Songs inspired by the 808 and 909

VOLUME 2 of The Great Release Project

In 1986, I kept hearing this drum sound. I had been hearing it for a few years at this point, and I was becoming obsessed with it. I had been creating previously with the LinnDrum, but wanted that drum machine I kept hearing everywhere.

Somehow, I was misled to believe it was the Emu Drumulator. I bought one used for about $250, but upon hearing it, realized it wasn’t what I was looking for. “You can go to Emu and they’ll get you the sounds you want,” said the guy selling it to me.

Emu’s headquarters were in Northern California. I went on vacation with a work friend to Monterey one weekend, and told him I wanted to divert to the Emu headquarters so I could get the sounds I wanted.

On the day we were supposed to go, he announced, “that’s too far. I wanna get back home,” so I never made it to Emu.

A week later, I’m watching TV, and I see this band on a show featuring up and coming R&B acts, and I see a little black box on top of an old Ultimate Support A-Stand. And then I heard that sound. That’s it! That’s the one I want! I gotta find out what that is!

I went to my salesman at Guitar Center. “Oh, you’re looking for a Roland TR-808. They don’t make them anymore. You might try to find a used one.”

A week later, the Pennysaver, a circular that showed up in the mail once a week, had a listing from Newport Beach in the musical instruments section. “Roland TR-808. Used. Barely touched. $275.”

I called the guy selling it, and went to see him that evening. He said he bought it when it first came out, made a few beats, and then it sat in a closet for five years. He needed cash. I didn’t even look at him when he told the story. I just stared at the 808, waiting for him to finish so I could give him his $275.

As soon as I arrived home, I plugged it into my parent’s stereo. Within five minutes, my mother was asking me to turn it down.

I hadn’t been so excited about owning a piece of gear since I bought my first synth three years earlier - a consumer Moog model released by Radio Shack called the Realistic MG-1.

Then came the issue of syncing it to my computer, running MIDI. I asked around and found someone in the Pennysaver selling a Korg KMS-30, which would allow me to drive the computer using the 808.

For the next 30 years, I used the 808 prolifically. I used on almost everything I recorded, and with the acts I produced. When I lived in New York, I would take it on the train with me, wrapped in one of my mother’s afghans in a shopping bag so I could take it to rapper’s houses and recording sessions. When I worked for Janet Jackson in 2007, she was about to go on tour, and we were asked to get multitracks for Anytime, Anyplace from R Kelly’s Trax Studios in Chicago. Just as I had experienced on tour with Maxwell in 2001 when I needed the tracks for “Fortunate,” I came upon a dead end when I called his Chicago Trax, hearing the same message I heard six years earlier - “voicemail box is full.” I decided to re-create R Kelly’s drum pattern with my own 808, which was approved by artist management.

I had my 808 redone by Bruce Forat of Forat Electronics in 2013. He did his usual, exemplary work, removing the aging foam inside, recapping and repairing some sticking buttons, and even threw in some of the small volume knob orange stickers that fall out pretty easily in case they fell out again (they did).

Since the creation of the 808, Roland released several products that were always similar in sound to the 808, but never quite the same. There are idiosyncrasies about the 808 that I learned much later - particularly with the release of the 808 movie - there were inherent, unintentional flaws in its design that actually add to the flavor of its sound. Sample libraries never quite cloned it, and even the few hardware clones couldn’t capture its essence.

Then last year, Roland Cloud released the 808 on August 8, and the 909 on September 9.

I was amazed that they had actually did a phenomenal job with the plug-in re-creation. Their ACB technology captured whatever it was that was lacking from all the subsequent clones and sample libraries. Not only did these units sound like the real deal, they were much easier to program and control. I even considered selling my original 808, because they sound so good.

Just like I had earlier in the year with One Day, Eleven, Nativity, Go To 16 and Table Top, I decided to delve into the Roland Cloud drum machines and in its pursuit, create an album. I titled it BOBgog, a play on the visual letters. The songs are inspired by the release of the Roland Cloud plug-ins, and feature the sound of some of their other hardware synth emulations as well.

For the 9th track, I decided to call on Fymila to do a cover of the 80’s classic, Touch Me (All Night Long), as I remember its original release by Wish featuring Fonda Rae. The original song used a LinnDrum. I wanted to give this remake that 8-0 flavor.

And I would like to thank my brother’s best friend, James Nuñez, who took the Drumulator off my hands for about the same price I paid for the 808 a week after I bought it.