8 artists on the 808

When the Roland TR-808 was introduced in the 1980s, few would predict the lasting impact of the black and orange metallic box.

From its first use in Marvin Gaye’s 1982 hit “Sexual Healing” all the way to Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak, the 808 drum machine and its most iconic sound—the sine wave sub that dominates hip hop and pop—undoubtedly shaped the sound of today. To celebrate 808 Day (August 8th), we asked eight artists known for their use of the 808 a few questions on how the sound weaves its way into their music.

What’s your favorite 808 / sub to use in a track?

Mannie Fresh: “Cash Money and Marvelous’ ‘Ugly People Be Quiet.’ It’s at the very end of the song.”

Louis Futon: “I really like Jazzfeezy and THEY.’s 808s. They’re my go-to’s for sure.”

Ryan Hemsworth: “808-3” from 808 Madness (a Kontakt library). I used it most recently on Yurufuwa Gang’s “Fresh All Day.” It’s just sludgy – I think it has some kind of phase distortion or something. I love that kind of crappy distorted sound.”

NOVA Wav: “For samples, the 2k18 Spinz 808 and in a VST, the Kontakt library Sub Zero 808.”

Medasin: “I like my 808s shorter and choppier, with just a sprinkle of harmonic resonance and distortion. One of my guilty pleasure 808s is the one Pi’erre Bourne uses in almost every track – it just hits perfectly.”

Decap: “I like to try different 808s depending on the feel of the track. Lately I’ve been enjoying using short 808s with a long release (like this one from ‘Drums That Knock Vol. 7’).”

The Knocks: “We have a couple of 808 subs that we’ve made from scratch that we like to use, but you can never go wrong with the (original) Roland.”

Trakgirl: “One of my tools that I like to use is the New Era 808 & Bass Module. I don’t necessarily have a favorite but that’s one of my go-to plugins!”

When did you first hear either an 808 drum machine or an 808 sub in a song?

Mannie Fresh:’Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force.”

Louis Futon: “Probably Lil John, Usher, and Ludacris’ ‘Yeah!,’ haha.”

Ryan Hemsworth: “Earliest memory might be playing basketball with my friend in like third or fourth grade, listening to Beastie Boys. Probably ‘Brass Monkey’ the most.”

NOVA Wav: “Aaliyah’s ‘One in A Million’… maybe not the first time ever, but the first time we ‘heard’ it ever!”

Medasin: “Well I’m young (22 years), so my first real experience with music where the 808 was a huge component was around the Lex Luger era, when he was doing all the bangers on projects by Wiz, Mac Miller, Waka, etc. I feel like most producers and beat makers from my generation also started with the Lex Luger drum kits haha. That’s like the first thing you would go download when setting up a new computer for production.”

Decap: “The first time I heard an 808 sub was probably in ‘Nuthin But a G Thang’ by Dr. Dre and Snoop. You really felt it when listening to it in a car with subwoofers.”

The Knocks: “Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ is probably the earliest song I remember hearing 808 sounds on.”

Trakgirl: “I studied Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis heavily, and one of their key tools was the classic Roland TR-808. They used is in most of their classic records. I love Timbaland’s usage of 808s too.”

Where do you see the 808 going in the future?

Mannie Fresh: “It’s endless because of technology and all the new ways to twerk drums and sounds.”

Louis Futon: “It seems like the trend now is either short 808s with trap music or longer 808s with tons of slides. I’m pretty happy with this trend – I just want to hear them being used creatively.”

Ryan Hemsworth: “It’s sort of shifted the general dynamic in music mixing. It’s not just a tool for rap; it can be a necessary key to achieve heavy low end in any genre. I love how melodic it can be, beyond just being a driving bass. People are distorting and effecting it more and more, putting it through guitar amps, etc. I think that’s only going to be pushed further in the future.”

NOVA Wav: “We believe that as technology continues to grow, listeners will be able to not only hear the 808, but technology will allow everyone to have the power of synesthesia, which allows one to perceive sound in color, among many other things. Some of our greatest musicians are blessed with this condition including Pharrell Williams, Charli XCX, Duke Ellington, Mary J. Blige, Frank Ocean, Stevie Wonder, and Kanye West.”

Medasin: “I can honestly say there’s no way for me to know. I remember when XXXTENTACION first came out with just entirely destroyed, completely mangled, distorted 808s and I was honestly confused and pretty taken aback at first. I’ve now watched that become a very common norm – people have sort of cleaned up that sound, and now we hear it extremely often in hip hop. Point being, I just never would’ve thought we would literally be exploding our 808s with distortion and evolving to a point culturally where that’s literally a viable, cool sound that’s widely accepted by listeners. So, who’s to say where it’s headed? Though I can say I do love what people like Sophie, Kenny Beats, and Flume are doing with really tightening that tasteful distorted and stereo 808 sound, interjecting a lot more personality into their 808s. But then again, some of my favorite current tracks have the most simple basic 808s that have been used for years. All I know is, wherever it’s headed, the 808 will always be the 808. As far as I’m concerned, it has now established itself as a core instrument that’s vital to most modern music, like a kick drum or clap.”

Decap: “I’ve been noticing that over the years, since most people now listen to their music on phones and laptops, low end bass frequencies have become less prominent in the 808, and more of the midrange is processed to stand out. I think that if speakers in our phones and laptops get better at producing lower frequencies, we’ll hear more of the low end in 808s come back. If not, we’ll continue to hear more creative processing with the mid range frequencies. I also think that 808s in general are going to get more distorted, aggressive, and… amazing!”

The Knocks: “It’s hard to say because producers are getting more experimental with how they use gear. Regardless of what happens, though, we don’t see the 808 going anywhere anytime soon.”

Trakgirl: “It will always be a staple moment in records and within the production process. I feel like the 808 will live forever.”

How are you celebrating 808 Day? Perhaps a good place to start is with this 808 Day Collection that features 808s crafted by the artists in this article.

August 8, 2019

Ken Herman Ken Herman is a producer under the name Exitpost and is an editor of the Splice blog.