Why Kanye West named his new album, 808s & Heartbreak, after a drum machine.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 2 2008 12:10 PM

What's an 808?

A drum machine's journey from obscurity to ubiquity.

Click here to read a review of Kanye West's new album, 808s and Heartbreak.

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Meanwhile, producers in South Florida got their hands on the 808 just in time for hip-hop's puberty, creating the über-lewd, über-loud woofer-spasms of Miami bass. The 808 kick became an essential component of MC A.D.E.'s "Bass Rock Express" and 2 Live Crew's 1986 anthem "Throw the D," whose kicks take on an almost surreal, subsonic quality.

This was music designed for club systems and car speakers, where underground hip-hop would flourish across the South during the 1990s. Even on subpar car systems, the 808's unmistakable boom could be heard blocks away, making it a remarkably effective publicist.

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Throughout the late '80s and deep into the '90s, New York maintained its hold as hip-hop's power center. Numerous producers fell under the spell of sampling and swarmed around the E-mu SP-1200, a machine capable of both processing samples and programming beats. But down South, the 808 maintained a foothold. "All the rap records we grew up on back in the day was all 808 kits," crunk architect Lil Jon toldRemix magazine in 2005. "In the South, we ain't never really let that shit go."

The 21st century found Southern rap moving from the margins to the mainstream, and the 808 began to enjoy new pop cachet. It figured prominently in the beat (and sometimes even in the lyrics) of OutKast's 2003 chart-topper "The Way You Move," Beyoncé's "Deja Vu," numerous riotous crunk singles, and regional hits like "Tell Me When To Go" by Oakland rapper E-40.

All of a sudden, the 808 sound was in demand. Various so-called clone units have tried to replicate the 808's circuitry at a cheaper price, while sample libraries have proliferated on the Web, putting the 808 sound in the hands of home-studio producers and bedroom beatsmiths the world over. (Most producers will tell you, however, that the 808's superpowers are compromised unless taken directly from the source.)

Today the 808 stands as hip-hop's answer to rock's Stratocaster—an iconic instrument that's changed the way we hear music. And while no one's burned one to a crisp onstage, its praises have been sung in the lyrics of  Lil Wayne, Kelis, T.I.—even Britney Spears. ("You got my heart beating like an 808," she cooed on 2007's "Break the Ice.")

West, however, pays more than just lip service to his beat box of choice—his new album is full of thick, resonant 808 brawn. In a recent MTV interview, one of the album's producers, Mike Dean, said West wanted to move away from "typical hip-hop beats"—as if employing hip-hop's most venerated rhythm machine were some kind of risk.

Then again, despite the role the machine has played throughout hip-hop history, the 808 has never lost its outsider's mystique. And West, to his credit, manages to make the machine's artificial throb sound both alien and pedestrian all at once. The chorus is particularly striking, not for West's gooey, auto-tuned refrain, but for the sound of two hands (presumably Kanye's) clapping slightly out of sync with 808 tremors below. Somehow, it's the clapping hands that feel unnatural, not the track's familiar electronic pulse. Having adopted the 808's heartbeat as our own, it's hard to tell what sounds fake and what sounds real.

Chris Richards is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work appears regularly in the Washington Post.

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