808: The Movie sets out to tell the story of the iconic Roland TR808 drum machine manufactured between 1981 and 1984. It’s the drum box responsible for the sound of early electro and hip-hop, and which then became thoroughly absorbed into dance music culture and has become an item of reverence in the electronic music community.
I’d been looking forward to seeing it for some time - being a synth–nerd and all - but was worried it would revert to the ‘talking heads’ model of music documentary, where the content is just people reminiscing about what item X did for music scene Y. I prefer the type of documentary where there is an actual story given of the difficulties overcome in creating the thing or some other kind of dramatic tension.
Unfortunately, this film is very much of the first category. Yes, there is a great cast of contributors – Afrika Bambaata, Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin, Pharrell, Soulwax, Fatboy Slim, New Order and, er, Tiga. And yes, the key players of the NYC electro/hip-hop cultural revolution are interviewed. But I’m afraid to say that the reminiscences and anecdotes are all a bit samey. Generally, the group or musician in question found an 808 in the studio, either by chance or design, and, well, used it in a track.
Fairly quickly, producers realised that the sounds the 808 made matched their ambitions for the sound of the music they wanted to create – the deep bassy-ness of the kick, the tunability and snap of the snare, etc. A brief (unexplored) mention of how the latin instruments in the kit quickly became popular as a result is also covered.
But I bristle at the oft-repeated phrase ‘hip-hop wouldn’t have been possible without the 808’, ‘the 808 changed the course of history’ ,etc. You know the kind of thing typical of these documentaries. These sorts of generalisations overlook the fact that a) we don’t know what amazing boxes weren’t invented that would have facilitated even more amazing styles of music, and b) the fact that (for example) NYC was a hotbed of cultural and musical transformation at that time and if they hadn’t latched on to the 808 they inevitably would have found something else to use and to create amazing music with.
What that sort of hyperbole never mentions – and what would actually be more interesting – is why the sounds are so amazing – and potentially better (or more appropriate) than anything else and to have them analysed in some way. At no point in this documentary does anyone ever give a guide to the sounds – how were the kicks synthesised? How did they make any of the sounds given the basic state of the art in those days? What led them to make that type of handclap? That sort of thing is surely fascinating to anyone who has actually bothered to buy or rent a film about a drum machine!! We barely even really get to hear what the sounds are, outside of tracks that use the drum machine.
These questions are interesting and as mentioned, there were other drum machines available at the time – the Linn Drum, the Simmons, etc. Why were they less favoured? Because they made realistic drum sounds instead of completely synthesised? Maybe. But the CR78 already existed. Why was that not the ‘favoured’ machine. But we never really get into those sort of questions. And they don’t mention the TR-909 at all!
In fact, the best thing about the documentary was right at the end where the (now quite elderly) founder of Roland described how they specifically sourced faulty transistors for the the 808. Why? Because a perfectly working transistor is silent, but a faulty one makes a noise. Roland used these faulty transistors as the sound source for the 808! They had to stop production when transistor fabrication became so good they were no longer making so many faulty ones. Now that’s the story! Something faulty is re-purposed and creates the sound of the 80’s. Sounds like a classic case of wabi-sabi – the Japanese art of making a virtue of imperfection.
Despite my quibbles above, the documentary is actually an enjoyable watch, if you accept that is more a cultural history than a technical one, and there is some great music in it of course (though very American focussed in the main). so it is definitely worth a rent by any musician or producer who wants to wallow in a bit of 808 nostalgia!