From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer was one of the first programmable drum machines ("TR" serving as an initialism for Transistor Rhythm). Introduced by the Roland Corporation in late 1980, it was originally manufactured for use as a tool for studio musicians to create demos. Like earlier Roland drum machines, it does not sound very much like a real drum kit. Indeed, because the TR-808 came out a few months after the Linn LM-1 (the first drum machine to use digital samples), professionals generally considered its sound inferior to sampling drum machines; a 1982 Keyboard Magazine review of the Linn Drum indirectly referred to the TR-808 as sounding like marching anteaters. However, the TR-808 cost US$1,000 upon its release, which was considerably more affordable than the US$5,000 LM-1.
One of the earliest uses of the TR-808 for a live performance was by Yellow Magic Orchestra in December 1980 in the song "1000 Knives," composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1978. The hand-clap sound was later publicized by YMO's innovative album BGM, released March 1981 in Japan, used again on "1000 Knives," as well as in another of Sakamoto's songs, "Music Plans." One of the machine's earliest mainstream hits in the United States was on Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."
In the mid-to-late 1980s, years after the TR-808 was discontinued, its sound again became popular, in part due to its kick drum sound, which could produce a very deep sub-bass. By the end of the 1980s, the TR-808 was popular within electronic music and hip-hop genres. As with many analogue electronic musical instruments, a great deal of effort has been put into sampling the sounds of the TR-808 for use in modern devices; however, due to the nature of analogue circuitry, the result is often considered unsatisfactory and can sound unduly static and digital. Demand for the real 808 sound is so great that street prices for a used TR-808 are actually higher than the cost of a new TR-808 was upon its initial release in 1980.
The sounds of the TR-808 were and still are very often used in drum and bass, hip-hop, R&B, house, electro and many forms of electronic dance music, albeit often unrecognizable after extensive processing. One method is to lower the pitch of the kick drum to near sub-harmonic levels, which can destroy loudspeakers.
The popularity of the TR-808 has led to many artists referring to the machine in their lyrics, and the group 808 State even named itself after the venerable machine, although Graham Massey recently admitted that up until the late 1980s he and the other members of 808 State thought the Roland TR-808 was "severely uncool."