Published on December 19th, 2016 | by Neil Jordan0
We Talk About The Roland TR-808 And How It Changed Music With The Creative Team Behind The Film 808
As someone who lived through the 80s I was really interested to hear about a film looking at the Roland TR-808 Drum Machine. As such Neil Jordan got a chance to speak with the creative talent behind the documentary looking at how this device changed the face and sound of music.
The most obvious question would probably what prompted you to take on this project? What attracted you to ‘the history of the Roland TR-808’?
In late 2011, I was having lunch with Arthur Baker and from a conversation about various ideas we went on to discuss the impending 30th anniversary of Planet Rock, the 808 and the passion people have for the machine. My previous film “New York Influence City” had just aired on Sky Arts and PBS and I had a light bulb moment thinking the 808 could make a great new movie. All the tracks we discussed were amongst my favorites and despite my limited technical knowledge I really wanted to know more. I went back to the office and spoke with Alex Dunn and his eyes lit up. So I put some funds together in and started the development. Arthur stayed on board and Alex Dunn stepped up to direct. First shoot was in Miami in 2012 during Music Week.
In your interviews with the artists and musicians featured in ‘808’, where there any parallels amongst the artists as far as how they wrote the musical pieces utilizing the Roland?
A lot did not read the manual and just went about using it and figuring it out as they saw fit. It means it lead to a lot of liberty and creativity in the way it was used. The combinations are a plenty so they could really mess with it. They will select different permutations, different pace and levels of decay for example. But overall the common thread is that machine tapped into producers’ natural instincts and creativity.
What genre would you say is most ‘dependent’ on the use of the TR-808?
Hip Hop really embraced the 808’s edge and the low end gives attitude to many records. Hank Shocklee, producer of Public Enemy, says a record is not a finished till it’s got the 808. Raw 808 became a staple of hip hop from the Beastie Boys to NWA and still comes through new movements like Trap. Hip hop values raw 808 to the highest level but it is not to be underestimated as a major influence in electronic music still today. Featuring Jamie xx in our movie with his epic use of the 808 on Gosh shows its power today still.
An unnamed journalist was supposedly quoted as saying that analog drum machines in general were basically ‘marching anteaters’. It is widely believed however that the journalist was referring specifically to the TR-808. What are your thoughts on this remark/comparison?
Fair enough. It did not sound like a drum so in essence it failed and deserved the criticism but from the ugly duckling very much came out a swan. Everything it did wrong became appreciated for everything it created. As Rick Rubin said “it didn’t sound like drums, it sounded like an 808”. That unique sound was not right but seminal and the “marching ants” changed music forever. It’s a beautiful story really. Someone should make a movie about it. J
Of all the artists interviewed, which had the most appreciation for the TR-808?
Which artist do you believe was/is using the instrument to its ‘full potential’?
All artists turned up psyched to speak about something they love so it is hard to pick one. Rick Rubin is the master of the 808 as a producer and still uses the real deal when possible. Phil Collins used the 808 throughout his career from “No Jacket Required” onwards and he is a drummer so his appreciation and understanding of the odd genius of those 808 sounds runs pretty deep. Hank Shocklee wins the nomination for his enthusiasm and passion too. It is impossible to answer this question. Oh and Felix da Housecat who claims his 808 on ‘Kickdrum’ is the best sounding 808 of the last 10 years… Watch the movie and let’s make it a public poll!
Where there any artists that you wanted for the documentary that were unable to participate?
Or refused to? And why?
Kanye: Was unavailable but I met him later and he was aware and encouraging for the project.
Egyptian Lover: He wasn’t in LA when we were so schedule meant we missed out and he is a staple of the 808 culture.
Mantronik: He was in South Africa and we could not get there nor could we include a skype interview.
We got 57 interviews and feel blessed and spoilt so no regret whatsoever and super excited to present a movie with such an illustrious line up. Not bad for some indie film makers who started this in a basement in East London.
What was the experience of interviewing the Roland Corporation’s founder Ikutaro Kakehashi? Two Roland employees have been credited with the 808s design: Matsuoka, who developed the software and
Nakamura, who was responsible for the analog voice circuits. Did Kakehashi ‘confirm’ this and what did he have to add (if anything) to this?
It was such an honor and a pivotal moment to turn the journey into a movie. His story and the secret he reveals give so much to the story. He did not get into naming the team but gave us the insight into what Roland was like and why the 808 disappeared so early after 3 years and only 12000 units… No spoiler but it was incredibly emotional for us to document that story.
He invited us in their Hamamatsu headquarter and as he is very ill it was still unsure whether he could make it. We sent Arthur baker and a team from the UK (We were still shooting in LA at the time). They visited the museum and Arthur got to make beats for Mr K and the whole crew came back with their mind blown. So humbling and magical to add this to the movie.
Do you think it is possible that we might, in our lifetime, see the creation of another stand alone device/instrument whose influence will be equal to or perhaps surpass that of the TR-808?
I hope so. Impossible to predict and it could come from anywhere.
But as I get often asked whether I will produce a sequel about the 909 or 303 I think that in the drum machine spectrum no 2 drum machines have a magical story like the 808’s. In fact as this was a 5 years journey I am taking a break from Music docs altogether and am off to direct my first Horror Movie. Is that a statement of how I consider the 808’s story. No as I feel there is so much more to explore but until someone asks…