In 1982, Marvin Gaye found himself in the small Belgian city of Ostend, trying to escape his drug, money and family problems. The soul star needed to create his music in complete isolation. He was surrounded by synthesisers and drum machines, pushing buttons, setting levels and cueing rhythms. He pushed “play” on a song that was made entirely using a drum machine. That song was “Sexual Healing”.
The song became a huge global hit, his biggest in years, thanks to a drum machine called the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. After years of being seen as a faded star, Gaye suddenly found himself a key player in a new musical movement.
In an era in which renting studios cost thousands of pounds, Ikutaro Kakehashi wanted to create a tool that would make music-making affordable. Born in Osaka in 1930, he was orphaned at the age of two, and grew up in a Japan between the two world wars. He moved in with his grandparents to the rural island of Kyushu. There he set up a business, repairing clocks and watches, he also started building his own radios so he could listen to radio stations. He was heating old parts over a candle, so the magnesium would oxidise and improve the sound of the tubes. The search for the perfect sound became an obsession, and he dedicated himself to music, via creating experimental rhythm machines. In 1972, Ikutaro founded Roland, releasing, among others the TR-808 drum machine.
The 808 was initially a commercial flop: the sound patterns sounded like a fake analogue instrument, the reproduction of physical instruments to digital sounded too futuristic and the kick drum too overbearing. Seen as a toy in a musical environment where guitars dominated and electronic musicians preferred slicker equipment, Roland discontinued the 808 in 1983.
Its turning point came when its price tag plummeted from $1,200 to $100 – which attracted curious underground musicians from America’s poor urban areas turning 808 into cult. Before long, producers in Chicago, Detroit and New York were making electro, techno, house, acid and hip hop that sounded like nothing else that had come before. Within a few years, Roland’s commercial flop had become an essential piece of kit. It even started its own genre, with acid house being able to have the epithet of acid in front, only if the music was made using an 808.
The rest is history: Madonna’s “Vogue”; Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”; Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill”; LL Cool J and Run-DMC’s crossover smashes… Nearly 30 years later, we can hear the machine’s percussive attack in chart-topping hits from Kanye West and Drake.
Even PC gamers cannot escape from Ikutaro’s legacy, as Roland’s MT-32 sound gave DOS gamers MIDI music. So whenever you connect a keyboard to your laptop, you should thank Ikutaro for creating the technology. (In 2013, Ikutaro received a Technical Grammy Award for his MIDI work.)
How ironic that Ikutaro wanted to enable affordable music, only for the TR-808 to be unaffordable for fledgling musicians. It took its initial failure to become a huge success. And today? Turn your radio on and you’ll hear an 808 kick in within ten minutes. And for this, Ikutaro arigato.