The Bass Drum Heard 'Round the World
How the Roland TR-808 drum machine revolutionized music
You might not know it, but you've heard a TR-808. Released in 1980 by Japan's Roland Corporation, the rudimentary drum machine supplied the bombastic beats of early hip-hop, the futuristic sounds of house and techno, and even snuck its way into pop hits by the likes of Marvin Gaye.
The documentary 808 is a love letter to this iconic piece of gear. The film traces the series of happy accidents that led to the machine's unlikely ubiquity, starting with Afrika Bambaataa's innovative use of the instrument in the hip-hop classic "Planet Rock," all the way to its influence on modern-day hits like Usher's "Yeah!" An impressive collection of interviewees – everyone from Pharrell Williams to Phil Collins – weighs in passionately on the first time they heard that booming bass drum sound and the surprising influence it's had on their careers.
In advance of its SXSW Film world premiere, we talked to director Alexander Dunn and producer Alex Noyer to learn more about the film and the instrument that Questlove called the most futuristic thing he'd ever heard.
Austin Chronicle: So what is an 808?
Alex Noyer: An 808 is essentially a programmable drum machine that creates these very iconic beats that everyone has heard and enjoyed, even if they didn't know about it.
Alexander Dunn: This was the first example of what can only be compared to a music computer. That's why it was such a revolution. Rather than an impeccable studio tool, it had imperfections in its sound.
AC: What does it sound like?
Dunn: Not much like drums! The way we describe it in the film is as otherworldly and futuristic, but still retro. There's that deep sustained kick drum; in hip-hop that's primarily what's used and is synonymous with the term 808.
Noyer: It's an imperfect drum sound. Everything it intended to do, it didn't do. The resonance of the sounds allowed bass and hand claps and congas to all be considered differently and used in this weird experimental time period.
AC: What was the filmmaking process like?
Dunn: We worked for three years on it with a very small core team out of London. It's been a big labor of love really, for myself and the rest of the team. We interviewed 55 musicians about something that in essence sounds really niche, but then you take a look at all of these great artists that want to talk about it. They're willing to sit there, and they've got a lot to say.
AC: Who had the most to say?
Dunn: The Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin had a lot to say. Hank Shocklee from Public Enemy did an awesome interview. Questlove. 2manydjs were interesting because they lent us their 808, which was the same one that had originally been used on "Sexual Healing." Fatboy Slim, he said we wouldn't have his music if he hadn't found an 808 in a pawnshop in Brighton when has was younger.
People said that this drum machine, whether they encountered it randomly or on purpose, that this thing changed their careers. Phil Collins, the quintessential drummer, loved those weird sounds as support. And it helped him write – he could let it run and he could write to it. It was an interesting relationship because the drummer and drum machine usually aren't so symbiotic.
AC: What were some of the challenges in telling the story?
Noyer: When we started the film, we were worried that it would be overly technical. But what we really tried to build was a film that celebrates the legacy musically. The experiences people are sharing about the inspirations and how it changed their music. They're not delving into technical settings, they're more into the mood.
AC: How did you make the film accessible to people unfamiliar with the machine?
Noyer: It's a film that you can listen to and experience sonically as well as visually. In our early conversations, it was all about having an immersive experience that makes this more than a film.
Dunn: In addition to hearing these guys talk about it, there's some awesome music. What it's really about is this amazing group of producers and artists that embraced this and created a breadth of music. Not just hip-hop or house, it's pop, electro, Miami bass, drum and bass. Sometimes they weren't even using it as a drum, but as a bassline. The creative ways that it was used and by these people, that's what was cool.
AC: You went to Japan to talk to the man who designed the machine. What was that experience like?
Noyer: A lot of producers asked if Roland realized what they'd made and its legacy, so it was essential for us to go to Japan and show them their legacy. What we found out there really blew our minds and helped increase that legendary status. We don't want to reveal too much, but will say that it's something that the 85-year-old [Roland Corporation founder] Mr. Ikutaro Kakehashi is still laughing about.
10 Songs You've Heard That Use An 808
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, "Planet Rock"
Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing"
Phil Collins, "Sussudio"
Beastie Boys, "Paul Revere"
Jay Z, "99 Problems"
Public Enemy, "Don't Believe the Hype"
Talking Heads, "Psycho Killer" (Acoustic Version)
Kanye West, "Love Lockdown"
Whitney Houston, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody"