With A Fresh Spin On The 808, DJs Become Rhythm Composers

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 5:12 pm

It's disarmingly easy to become an amateur DJ in 2017, when an iPhone and a $1.99 app will quickly have you on your way to learning the basics of mixing songs together, or a thumb drive filled with tracks ripped from the Internet and plugged into a digital player called a CDJ can soundtrack a party hundreds of hours long. But DJing has a long history of craft — and while the bar has lowered for amateurs, technology has steadily changed the game for professionals, too.

There are purists around the world who still prefer the same equipment used at the first hip-hop parties: vinyl records, two turntables and a two-channel mixer. But today, you might see that setup augmented with specially encoded vinyl and a software program like Serato DJ, allowing the user to physically mix and scratch digital files from a laptop. Some DJs mix their songs with controllers, machines that mimic the turntable and CDJ experiences in one piece of hardware. Others add sounds of their own, playing samplers and synthesizers between and on top of the tracks in their set. There have long been DJs who produce, producers who make original music and musicians who spin records, but new tools and business synergies have continued to blur the lines.

Last year, two companies announced a partnership that seemed aimed at eliminating those boundaries altogether. In September, New Zealand's Serato and the pioneering Japanese electronic instrument company Roland unveiled the DJ-808: a digital controller that combines tools for DJing, production and composition into a single device.

"Playing with music, manipulating audio, is very much the core of everything we do," Serato CEO Young Ly said in a video announcing the DJ-808. "So when you take Roland, a company that's known for iconic sounds and amazing instruments, and you take these sounds and you mix it with Serato tech, suddenly, are you scratching? Are you flipping? Are you mixing? Are you producing? Are you DJing? It all mixes together into live performance."

If the 808 part sounds familiar, that's because this new machine was named after one of the most important sound-makers in music history, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer.

Few electronic instruments have been as fetishized as the TR-808, the imperfectly perfect and rare drum machine that's been a part of nearly every genre with a funky pulse. Though it was produced for just a short time between 1980 and 1983, the 808 has lent memorable sizzle to everyone from Phil Collins to Lil Jon. It gives Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" its spare sway, helps Whitney Houston catch a groove on "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and is the not-so-secret ingredient that propelled regional styles like New York electro, Detroit techno, Miami bass and New Orleans bounce into the international spotlight.

"I would call whoever: 'Yo, you got the 808?' And they'd say, 'No, so and so has it.' When you found out who had it you'd say, 'I need to get the 808, when are you going to be done with it?'" Nathaniel "DJ Pierre" Jones, who pioneered the sound that would become acid house (with the help of another Roland machine, the bass-focused TB-303), says he never had an 808 of his own. In the '80s, major recording facilities might have a unit in-house — the one at Manhattan's Chung King Studios, for example, boomed on tracks by LL Cool J, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys. But in Chicago, Pierre says, the progenitors of house music literally passed around a single 808 like a lending library.

"We were all very competitive as counterparts, but at the same time we were very community-oriented," he says. "We didn't let our competitive nature keep us from sharing the technology, because we all felt like we were confident in what we were doing — and whatever we were doing was going to be different from what they were doing, even if they were using the same thing."

Only about 12,000 TR-808s were manufactured before the product was discontinued. In the 2015 documentary 808, Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi explains that the machines were deliberately built with defective transistors — which had a sound he described as "sizzling," and which eventually became impossible to buy. "Semiconductor technology got better and better ... so [there was] no way to come back," said Kakehashi, who passed away this April at 87, just shy of the company's 45th birthday.

Despite the relative scarcity of these machines, 808 sounds have remained ubiquitous in popular music. In the '90s and beyond, that pervasiveness could be attributed to ReBirth, a software program that emulated the sounds and look of the 808 and its siblings the 303 and 909. ReBirth launched for computers in 1996 and later evolved into an iOS app after being discontinued for desktop systems in 2005. In June, Swedish company Propellerhead was forced to remove it from the market altogether after IP infringement claims by Roland.

Even so, today you can find 808 samples and soundalikes in the libraries of most major music recording programs. And earlier this year, Canada's System80 announced it would release a physical 808 clone made specially for modular synthesizer systems. (Roland may have something to say about this copycat once it's out.) If if you've got the cash, it's still possible to find an original 808 on eBay, where they sell for upwards of $5,000. The machine even survives purely as a design object: The row of red, orange, yellow and white buttons across its front panel, representing a bar of music as 16 programmable "steps," has inspired a conceptual Adidas sneaker that would sell by the boatload if it were real.

In the meantime, Roland has remained vital in the development of hip-hop and dance music, and in recent years has even released revamped, boutique versions of its vintage rhythm machines. But it has never formally ventured into the DJ market until now.

The essential pitch of the DJ-808 is that it does in a single unit what would otherwise require a table full of gear. The name owes to the set of onboard drum sounds — and in fact it's a little misleading, since the DJ-808 also incorporates sounds from the 303, 909 and 707. Users can blend digital music files on the controller, build a beat piece by piece on an integrated sequencer (rendered in classic 808 colors), tap out drum parts on two sets of pads or use the vocal transformer to record and warp vocals on the fly. Effectively, you can make your own music while you spin someone else's, and the elements should all remain in sync.

The price tag, around $1,299, is cheaper than the TR-808 at its debut ($1,195 in 1980 dollars, or about $3,500 today) — but orders of magnitude steeper than an entry-level controller, most of which can be had for just over $200. With so much more affordable gear on the market, the creators of the DJ-808 are banking on consumers seeing it the way DJ Pierre does. He was among the first artists with whom Roland shared the machine before its release, and says its range of functionality instantly impressed him.

"You can grow with it, and you can link other gear to it that will run smoothly," Pierre says. "You always want to think big picture — don't think just for today. Get something that can grow with you, that you can grow with." Roland has also gifted the machine to artists Erykah Badu and Q-Tip, who began using it on his Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music after seeing Pete Rock post about it on social media. Biz Markie confessed he's putting together a new room in his house just for the DJ-808. "It's going to change the future," he says. "It's like a one-stop shop for DJs. It's got a drum machine, you can break things up, and you can DJ. It's just super incredible."

The success of DJ-808, however, may depend more on people like Cynthia Cherish Malaran. As DJ CherishTheLuv, she has worked events for Oprah Winfrey and Samantha Bee and has the distinction of being Whole Foods' resident DJ in New York City. Malaran says she bought a DJ-808 as soon as it hit the market.

"You can use one beat of a song and create a whole new intro, and then drop the song into it," she explains of the DJ-808's ability to help restructure a tune. "People are like, 'Whoa, that's what that was, I knew that was familiar!' It's like you're reprogramming the song to sound like something new and exciting."

A generation and a hemisphere away, the machine is a new favorite of 14-year-old Belgian Amber Broos — who, as DJ 13 AMPS, has been teaching kids even younger than her to spin using the DJ-808 at the Begin to DJ school in Kortenberg, near Brussels. "The DJ-808 stimulates me to make my own tracks as a producer," Broos says. "It gives me new ideas and creativity. The possibilities of adapting tracks are unlimited."

For Just Blaze, the super-producer who has crafted songs for JAY Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West (although not on West's 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak), the DJ-808 represents a leap forward in merging DJing and production — something he says he's always wanted to do but never found convenient enough. "We used to be, in the earlier days, at a place where the software was held back by what the computer was capable of," he says. "Now, we're kind of at the opposite end of the spectrum, where the computers are so powerful they can pretty much handle anything within reason that the software can throw at it."

Just Blaze was able to offer a kind of informal beta testing to Roland before they released the DJ-808. He thinks they got the machine right for the most part (enough that he used it in a live-streamed battle with Swizz Beatz in February), though he has a small wish list of what he'd like to see next: "Now that we have computers that are capable of doing what we need them to do, maybe the next step is adding a keyboard section."

Not everyone I spoke to was ready to get on board. Greg Broussard, an early electro producer who DJs and records as Egyptian Lover, is among the few artists in the world who still prefers to use vinyl records and an old TR-808 for his DJ sets. "That 808 makes my shows everything they are," he insists. But he did play with the DJ-808 when it first came out and thought it was a great piece of gear for those who do.

"I'm extremely excited that Serato and Roland put out that DJ-808 for the new school," he says. "Mixing and making beats while DJing is so futuristic and something I would have rocked if I was a new DJ today. I see all kinds of possibilities for today's DJ with this product."

A Roland sales manager told me the DJ-808's sales had tapered off by the end of 2016 but are picking up gradually this year, as potential customers have had time to read reviews — and save up money. The machines are also starting to be seen on the secondhand market, which helped the original 808 find followers when getting one new wasn't an option.

Meanwhile, the company has announced a new slate of products for Aug. 8 (#808Day, get it?), including a reimagined standalone TR-808 in a portable size and at a more accessible price point — betting on a growing market of DJs looking to stretch the limits of their form and the persistence of a beloved set of numbers. If a keyboard is brought into future iterations of the DJ-808, perhaps a strappable keytar formation to really bring it back to the '80s wouldn't be too far off? Just Blaze lights up at the prospect.

"I've dreamed about this for years," he admits. "For me to be able to step in front of a crowd and give a straight up rock star-style scratch performance, that's one of my musical dreams come true. So, Roland, if you're listening ... "

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