808(Directed by Alexander Dunn, UK, 2015)
808 is the best drum machine film I ever seen. The documentary about the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer screened to near sell-out crowds during the Seattle International Film Festival this year, followed by a Q&A with producer Alex Noyer. What I have here is a special 12 inch extended version of it.
I believe you mentioned you are a DJ. Did that contribute in any way to your decision to make this documentary film?
I was a terrible DJ. I did play in France, the UK, and more but it was mostly for my music selection than my technical skills. While I was studying or working, I always threw parties and took care of warm ups. So while I would not call myself a DJ due to an obvious lack of skills, I have shared my musical tastes to audiences and never actually got booed (believe it or not).
I was, above all, a beat fanatic. All my musical taste from Rock to Electro through to Hip Hop was all about a beat that grabbed me. From Giorgio Moroder to the White Stripes through the Beastie Boys, the Prodigy, Young MC, Daft Punk, or 90s trance from the Belgian Label Bonzai with also an overwhelming taste for Chicago House, I was all about beats, drums, and vibrations. There is a reason why my room was at the far back of our apartment when I grew up in Paris.
I could not know how the beats were made but I recognized them from genre to genre and when I learned about the 808 as a key part, amongst other drum machines, of the vast array of music I listened to it certainly perked up my interest.
When we decided to make the film, the discussion was all about music, genres, and artists. It was a lot of fun to share all our tastes, interests, or experience. As a music fan, it was great to work with a legendary producer like Arthur, a former DJ, and the director Alexander Dunn, and a recognized music journalist like Luke Bainbridge. Add to this the innovative Matt Jarman, and the music discussions were never boring.
We very quickly picked "Planet Rock" as a starting point, not just because we got Arthur involved, but because it was the iconic seminal record bridging hip hop and electronica. The whole package was unheard of at the time. The beat was special, the rap was different, and it was homage to so much innovative music like Kraftwerk. Further to that, we had ideas and tracks we all wanted to cover, but above all we wanted to be at the right place at the right time using music events and Arthur’s amazing reach to catch the contributors. We could not be everywhere, and wherever we went we had to be able to justify it with a lot of contributors due to our limited budgets. WMC, L.A. during Coachella, New York in spring, and other locations were good picks, it seems, as we got so lucky with the people who actually were there and willing to take part.
We had a list of people we wanted to speak to, and from there we got a remarkable proportion of them. Matt Jarman then managed to get Phil Collins, who we thought was impossible to get, and Atlantic got us in front of the Beastie Boys as if we could not get anymore spoilt. Limited resources, but 3.5 years of being ready for any opportunity paid off. Of course, we could not get everyone. Kanye, LL Cool J, and Egyptian Lover are noticeable misses in the film but again we couldn't be everywhere and make everything happen in an independent film. I can tell you though that all we reached out to were very supportive of the project, and even when they could not take part for whatever reason, they took our request with a lot of respect. There is a lot of 808 love out there.
I'm guessing The Atlantic Film is the finance backer you mentioned? Did it help you to clear the complicated legal hurdles with corporate lawyers?
Actually, they are not. Atlantic came on board when we had pretty much shot everything (except the Beastie Boys) and we showed them a very rough cut. They came in to support the film and our music needs, as it is a very complicated matter. Craig Kallman took the project very personally and their support was very valuable to get the film to audiences. The planned release of an epic soundtrack with loads of surprises is an incredible bonus on top of their enthusiastic support.
But in fact, I backed my own idea and took the first gamble by financing the first shoots in Miami and the UK. I then secured more investment once we had a proof of concept. I had to chip in again to finish the film as it got bigger than we had first anticipated and planned for.
This is a fully independent film and we remained frugal when we could. We were trying to get every dollar to work harder and longer until the moment we thought that’s it.
Atlantic coming in to take care of the music was a huge help, but the process was still very complicated and time heavy. But here we are, going around enthusiastic festivals and looking forward to sharing news on the roll out plans. I have to pinch myself sometimes. Such an ambitious idea becoming real feels awesome. The whole team made a lot of sacrifices and took their own gambles to get us here and that is why I am so grateful to them.
Back in the late '80s to early '90s pre-internet days, analogue gears were really cheap and fewer people were after them. Most musicians took them as a joke and didn't want anything to do with it. You could buy 303, 808, and 909 for under $100 each. 606, 707, and 727 were cheaper. Was it similar in the UK?
When the 808 came out, it was just over $1000, which was a lot but still being 5 times cheaper than the Lynn Drum made it attractive and it got in the right studios. I think after its discontinuation, it became more a matter of what value people put on it. Soulwax bought theirs for 808 euros in Belgium and Fatboy Slim paid 40 pounds for his. Now the market is crazy and the going rate for a good 808 is in thousands on eBay. I assume there may be only about 2000 units or so in original or working conditions even less if not midi-updated and that may be a generous assumption. They are a rare prize and people really seek them as 2 808s are never alike and the original groove of the 808 has a texture that samples cannot fully provide.
When did you get your 808 and how much did cost for you?
I actually got mine late. I bought it at the start of the filming process. A bit of a symbol I felt I needed. I paid more than Soulwax but nowhere near its current going rates, much less in fact. Maybe our film is partly responsible for the crazy inflation.
Did you have any WTF moment during the interviews? Did anyone share some strange and unique way to manipulate their 808 and its sounds with you? Perhaps something didn't get in the film? (Like, I once had a conversation with Mike Banks, and he told me how he gets their distortion by using an extra DJ mixer as natural distortion box on his production.)
I am not the man to answer that as my technical knowledge and ability remain limited but as we went on and heard all the flavours of 808 sounds we were dealing with it completely blew our mind. No one reads the manual of an 808. They just start messing with it, find their own way and then twist it to whatever their inspiration becomes. My WTFs were in the way they referred to the influence of the machine on their careers and what their music they believe would be like without it. That seems always incredible.
You got your 808 autograph by some of the best 808 tamers from our universe. Would you care to share them with us?
I still can’t believe it but, yes, Bambaatta, Phil Collins, Ad Rock, Mike D, Pharrell, MC G.L.O.B.E., Mr Biggs, and none other than Rick Rubin signed my 808.
If you can make another documentary about Roland TR or TB series, what would you pick?
I don’t know if any other drum machine would have the gravitas of the 808 and its own crazy story from inception to continued influence and legacy. What Mr. K reveals for the first time blows people’s mind and that is unique. [No spoilers] Out of respect to the 808 I want to explore beats differently if I were to produce another project like that. As a House music fanatic, maybe I will find a different way to illustrate my love for the 303 and the 909.
I was going to ask your favorite 808 sound but instead would you care to give us you TOP 10 808 track/song list?
Alex TOP 10 808 (in no particular order)Afrika Bambaattaa & The Soulsonic Force - Planet Rock (Tommy Boy US 1982) The seminal record and gets me every time I hear it.
Shannon - Let The Music Play (Emergency Records US 1983) I have a thing for it. The voice the arrangement and maybe how it feels like some of the vocal house I always enjoyed.
Lil’ Louis - French Kiss (Diamond Records US 1989) Hypnotic use of the 808. It controls the audience. Forget the sexual noises; the filth is in the curvature of the beat. Arguably one of the best house tracks of all time.
The Beastie Boys - Paul Revere (Def Jam Recordings US 1986) Iconic, innovative and fully awesome. Summarizes what the guys are all about.
Jesse Saunders - On And On (Jes Say Records US 1984) The anthem of Chicago House. Hard not to love it.
Kanye West - Love Lockdown (RCRD LBL US 2008) Best example of the 808 never going out of style. I love the delivery of the song and the 808 beats are huge contributors.
Marvin Gaye - Sexual Healing (CBS US 1982) Do I need to explain? ;)
Strafe - Set It Off (Jus Born Records US 1984) A track I knew but got to rediscover when shooting the film. Strafe was so good to meet and the synth jack up to the 808 just works.
Yellow Magic Orchestra - 100 knives (Alfa Japan 1981) Could not have it in the film but it is simply insane. Always loved that track. A bridge between Moroder and Electronic dance of the time.
Jamie xx - Gosh (Young Turks UK 2015) When we heard it and got told we could maybe have it, we decided to build a whole intro to it and that track is epic. Jamie is one of my favorite current artists. So fresh and innovative using all sorts of influences.
and a WTF 808 track: New Kids On the Block - Please Don’t Go Girl (Columbia US 1988) When I was reminded of this track by a member of the band who I bumped into it really showed me that the 808 is in everything.
Did you discover any sick best-kept-secret 808 track you never heard before from interviewing so many DJs?
Charanjit Singh - Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat (Recorded in 1982, Released in 1983 The Gramophone Company of India Limited, Reissued in 2010 Bombay Connection) Earlier than most acid house records. Incredible use of the 808 so early on. A full surprise for me and a very good one.
Who is your Jimi Hendrix of 808?
Adam Yauch is the obvious answer as Jimi Hendrix reversing his guitar sound inspired him to suggest reversing the beat for "Paul Revere." Ad Rock and Mike D still can’t explain how it was done and it is a testament to this legend we lost too early. RIP MCA.
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