Ikutaro Kakehashi and the Accidental Beauty of the 808


Andrew Younker

Sometimes there’s is a world of difference between the inventors and the innovators. It’s very common for the creator to have a different vision for their tools than the people who use them. So when you find out that those hard, booming bass hits your hear in popular hip-hop music were invented by a Japanese man in the 70s, are you surprised?

Ikutaro Kakehashi was the inventor of the Roland TR-808 and the Roland CR-78 drum machines—as well as MIDI software. Kakehashi inadvertently shaped hip-hop and R&B, as well as countless other genres for years to come. One of the most influential albums of our generation, Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks, wouldn’t exist without Ikutaro, and in effect, our current generation of hip-hop music would cease to exist as we know it.

The first song to feature the 808, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” was an absolute hit. Peaking at No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart in 1982, the track made use of all the machine’s stellar drum hits, from the fleshed-out clap sample to the classic cymbal hit. Nowadays, the term “808” has become synonymous to the high-energy, driving bass that permeates trap music in nearly every song, but that shouldn’t take away from the entire machine’s versatility and staying power. Producers are still finding ways for the 808 to sound fresh, nearly 50 years after its invention.

Kakehashi also created the CR-78 drum machine, a more subtle counterpart to the Roland TR-808. The 78 is somewhat crunchier and more compressed, but it has its own relevance in popular music today as well. Thundercat and Radiohead have very recently released music featuring the machine, a testament to the longevity of these instruments.

Years and years before the most popular artists of today, Kakehashi was creating a canvas for them to work on and express themselves. While he may not have had the foresight to know how his instrument would be used today, he knew he was making something timeless. His accomplishments may be the most influential to music since the invention of the electric guitar, and may his instrument live on for a very long time.
Ikutaro Kakehashi passed away peacefully on April 1st, 2017.