Yes, yes, Detroit techno and all that. This 808 Day, Roland is giving NYC and hip hop some props – by shining the spotlight on pioneer Larry Smith.

Don’t get me wrong – the TR-808 certainly feeds my techno addiction. But part of what made Roland’s drum machine such a legend was that it crossed genres. And even as today’s club kids focus on techno when they dream of the 808, the 808 was also shaped by hip-hop, whose producers embraced the Roland box just as it did the MPC (think Public Enemy) and E-MU (Amen break, hello SP-1200).

Larry Smith is one of the visionaries you can thank for that, so it’s fitting Roland make him and his personal 808 the star of today:

In fact, I have to say, as a child of the 80s, this was my first exposure to the 808 as a kid. (And wow, so the sound of this exact box – crazy.) I absolutely remember that sense of what the hell is that strange sound the first time I heard Run DMC’s self-titled debut album; maybe you do, too. And its minimalist, Japanese electronic detachment is the perfect timbre to accompany rap and let the words stand on their own. But I think you can experience that now, even, listening to it today. Everything Larry Smith did has a sense of raw, elemental futurism. It practically begs you to strip down your 2019 production and get back to basics as much as in the mid 80s, before anyone had to worry about going VST crazy or applying some kind of weird AI-powered mastering.

And what a resume – Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Run DMC, Whodini, Jimmy Spicer, Russell Simmons.

The other interesting aspect of Roland’s video here is that Smith was literally able to pass along some of his aesthetic by passing on this very TR-808 to Larry Smith, Jr., and Rashad Smith. Smith in turn goes on to be beat craftsman to the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Uptown Records, and Bad Boy Records, a production powerhouse spinning the DNA for a lot of the sounds to come. The machine itself, as son Larry Smith, Jr. tells it, is part of history: “This my father’s original TR-808…This machine is Run DMC’s first two albums, all of Whodini, and also Licensed to Ill by Beastie Boys.”

But given the 808 is a household name, and for too many people this whole playlist might be news, let’s go ahead and declare this Larry Smith Day, too, while we’re at it. Part of what made the 808 a force was that he shaped it into a unique sound through some extraordinary musical collaborations:


(great footnotes / timeline in that one)

Obituary for Larry Smith in The New York Times, 2014

More on the 808: