by Nic Ho Chee
Back in the day, around the time kids started raiding the bins outside local carpet showrooms for linoleum off-cuts, a range of new and cutting edge electronic instruments inspired a generation to Smurf, Flare and find the perfect elbow position for a tight hand-spin. The rhythm of the tracks these proto B-boys and B-girls rocked to was invariably constructed using the Roland TR-808 Drum Machine. What looked like a collision between a set of children’s colouring pencils and a bulky 12 track mixer, produced bass kicks that hit you in your viscera and sounded like nothing heard before on this planet. Created in Japan in 1980, it’s unique sound and intuitive and tweak-able interface helped it grow into a monster that went on to be used on more hit records than any other Drum Machine created before or since.
Given its cultural impact on music over the last thirty years, Arthur Baker (the producer on Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”) decided it was time to create a documentary covering the dance device that launched a thousand breaks. Directed by Alex Dunn and produced by Baker, “808” premiered at the SXSW Conference earlier in the year. Over the course of 107 minutes, the film looks at music made possible by the instrument, travels to Japan to meet the recently retired founder and CEO of Roland, Ikutaro Kakehashi, and interviews a panoply of musicians to drill into what made it such a game changer.
The narrative follows the 808 from its introduction in the 1980’s through to modern tracks that are still using its distinctive sound, giving a birds eye view to the wide range of styles and artists that fell in love with the machine. Superb iconic tracks are twinned with a strong graphic design bent to create a piece that transforms into a very watchable packet of technological fetishism. Seeing the beautifully rendered graphics from Rob Ricketts’ “Program Your 808” posters oscillating along to tracks like Cybotron’s “Clear” was a nice touch, and it would have been great if the motif was used more over the course of the picture.
Technology moved on so swiftly, and the 808 drum sounds have become so ubiquitous that we might perhaps under-estimate the impact of the device. If, for example, you dial through the BOSS DR-660 Drum Machine that was released 10 years later, the 808 kit is one of 40 on the device. As a counterpoint, the film makes great use of a wide variety of talking heads explaining why the machine was pivotal for them. From Bambaataa and the Beastie Boys to Richie Hawtin, Phil Collins, Tiga and Diplo, each group of artists break down how they became something more thanks to a serendipitous configuration of silicon, plastic and metal.
The BFI will be hosting the UK premiere of this audibly arcane blend of music and technology on Saturday the 8th of August, which will be followed by a Q&A session with the Director Alexander Dunn. He will be joined by amongst others, Arthur Baker, Alex Noyer a fellow Producer and Luke Bainbridge the writer. If you fancy some 808-influenced beats after that, Andrew Weatherall and Andy Lewis will be supplying some post-film sounds befitting such a historic and beautiful piece of kit.