce something refreshingly minimal. 

Mumdance and Novelist have been known to perform the track live with a 909 and an Elektron Octatrack, and judging from Novelist’s opening endorsement in the video, he’s a fan too.

9. Derrick May - Strings of Life

Derrick May's Strings of Life, released under the Rhythim is Rhythim alias, is an early techno classic. Hovering on the border between house and techno, it's built around a pumping 909 beat and a sprightly piano loop contributed by Michael James. 

Given its name by Frankie Knuckles, the track has become enduringly influential - on top of becoming a staple for DJs across the world, it's been sampled by Herbie Hancock and covered by Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Steve Reid. It doesn't sound quite the same without that 909 though, does it?

Matt Mullen

I'm the Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for almost ten years, and when I'm not tapping away at my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard or a synthesizer. My latest obsession is the Arturia MicroFreak, which will have to do until I've saved up for a Prophet-6... 

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