J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

808: The Biography of a Drum Machine

The Roland TR-808 was like the Hammond B-3 of drum machines, except it was only produced during the span of 1980 to 1984. Ironically, the seeds of its demise were embedded in its ingenious design. Yet, it remains the drum machine of choice across a wide spectrum of electronic music. Alexander Dunn chronicles the instrumental role played by the programmable box of beats in the development of hip hop, pop, house, and electronica in 808 (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

When Ikutaro Kakehashi Roland Corporation introduced the 808 it was not the most lifelike sounding drum machine on the market. Yet, that sizzle in its sound became a huge part of its appeal. Its distinctive character was baked in through the deliberate use of faulty transistors. As the computer component industry perfected its production techniques, defective transistors were no longer available for 808 production, hence its premature demise.

Of course, that only adds to the mystique. Dunn recruits a genuine hall of fame of pioneering hip hop artists and producers, who all credit the 808 for being the crucial bit of hardware that made it all possible. In the process, Dunn gives viewers a history of the rise of hip hop, essentially from a studio engineer’s vantage point. Frankly, it is refreshing to strip away the excesses now associated with the music in order to concentrate on the early innovators who were all about crafting the beats. It is a gritty, organic perspective on the music that is often lost in today’s glitz.

Throughout the film, Dunn talks to the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Questlove, Hank Shocklee, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Rick Rubin, and Mike D and Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys. However, we also hear Phil “Sussudio” Collins, who explains how the 808 will play repetitive patterns indefinitely that would bore a flesh-and-blood drummer (and he ought to know).

Dunn’s approach is pretty straight forward, but the animated transitions presenting each track under discussion as a 12-inch single give the film a nice look and should definitely appeal to the target demo. The way he brings the film full circle with Kakehashi in Japan is also quite nice.

Dunn and co-screenwriter Luke Bainbridge make a pretty persuasive case for caring about the 808 even if viewers are not fans of Hip Hop, Techno, House, Crunk, Drum & Bass, Dubstep, Acid Rock, or EDM, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if they are. For an expression of gear love, it is quite tight, focused, and informative. Recommended for tech-savvy pop music fans, 808 opens tomorrow (12/9) at the Arena Cinelounge in LA and also releases exclusively on iTunes.

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