Understated and perhaps even somewhat overshadowed by its Roland relatives, the TR-909 played a pivotal role in house and dance music, adding a much-needed punch and thrust to the evolution of drum machine sounds. For some, it wasn't warm enough — for others, it delivered a strike like no other.
Today, we celebrate 909 Day with an easy-to-digest timeline of the machine’s history, followed by our favourite tracks that would have never been the same without the machine's shuffle feature and depth of energetic force. The TR-909, like its large family of groovy cousins, became intrinsic to modern dance floors.
Before founding the Roland company, Ikutaro Kakehashi established Ace Electronic Industries, Inc., which saw him release the world’s first drum sound programming machine, Rhythm Ace R-1, in 1960. Though it didn’t make it into the hands of many customers, it led Kakehashi to the Rhythm Ace FR-8L being built in 1972 as a programmable machine that had the ability to create a drum mix.
In that same astoundingly resonant year, the Rhythm Ace FR-8L formed the foundation of Roland’s first drum machine, the TR-77; the 77 had numerous siblings that later came to be vintage marvels over the next 12 years.
In 1980, the future of drum synthesizers arrived with the birth of the TR-808. Just four years later, the TR-707 made its way to professional studios and bedrooms. In between the TR-707 and the low, deep-sounding TR-808 Rhythm Composer, appeared the TR-909 Rhythm Composer.
The rest of the story is embedded in musical legacy and dance floor hedonism. Here we’ve picked our 9 favourite tunes that wouldn’t be the same without the sounds of the 909, and a fashionable bonus for good measure.
Inner City 'Good Life'
A euphoric stomper thanks to the 909 drum programming, a tightly compressed clap and that DX100 'Solid Bass' b-line. But we all know 'Good Life' was about the unforgettable vocal hook that showers down with buckets of love.
Daft punk 'Revolution 909'
One of the bigger hitters off Daft Punk’s 1997 debut Homework, 'Revolution 909' was aptly titled for that incredible use of kick drum power. Fun fact: the original TR-909 used by the French duo was auctioned for GBP 10,000 in 2017.
Mark The 909 King 'Can You Dig It'
His name says it all — the sexy shuffle over a wide swung drum loop and a gently roaring bass line makes this an all time and classic crowd pleaser. It also features a distinctive sample from cult classic movie The Warriors. Can you really dig it?
808 State 'Pacific State'
'Pacific State' brought a dreamy state of house music to forefront in 1989; it touched the soul of the UK dance scene and till today, its adored by purists around the world. Graham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald) made up 808 State, which they got from the TR-808, but their use of the TR-909 gave ‘Pacific State’ the impeccable rhythm we still glorify today.
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Mr Fingers 'Can You Feel It'
Concocted by one of the pioneers of drum-sequenced dance music, Larry Heard aka Mr Fingers produced this gem solely on the immense JUNO-60 and Roland TR-909: quintessential dance music from the twentieth century.
Aphex Twin 'Heliosphan'
'Heliosphan' was a breakthrough moment for Richard D. James aka Aphex Twin, and a colossal moment for ambient techno. Stemming from his 'Selected Ambient Works 85-92', for electronic producers, 'Heliosphan' quite likely provided a calling to the TR-909, which was only three years old when the track was released.
Joey Beltram 'The Start it Up
While his 'Energy Flash' EP would have been an obvious choice here, we chose to enter tribal warfare; Joey's powerful use of the drum machine is everything that 'The Start It Up' is about. Let the drums speak, as they say.
Derrick May 'Strings of Life'
Needless to say, 'Strings of Life' is a seminal dance anthem, and one that quite likely propelled Derrick May's career. Whilst the keys stand out as the anthemic element of the track, 'Strings of Life' couldn't possibly have made it's mark without the combination of a relentless, tight and infinite TR-909 kick drum and a simple bass line that never drops out for the entire tune.
Peggy Gou 'I Go'
The TR-909's legacy still lives in the now, and popular artists like Peggy Gou ensured it's mainstay in Asian-influenced dance music, namely her single 'I Go'. Accompanied by her uplifting vocal play, the snazzy shuffle and soothing snare allowed this single to became one of the globe's hottest summer anthems of 2021.
We promised a fashionable bonus, and this couldn't be more a flamboyant choice. Whilst the tune is heavily inspired by New York's fashionista realm, it's the dance-floor-centric beat powered by the TR-909 that really embeds this track in every groover's heart. With all the cultural tenacity that 'Vogue' has carried for over three decades, like the aforementioned tracks, its sheer power and influence of TR-909's drums that encapsulates the energy of one of the Pop Queen's most prolific works.
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