Jennifer Iverson: TR–808: Race, Groove, and Drum Machines

Image of the TR-808, an early drum machine with many buttons, dials, and sliders in red, orange, yellow, and white. The body of the machine is black.

By Jennifer Iverson, Associate Professor of Music and the Humanities

Adapted from my book-in-progress, Porous Instruments: Circulation and Exchange in Electronic Sound.

In 1980, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese techno-pop outfit, appeared on the American television program Soul Train playing a stage full of synthesizers. YMO entertained a dance floor of mostly Black dancers by covering Archie Bell and the Drells’ 1968 hit “Tighten Up.” They repeated the performance to warm Japanese reception at the Budokan arena in Tokyo, this ending a world tour for their album X∞Multiples (1980).

YMO performs "Tighten Up" on Soul Train, 1980

If you’re like me, YMO’s performance is dizzying: how it is that a Japanese techno-pop band in 1980 covered Black disco from 1968 to warm reception, both in the US and Japan? We are skittering between points otherwise distant. The host of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, was confused too: “In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what is going on, I haven’t the slightest idea.” YMO’s cover of “Tighten Up” suddenly staged a collision between musical genres, continents, technologies, and racial identity groups that were otherwise distinct—even mutually exclusive.

My work asks how music technologies—samplers, synthesizers, and drum machines—contribute to such circulation and exchange. YMO were early adopters of music technologies; they first incorporated the Roland TR–808, an analog drum machine, on the album BGM (1981). The relative cheapness of the 808 ($1,195 in 1980 or ~$3,300 in 2020) lent to its quick, widespread adoption; Roland produced 12,000 machines from 1980–83. What was also true about the 808, though, was that its preset sounds were, well, distinctive. Other drum machines on the market, like the five-times-more expensive Linn LM–1, digitally stored samples of actual drum sounds—Linn’s “snare” button triggered a recording of a snare. Roland’s 808, on the other hand, opted for analog guts inside the black box, using a combination of oscillators, filters, and voltage-controlled circuits to produce approximations of percussion sounds (similar in this way to analog synths like the Moog). The 808’s interface looked much more digital, with its push-buttons rather than dials, and operated much more digitally, with a solidly timed on-board sequencer that could easily memorize and store programmed patterns. But the 808’s seventeen preset sounds (e.g., snare drum, bass drum, hand claps, maracas, cowbell, rim shot, cymbals, congas, toms, etc.) were analog approximations of the real things. As a result, the 808’s presets were at best distinctive, and at worst hokey, artificial, and plastic. This turned out to be a feature rather than a bug for young, unaffiliated, DIY producers who wanted to subvert the familiar sounds of the dominant culture. The 808—affordable, fresh, easy to use—took off in several 1980s hits including “Brass Monkey” (the Beastie Boys), “Clear” (Cybotron), “One More Night” (Phil Collins), “Al Naafiysh/The Soul” and “Time” (Hashim), “Needle to the Groove” (Mantronix), and “Sexual Healing” (Marvin Gaye). After a period of dormancy, the 808 reemerged in the ‘00s and ‘10s with a nostalgic tinge, owing in part to Kanye West’s album 808s and Heartbreak (2008), where the 808 presets create everything from heartbeat sound effects to invigorating grooves.

So what do electronic instruments—drum machines, synths, samplers—have to do with the circulation of sound and race? Sounds are rarely neutral, since they are soaked with references to styles, genres, and racial stereotypes. Cover versions­, like YMO’s covers of Black disco, are often useful for playing with stereotypes and sonic novelty, since musical signifiers can be traded to both acknowledge, and simultaneously unmoor from, cultural reference points. But even more than sonic novelty, I think the 808 and other drum machines are most consequential as groove-creation machines. Groove seems easy to define: it is the beat that propels the music forward, gives the music a “feel,” and inspires a listening body to dance. The musical materials that make up a groove can be analyzed—transcribed, described, programmed, recreated. But here is where definitions and analyses can fall short: the essence of groove is in embodied “feel.” It is impossible to “get” a groove by intellectual contemplation alone; our bodies must engage, move, and repeat. Any time we’re embodied—which is to say all the time—we should recognize that we’re also navigating our gender, racial, and disability status. Grooving listeners have racial experiences and identities, and musical materials can also become raced (or gendered, etc.) by association. In short, race rides along with groove.

How do these embodied experiences shift when the groove is programmed into a rigidly quantized digital loop? We might initially think that drum machines like the 808 robot-ify, or de-humanize, or de-racinate grooves, stripping them of “feel.” And yet, such a human-robot dichotomy doesn’t seem to work for most 808 music, which is profoundly groovy—entrancing and sexy—even though the beats are also entirely 808-mechanical. I think it’s possible to have a stiff groove—a not-very-groovy–groove, that is—played by a human rhythm section, and I think it’s possible to have an entrancing groove played by a drum machine. In fact, producers often work to undermine some of the more robotic implications of drum machines. They subvert rigidly quantized grids, they modify presets to provide timbral variation, and they push rhythms around using microtiming fluctuations within beat-slots. Together, these modifications re-introduce “feel” even in drum machine grooves—and extend the possibility for the musical exchange of racialized signifiers.

Race rides along with groove also because the drum machine is only the foundation of the musical track. Racial information is encoded in many of the musical elements like samples, melodies, and new timbres layered above the groove. Consider how early Bronx-based hip hop producers, for example, collaged heterogenous samples together with drum machines like the 808 as the aural foundation. Afrika Bambaataa’s “Death Mix,” a recording of a 1983 live party, gives an idea of how a hip hop DJ used turntables to put sonic elements together. Working with MCs, b-boys and b-girls (aka breakdancers), and graffiti artists, DJs used turntables to loop “the breaks”—the most danceable, groove-oriented parts of a song—this related, by the way, to similar practices in disco and Jamaican dub. Bambaataa alternated mainstream ‘70s R&B, soul, and disco (the Jackson 5, Archie Bell and the Drells) with more obscure samples (Vernon Burch, Queen Samantha, The Chocolate Jam Co.). Nascent new genres—contemporary hip hop (Grandmaster Flash) and techno-pop (Yellow Magic Orchestra)—were mixed in for flair. It’s entirely possible that Bambaataa encountered YMO not “diggin’ in the crates” but on that Soul Train episode in 1980, when they performed their original song “Firecracker” second in the set. Bambaataa deployed many of the same new technologies, and reached into many of the same sonic bins as YMO—bins labeled R&B, disco, soul, and techno-pop—but he mixed these technologies and ingredients together in a vastly different milieu, to vastly different results.

Bambaataa knew that he was being racially provocative in mixing such a wide variety of genres: “When hip-hop was coming up, punk rock was also coming up at the same time. I started having this vision that I’ve got to grab that Black and white audience and bridge the gap” (quoted in Yes, Yes, Y’all, p. 309). He played DJ sets in clubs like the Roxy in 1982, where the producer Kool Lady Blue brought together a mélange of punk, post-punk, new wave, reggae, and hip hop afficionados for “Wheels of Steel” nights—an unusual, short-lived collision of downtown and uptown. Bambaataa advocated a peaceful, multi-racial society united by music: “One Nation Under a Groove,” as he put it. Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” is perhaps the aural manifestation of this utopia. Let’s listen to it together.

Afrika Bambaataa, “Planet Rock,” (1981)

After a crowd-warm-up MC routine (“yo, yo get funky”), the beat drops (0:17) with the unmistakable sounds of the 808. The Fairlight CMI’s ORCH5 patch, an eight-bit Stravinsky-ian string hit, punctuates. The Kraftwerk “Trans Europe Express” samples (0:46, 1:43) are played faster but pitched a half step lower than the original, suggesting that Bambaataa recreated them on a synthesizer—probably the Fairlight CMI in the Tommy Boy Records studio—rather than manipulating a chopped sample with turntables or a sampler. The quotations from Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” (2:50, 3:43)—an unlikely ‘70s disco hit from a relatively unfamous British prog-rock unit—betray another layer of mediation insofar as “The Mexican” is itself a pastiche of melodies from Ennio Morricone’s music for the spaghetti western For a Few Dollars More (dir. Leone, 1965). (As an aside: Bambaataa, YMO, and Jamaican dub producers, working in parallel, all incorporated music from prominent westerns, another point of unlikely convergence that speaks to the pervasiveness of American popular culture and its attendant racial mythologies.)

Perhaps the most important element in “Planet Rock” is the 808 beat pervading the track, forming a sonic foundation that holds the whole mix together, while the several MCs and sampled materials trade space, and signifiers, above. Bambaataa’s remixes are profoundly multi-cultural, and intentionally so. It’s clear that Bambaataa viewed the pop-cultural sonic world around him as his. That Kraftwerk and Babe Ruth and Morricone were representatives of majority-white genres seemingly gave Bambaataa no pause. This is, perhaps, the “American” part of African-American. White popular culture (and for that matter, the Japanese techno-pop of YMO) was just as available as Black culture to Bambaataa, who had his eye and ear tuned toward synthesis. Bambaataa’s sampling practice made use of all of these raw materials, positioning them in relationship and conversation with one another over the steady 808 groove.

Here is where I think we can view the 808 most productively: as a hub that consolidated sonic signifiers. In “Planet Rock,” the 808 beat is like the canvas for a visual artist, providing the groove above which the artist(s) can layer rich sonic signifiers—samples, new melodies, sound effects, quotations—that further involute and stretch racialized elements of style and genre. In this way, the 808 has double significance. Its presets—the machine’s own recognizably hokey timbres—provide one kind of sonic identity marker. But beyond the 808’s timbral distinctiveness, its function in a musical mix is often less one of sonic novelty and more one of reliable groove. This is true in early hip hop as well as in disco, Japanese techno-pop, Detroit techno, or commercial rap. The 808’s popularity is undoubtedly also connected to this function of groove-foundation. “Beat-based music” includes a huge range of vernacular music—most, in fact. The 808 was a democratizing instrument, which increased access to beat making and groove manipulation for a wide range of musicians, who worked in several styles. The 808, in tandem with other commodities and material traces—vinyl albums, sound files, television and radio broadcasts—extended the ways that raced (gendered, etc.) sonic material was available for revision. With the new possibilities opened up by the 808—especially an invitation to lock in the groove first—artists began to find more ways to recontextualize, revise, and rework the material in circulation around them. It is in this way that racial signifiers are de- and re-composed along with grooves. The 808 invites, engenders, even requires this complex process of groove-synthesis.

Further Reading

On Disco
Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, revised ed. New York: Grove, 2006.

Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970–79. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

On Dub
Dick Hebdige, Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music. London and New York: Routledge, 1987.

Paul Sullivan, Remixology: Tracing the Dub Diaspora. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.

Michael Veal, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

On hip hop
Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.

Robert Fink, “The Story of ORCH5, or, the Classical Ghost in the Hip Hop Machine,” Popular Music 24/3 (2005): 1–18.

Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, eds., Yes, Yes, Y’all: The Experience Music Project’s Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.

Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.

Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 1994.

Amir Said, The BeatTips Manual, 6th ed. Brooklyn, NY: SuperChamp, 2013.

Joseph Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2004.

On groove
Anne Danielson, Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Tiger C. Roholt, Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Tomokazu Hayashi, “The Primer: Yellow Magic Orchestra,” The Wire 404 (October 2017): 38–45.