Boom, boom, BOOOM… chasss.
This may come as quite a surprise to some, but the person who is indirectly responsible for Afrika Bambaataa being known today for anything other than his questionable dress sense, for Detroit dethroning Dusseldorf and Sheffield as the global epicentre of techno, for Manchester’s musical comeback, and for Richie Hawtin having carte blanche to get out of his tree and lose his composure in the festivals that still hire him, is a kind Japanese man, a nowadays elderly man, without whom it’s highly possible that the current musical landscape would be much, much narrower and uniform. His name is Ikutaro Kakehashi, and he’ll be remembered eternally, not just as the founder of the Roland company and for being the first person to propose the creation of a data transfer system which would come to receive the name MIDI, but also for having created two machines that would revolutionise the physiognomy of electronic music, in a first instance, and later on of music in general: The CR-78 and very specially, the TR-808 drum machines.
Putting Kakehashi first may well equate to attaching more importance to the till than to the labourer and the fruits of his labour, but in this case we’re justified in doing so: exemplifying a case in which the function develops the hand; said fruits would not exist, or if they did they would not have been as decisive, had the tool in question not been invented first. In other words: “Planet Rock” by Bambaataa; “Sunglasses At Night”, the track that launched Tiga’s career; “Spastik”, by Richie Hawtin, or even Public Enemy’s early discography, that which launched them to fame, not only are what they are because the 808 tainted them with its particular and unmistakeable mark, but because the 808 gave birth to them. And, excepting a few cases in science fiction movies, children aren’t born before their parents.
To mention Science Fiction is not coincidental. The 808’s sound could definitely be described as being as futuristic nowadays as it was when it first went on sale in 1980, and it is thus described by a number of the participants in 808, the documentary about Ikutaro Kakehashi’s invention created in tandem by director Alexander Dunn and producer Alex Noyer. And more than futuristic, that little black box with its multiple blinking eyes which couldn’t (nor did it intend to) imitate real sources of percussion, nor did it follow in the path of the primitive keyboard rhythm accompaniment combos of previous eras. It must have sounded downright alien to musicians thirty-five years ago, not to mention how it sounded to the audience… "The low sonic boom of the kick, the tiny snare, cowbell and odd-sounding handclap" we hear the documentary’s narrator say at one point. Another illustrious guest, Rick Rubin, adds: "An 808 sounds like nothing else. I probably was looking for something that sounded more like drums, but it didn’t sound like drums. It sounded like an 808."
It was no easy task for Kakehashi, with the technology available at the time, to faithfully reproduce the sounds of congas, toms or base drums, so his solution was… Alexandrian: not to simulate them. "I could only catch the character of a sound, never reach the real drum sound” he explains. Paradoxically, what he did achieve through a process of modern alchemy was the transmutation of that character, that sonic footprint which could be grasped yet not emulated, into another completely new one. The outrageous result has been pumping out through the amps at clubs all over the world for decades, resounding in the chest like some form of primal thunder striking just a few metres away from our heads. It’s not a natural sound like that of drums, but with some reservation, what is natural and what is artificial in today’s world?
Seed which saw the blossoming of the electro wave of hip-hop, Miami Bass, Chicago house, Detroit techno, drum’n’bass (back in the day it was known as jungle) and a miriad of other subgenres, the 808 has the status nowadays of a classic instrument; the same status enjoyed by some pianos, violins, a few acoustic guitars and even fewer electric guitars. And whoever says that electronic instruments are soul-less is wrong: as with everything else, it’s down to the user to transmit part of his soul. A rarely lucid Hawtin hits the nail on the head when he says that one of the great virtues of the 808 is that it allows human interaction. Other participants in the documentary concur, albeit with alternative choices of words. Not bad for a machine that only saw 12.000 units produced due to the absence of one of its essential components… a faulty transistor. Nice work, Mr.Kakehashi.