Do I make your heart beat like an 808 drum?

The other day, I was running on the treadmill, and Ke$ha asked me: “do I make your heart beat like an 808 drum?”

And I didn’t know how to answer! Because I had no idea what an 808 drum even was. Turns out, it shows up in a lot of pop songs.

It’s in the Far East Movement’s song “Like a G6,” when they they say: “808 bump, make you put your hands up.” Beyonce mentions it in the song Deja Vu, saying “Bass… hi-hat… 808.” And T.I. brags about his “24 blades glistening, an my 808 kikin’.”

In fact, Wikipedia has an entire section devoted to lyrics that mention the drum. So far, there are 34 entries.

So… what is it?

The 808 (pronounced eight-oh-eight, for those of you unfamiliar with hip-hop) gets its name from the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer – one of the first programmable drum machines.

You know, something that makes beats like this:

Drum Beat by RoseEveleth

It didn’t come out to rave reviews – in fact, it wasn’t a great drum machine. Keyboard Magazine said it sounded like marching anteaters.  And, just a month later, a far superior machine was released by Linn Electronics, called the Linn LM-1. Rather than fake sounding, computer generated drums, the Linn LM-1 used digital samples of actual drums. Pretty much everyone agreed it was way better.

So how did the 808 become the darling of people like Ke$ha and Beyonce? Well, first, it was cheap. The Linn might have been way better, but you had to pay for the upgrade. The LM-1 cost $5,000, while the TR-808 only put you $1,000 in the hole. But what the TR-808 was really known for was it’s bass. Earlier versions of drum machines had a weaker kick, while the TR-808 could produce much lower frequency bass sounds.

TR-808 bass drum by RoseEveleth

The first band to use the TR-808 was a Japanese synthetic pop band called Yellow Magic Orchestra. Here it is at work in their song “Tighten Up.”

In the United States, 808 fever really got going in 1982, when both Marvin Gaye and Afrika Bambaataa used the machine in their music. Check out the sweet 808 drums in Sexual Healing.

Soon, the combination of price and bass made the 808 the darling of the 1980′s hip-hop scene. People like Double Duce, The Beastie Boys and 2 Live Crew used the 808 on hits like School Breakdown, Licensed to Ill, and As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

In 1983, Roland stopped making the TR-808, but that hasn’t stopped the frenzy. Nine Inch Nails used it in their 1994 hit Closer. Rappers like OutKast, Kelis, T.I., Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, Beyonce, and Eminem all sing the praises of the 808. August 8th, 2008 was unofficially decreed 808 day. The 808 has been used on more hit records than any other drum machine.

Now, there is one little catch. Those singing the praises of the 808, aren’t necessarily using one. Even Kanye West, who named a whole album after the drum (808s & Heartbreak, released in 2008) used the TR-909 to get the right thump. And most bass lines are heavily processed anyway.

But the idea is the same. You know the kind of base that makes your organs wiggle around? The kind that bumps out of the cars that drive down your street playing the newest hit rap song? The one where you think, for a second, that tectonic plates might be shifting beneath you. That’s the spirit of the 808 drum, haunting you.

One Thought on “Do I make your heart beat like an 808 drum?

  1. Jessica on March 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm said:

    Great article! I wish I had it before I composed my own explanation of 808.

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