Art-O-Mat /Mark Kaufman
by Julianne Shepherd

The booty-jiggling bass bomb of the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Synth is the right ventricle of all sorts of dance music.

OutKast's Big Boi knows it. In one of Speakerboxxx's less-cited quotes, he rhymes, "Well I know y'all wanted that 808/ can you feel that B-A-S-S, bass?" And you can, through your flesh and bones, right to your ass.

Blaque knows it. In 2000, in the sex jam "808," they coyly sing "you'll be goin' boom, baby, boom baby boom... boom like an 808," if you were so lucky to ditch your old, ratty girlfriend and get down with their bodacious jelly.

Fannypack knows it. (Or rather, their producers do.) Last year, with their grody playground rhymes, they rehashed the bump of booty bass--using an 808, Miami-style.

These aren't the first examples of the 808's impact on pop culture in the 21st Century, and they won't be the last. Its sub-bass defines the sound your ass makes, and without it, there would be no bump in our trunks (jeep or otherwise). Not to mention the fact that there would be no electro, hiphop, Detroit techno, Miami bass, or "Sexual Healing"--at least, not in the same way we know 'em.

The 808 was the first programmable analog drum machine; it is perfect because it actually sounds kind of crappy. The cowbell, probably the second-most famous sound of its 16 options, is tinny and isolated, like someone banging on a can in space. The snare sounds like it's being hit with a Q-tip. But its tones--so faraway and isolated, so unlike the normal boom-tap-and-crash of an acoustic drum set--lent themselves perfectly to the futuristic aspirations of musicians like Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, as on their immortal pop-and-lock jawn, "Planet Rock" (1982), that New York robot song that threw down the red carpet for all electro after it. Around the same time, in Detroit, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May were using the 808 to make the cold-cocked funk of Motor City techno. In Hawaii--the (area code) 808 state, incidentally--the machine helped Marvin Gaye with his sexual healing, subtly and sensually showing us the TR-808's boom boom boom could get us back to a room, definitely. The 808 provided musicians them with a way to combine two obsessions: American funk and arty German synth music. As quoted on the highly recommended, electronic music website, Derrick May called Detroit techno "Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator," but as a root jump-off point, it could have applied to any number of the 808's descendents.

1982 was 808, coast to coast.

But the perfection of the 808 story lies in what it symbolizes: American pop culture's unstoppable ability to regenerate and melt seemingly disparate pots. Contrary to conventional fad-death wisdom, the synth has rippled through electronic music, in waves, ever since its invention in 1979. One great reason for this: thrift stores. (Is the thrift store ever not the reason?) Discarded by its original purchasers, the 808 and its sister synth, the 909 (which is a whole other article), were swept up by a whole new cache of producers.

In 1986, regenerated by its availability in Goodwills and pawn shops across America, folks like Dr. Dre and 2 Live Crew snatched up the 808, making classic beats like "Eazy Duz It" (for Eazy E) and "We Want Some Pussy," respectively. Whereas before the 808 allowed its purveyors to imagine an infinite future, this new funk started biting down hard: Boogie Down Productions' use of it on their 1987 classic Criminal Minded solidified as much. A couple years later, even MC Luscious needed its boom to get your boyfriend, making a record that was part-booty and part early entry into hiphouse, a convergence of hiphop and house musics ("Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend," 1991).

It kept coming back, through the '90s, with Luke Vibert, Orbital, 808 State, Josh Wink, The Prodigy, and Puff Daddy. It keeps coming back. Last year, with the retro-fad-phone dialing "mid-to-late '80s," Fannypack reintroduced the tinny 808 boom-sound to the mainstream with their third-wave booty hit "Cameltoe." British hiphop artist Req pared the skin off the boom-bap using an 808, on the minimalist record Car Paint Scheme (Warp). In one of America's most important recent musical developments, Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boys magically turn the 808's crap settings into Crunk ones. The XBase-09, a now-era analog synth, preserves the 808's sounds while adding all the amenities and accoutrements of modern digital technology. And Big Boi sang its praises in one of the biggest records of the year. Even in the fickle fast-lane of American's voracious pop culture eating habits, the 808 STILL hasn't yet kicked the bucket--and immortality, friends, is some blessed kind of perfection.