In the late seventies and early eighties, Roland seemed specialize in electronic music instruments that were under appreciated while they were in production, but became quickly became classics.
The TR-808 was created originally as a tool for studio musicians to create demos. It was also used on some early R&B and hip-hop tunes. Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” uses it prominently to create a smooth groove, while electro cuts from Africa Bambaataa and others used it to create new rhythms. “Planet Rock” is 808 and not much more, and it became one of the most influential tracks in black electro music.
The most famous early electronica production that featured the 808 is probably Cybotron’s album Clear. Clear set the pattern that a lot of electronic dance music imitated.
About this time, DJs were beginning to use the 808 and other drum machines in unique ways. Chicago DJs would play the 808 over, between and under other tracks. By doing this, they could mix tracks together, and create marathon sets. The 808 became prominent in dance music productions that came out of this culture, and house music was born.
The TR808 has been a staple of electronica since then. It is used in dance, techno, hip-hop trance, and other styles.
The 808 is known for its deep kick drum, snappy snares, and bizarre cowbell sound. The sounds can be individually tuned and tweaked, and they have separate outputs. This lets you treat the sounds individually externally, throwing custom EQ, distortion or reverb at the various sounds. The 808 doesn’t include MIDI, because it was made before MIDI was created. Instead, it uses DIN Sync. This lets it hook up to machines like the TB 303 and synchronize. Some 808’s have been modified to support MIDI, and many musicians use MIDI-DIN sync boxes.
The 808 sound can be heard in the work of many electronica artists, including 808 State (of course), BT, Richie Hawtin, Jean Michel Jarre, Orbital, and The Prodigy.
It listed originally for $1,195, and has kept it’s value well. 808’s sell on Ebay in the range of $800-1000.