‘808‘ is an inspirational story of the Roland TR808 drum machine and how its ground-shaking beats changed the musical world.
Its sound transcends countries and musical genres, in turn inspiring countless artists and producers, giving them an iconic sound from which to build upon.
Even if you don’t know the 808 by name, you know its sound. It’s everywhere, even now. 808 reveals the stories of the world famous artists, producers and most importantly the hit music to which the 808 was key, offering a cross section of personal experiences about the development of musical genres from around the world.
And 808 reveals why, after only three years of production, the 808 befell an untimely demise.
Antcipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘808:The Movie‘ at the 2015 SXSW Music, Film & Interactive Conference, we spoke with the documentary’s Director Alexander Dunn and Producer Alex Noyer about all things Roland 808, SXSW and digital music. Be sure to catch ‘808: The Movie‘ TODAY, as well as Friday, March 20 and Saturday, March 21, 2015 in
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘808’ at the SXSW Music, Film & Interactive Conference – HERE
Why did each of you feel this documentary was important to produce? What are your own personal experiences with the Roland 808?
Alex Noyer: 30 years of musical legacy can be traced back to this evanescent machine. Its imperfections invited the creativity of now legendary producers like Rick Rubin. It revolutionised so many musical genres and created so many more and it still does inspire that much today. It holds a beautiful “ugly duckling story” as it never sounded like the drums it were meant to replicate yet its sound rose to resonate as the most beautiful beat to grace hip hop and electronica.
I am a music fan and I used to DJ a bit so the tunes paved my musical education. I also now own an 808 and as it was used in the making of the film it took me behind the scenes of the making of those legendary records like planet rock, that we recreated. Witnessing it being used live even changed the way I listen to the tunes I love and perceive music production in general.
Now my 808 is also signed by some of the legends we met like Bambaattaa, the Beastie Boys and Phil Collins so my wife calls it my 3rd child.
That machine galvanised the team and inspired Alexander Dunn to step up to the challenge of his first feature and deliver, in my opinion, in flying colours. The film was a key catalyst to my move stateside so I can genuinely say that the 808 changed my life.
Alexander Dunn: The 808 has just left such a large indelible mark on music. It’s everywhere, even now. Artists have name-checked it in songs and named albums after it.
Even if you don’t really know what an 808 sounds like, you’ve definitely heard it, danced to it, it’s been part of the soundtrack of your life. It’s played a huge role in some of the music you’re into, almost certainly. It’s universal but still uniquely individual. It’s synonymous with hip hop and having “that kick”. The deep, sustained, floor shaking kick that has driven countless hip hop classics, old and new. But it’s not just hip-hop, it featured heavily in the emergence of the techno scene in Detroit, the house scene in Chicago, Acid House in the UK, Miami Bass, Drum and Bass and countless other genres… even as far a field as metal, where bands have utilised the low end of the 808 to create that infamous sub drop.
Personally a big part of my youth was spent DJing drum and bass in the UK and I loved it. I didn’t really understand the composite of the production back then, how the 808 was being used, really anything about it at all. I just loved the music and a huge part of that, which I understand now, was the 808 kick. But it wasn’t used in drum and bass as a kick drum predominantly. When it was used it was tuned to create baselines, so the use was yet again another different direction for the 808. Those baselines shook the system of any club, car or home system and there was something really exciting about that music to me.
Alexander, as a filmmaker, and a documentary filmmaker, describe your Directorial approach to ‘808’? What was the narrative you wanted to put forth? What were some of your original strategies in how to effectively do so? How did this strategy change (if it did) over production?
Alexander Dunn: Personally what I wanted to do with 808 was allow the story to be created by the contributors, allow their stories to sculpt the narrative and keep that very personal angle to the film. Then craft their stories and experiences together in an intertwined fashion that respects the personal nature of their stories but also charts the story of the 808 at the core.
I think that was key to bringing the 808 to life. It’s sounds are individual and influential, but not without the artists and producers that used it. They really had to be at the forefront of the narrative. They’re the ones who stumbled upon it or chose to have it in a studio with them. Made decisions on how to take its sounds and create something new. To mess with those sounds, layer them up, reverse them, just take them to another place sonically. So it’s their creativity that added the personality to the 808 and really made it as influential and iconic as it is.
Aside from that I always knew the way the music was integrated was key. It needed to play a big part in the way the film flows and is structured. And it needs to be loud! As a music documentary, I wanted to give it as much prominence as possible and make this very much an audible journey as well.
At the inception stage of the film, Alex Noyer got the initial funding together for us to get out to Miami during Winter Music Conference and get some interviews under our belt and kick off the project. While we, along with Arthur Baker and Luke Bainbridge, had decided that the entry point for the film should be Planet Rock. I think maybe at the start I thought Planet Rock may have played a bigger part in bringing the documentary together and holding it in place. But as the stories progressed it was obvious to me that while Planet Rock was indeed the catalyst for the film in many ways, the 808 and the contributors stories were strong enough to hold the weight of the film.
I always had it in mind for the film to end the way it does from a reasonably early stage when we found out it could be possible. I won’t give it away here, as you need to go to see the film, but I’m very glad Alex Noyer (executive producer) and Roland, were able to make that happen for me and the film. So that was definitely a detail that stuck as soon as we knew it could happen.
How do you find the utilization of the 808 in Hip Hop vs. “techno”? In what ways have the genres, which essentially rose together in places like NYC, Detroit & Chicago, influenced each other?
Alex Noyer: I would not necessarily separate them. Bambaattaa’s electro funk is a great example as to why. Sure the output and sounds have a huge range but fundamentally it is the creative juice that stemmed from the 808 beats that inspired those different creations. Whether it is the kickdrum, the snare or the handclap they all somehow found their way in such a rich legacy of hip hop and electronic tunes that we should just sit back and embrace it all as one big legacy.
As a huge chicago house fan my taste may have a bias but the fact is that the 808 travelled around the US scenes and worldwide always somehow eventually looping back to add something new to each scene. The 808 travels are very much a process of “cross-polenation”.
Planet rock blew my mind and whether we like it for its flow or its kraftwerk sounds it paved more than just a hip hop legacy and that is why we had to start our story principally from there. And it is a New York production with German/Japanese influence and that already shows the 808 is worldly!
Now one may say that hip hop remained more faithful to the 808 sounds than electronic music that got access to new sounds of the 909, 303, 606, 707, etc along with crazy synths and advanced samplers but you can still hear those sounds in the midst of those state-of-the-art production environments. And now modern Hip Hop, and its offspring new genres, went back to narrowing that gap again using so much electronica too.
Music is that kind of creative environment. New genres, new movements, new sounds created fusing methods and cultures… but even amongst such incredibly intense creative core changes you can always still find an 808 footprint somewhere.
Personally, I have always attributed “electronic” or digitally produced music as a natural musical evolution, which (prominently) includes classical and jazz. This is because, as is stated in the documentary, with such genres/movements/eras also comes new musical instrumentation. I find that the apprehension to allowing digital instrumentation to be considered “real” instrumentation is somewhat counterintuitive toward a wider dialogue of, both, technological possibility, as well as the inevitability of sound evolution. What are your impressions on the debate of digital vs. analogue, in regards to musicality? In brief, how would you describe the place of electronically produced music within the wider musical spectrum?
Alex Noyer: And “DJs should never use CD decks” they said in my early days… today we hear of “CDJ1000 purists” rejecting digital platforms.
Music evolves and technology is at its core.
Yes a real 808 will never be matched by the samples but that’s because the machine was beautifully flawed and samples are impeccably constant. Does that mean that music using samples is to be criticised? No. In fact after such a short life span technology held the 808 lantern better than anything. I don’t know if we would have done our film let alone received such an enthusiastic anticipation if the 808 legacy had not transcended one machine and lived through many more advances and new platforms.
Digital conversions gave us new ways to discover and enjoy music past and present so as production got to develop digitally so did availability and that applies also to the amazing tracks we got the privilege to cover.
One must embrace techniques old and new as they are a palette for creativity
Alexander Dunn: I personally don’t really buy into the idea that authenticity in music comes from anything to do with the instruments that are used, digital, analogue or otherwise. To me it’s just down to the creative freedom any instrument can offer and of course the music at its outcome.
It’s a very similar argument to the whole film vs digital debate in filmmaking which has happened in the past. There’s definitely a great argument for the integrity and authenticity of shooting on film. It’s not necessarily a debate that focuses on films like 808, but if new technology that was faster and cheaper wasn’t available, film makers like myself wouldn’t be able to make an independently funded film like 808, it just wouldn’t work, financially and practically, however much I would love it to.
So to me it’s just taking on the development of technology and embracing the elements you need to create what you want to create.
With an impressive and eclectic roster of interview subjects, were there any you found particularly memorable?
Alex Noyer: We are so grateful for all the amazing people we got along with their enthusiasm in sharing their experiences. Arthur Baker did an amazing job getting them in front of our camera. We got 55+ interview across 3 years. It made Alex’s and Luke Bainbridge’s tasks of selection incredibly difficult to piece together and I must tip my hat to the final storyline.
Personally when Matt Jarman got us time with Phil Collins and I got to interview him, i will admit that it was beyond special. He gave us an incredible interview and hearing the epitome of a drumming icon reminiscing about how he used the 808 just blew my mind. He adds a very diffrent touch to the film.
Wrapping up with the beastie boys was just beyond amazing as well. Their sound, their energy and their humour were just treats that added the final touch to the film.
Alexander Dunn: We had the privilege of filming a lot of great interviews for the film with some iconic producers and artists.
For me, I’d say my I really enjoyed the Ad Rock and Mike D from The Beastie Boys. Their contribution to the film is really fantastic and brings experience, humour and energy to the film in equal measure. They had a load of amazing stories and a lot was begrudgingly left on the cutting room floor!
I think Todd Terry, Armand Van Helden and Hank Shocklee gave great interviews that had great scope and really tie together the whole film. Again, with Hank he’s so full of enthusiasm and knowledge it’s really fantastic on screen.
Rick Rubin was also great. He’s produced so much iconic music from so many different genres and he produced some of my favourite hip hop and rock albums of all time. He’s a real authority on the subject… and he says he still uses an original 808 now.
What are some of your own personal favorite 808 based tracks?
Alexander Dunn: LL Cool J – “Jack the Ripper”, LTJ Bukem – “Horizons”, Beastie Boys – “Brass Monkey”, 808 State – “Flow Coma”
There are just so many great 808 tracks out there but these are some of my favourites.
Alex Noyer: Besides Planet Rock, I am one for house music such as Jesse Saunders “On and On” or Lil Louis “French Kiss”.
“Paul Revere” by the Beastie Boys is just phenomenal
More recently “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West was a very solid 808 track
Explain why SXSW is an appropriate place for ‘808’ to premier?
Alexander Dunn: SXSW is the perfect place for 808 to premiere. With the crossover of film, music and interactive I really can’t imagine anywhere better. 808 certainly reflects that convergence in every way.
Alex Noyer: First SxSW is a world platform. Secondly it combines film music and tech. Our project marries all three so we were very excited to be selected.
We are so proud to premiere there.
– Interview Conducted by Steve Rickinson