If you have ever even slightly flexed your butt cheeks to the beat of a hip-hop song or bopped that one Avicii song you heard at the bar that your friends dragged you to, then you can consider yourself complicit in one of the most significant traditions in the history of music—the unrelenting boom of the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
Taking on the herculean task of analyzing and exalting the 808 drum machine’s immeasurable impact on the landscape of modern popular music, director Alex Dunn and writer Luke Bainbridge’s long awaited music documentary 808 corralled a star-studded cast of musicians and producers (Pharrell, Questlove, Rick Rubin, Diplo, and Phil Collins among many others) to tell the story of an unassuming tool–originally designed to help artists cut demos–that would help shape how we think about sound.
Beginning with early New York hip-hop by addressing the importance of Afrika Bambaataa’s funk/hip-hop/electro/genre defying Planet Rock and ultimately discussing Crunk music, Genesis, and even the percussion of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, 808 selected the most culturally significant moments the instrument has produced and tied all these seemingly disparate sounds together via the the film’s titular device and the adage that limitations foster creativity. With preset, monotone drum and snare sounds, all of these artists used the same foundation to achieve radically different music over the course of 20+ years.
However, sometimes the idea of “limitations” became less theoretical and more practically applicable to the film itself. A good portion of b-roll was distractingly overused. Sleek geographic illustrations to demonstrate the movement of regional music (techno, Miami Bass, etc.), close ups of the 808 that felt tactile, and graphically reconstructed album artwork that floated onscreen while corresponding music played–all of this looked great the first few times but became tiresome by the film’s conclusion. And some of the interviews felt hollow, as though they were included solely to serve the purpose of padding out the press release with recognizable names—Damon Albarn’s contribution was noticeably short, and David Guetta’s clips could have been omitted altogether for their lack of insight.
808 especially found its strides when the interview subjects were the focus, rather than the exposition about the trajectory of the actual drum machine. The historical narrative was both necessary and interesting (and I quite enjoyed the calming English timbre of Zane Lowe’s narration) but not nearly as entertaining as hearing Lil Jon compare the machine to “the girl with biggest booty you ever seen!” or hearing Mike D and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys humorously bicker, while struggling to explain the late MCA’s inventive technique of recording an 808 beat backwards on Licensed To Ill’s “Paul Revere”. Rick Rubin’s reverential descriptions of the 808 made you feel like this formative device beat with an impassioned, human pulse.
Perhaps the film’s biggest get was the founder of Roland and inventor of the drum machine himself—Ikutaro Kakehashi. Now an old man, Kakehashi, or Mr. K as he is more commonly known, explained that his interests always resided in music, but he chose electrical engineering instead as it seemed more practical. Never would he have imagined its significance back in 1980 when he built the 808 as a glorified metronome.
These specific, vibrant anecdotes provided the film its most compelling argument: The 808’s greatest legacy was inspiring generations of musicians within innumerable genres to instill soul into a seemingly lifeless and mercilessly precise piece of equipment. Despite some of it’s technical missteps, and the difficulty of visually representing the magnitude and reach of the 808’s cultural impact, 808 succeeded in showing how artists operating within myriad paradigms of music ultimately transformed a technical implement into the most important creative instrument of the 21st century.
Discussing returning to the studio where Marvin Gaye recorded “Sexual Healing”, one of the interviewed producers recounted turning on an 808 preset beat, and hearing the song’s spare percussion like Gaye was a ghost in the machine. Just like that, the music came alive.
Rating: 3.5/5 burritos