You may not know much about the TR-808 Rhythm Composer.
If you’re not a music or beat maker or music nerd, you may have never even heard of the TR-808 produced by Roland starting back in the day.
But if you’ve listened to the last 30 years of pop music, particularly any of the many hip-hop and dance subgenres, you have experienced the low-end throb, the unique inorganic hi-hats, clave and other percussion — and of course the signature BOOOOM! of the 808 kick drum — on the legendary rhythm machine.
The 808 is the basis for so much of popular music and has been used by an amazing array of artists, including most hip-hop producers.
The 808 is the rhythmic basis for much of the skittering “trap” style beats popular in contemporary hip-hop, to R&B Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (built around a two-bar 808 loop), dance music producers from early 1980s house and techno, up through Miami bass, drum and bass, dubstep and most other forms of dance music.
There are even a few pop-leaning country artists who have included the occasional bass drop or 808 percussion loop in their otherwise twangy tales.
Its history is storied and the number of seminal game-changing records on which it has appeared is like no other electronic instrument.
At 7 p.m. on Friday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will screen the new documentary 808 about the world’s most famous rhythm machine.
The TR-808 retailed for $1,500, making it one of the more affordable drum machines. After its initial production run of about 12,000 units, 808s began showing up in pawn shops in New York and other cities making it an easy get for aspiring hip-hop and dance producers. Now there are numerous clones and samples of the 808, and an actual original TR-808 in good condition will run you at least $3,500 to $4,000 on eBay.
The film 808 was directed by Alexander Dunn and produced and executive produced by filmmaker Alex Noyer, who will conduct a Q&A following the screening.
The concept came from a lunch Noyer had with legendary producer and DJ Arthur Baker ostensibly about a different project.
“Once we were done talking about that, we started talking about music,” Noyer said recently from L.A.
“We started chatting about 808 tracks and how hard it is to get a machine, and so I had a little light bulb moment and thought, ‘Hey, that would make a great film,’?” he said.
Noyer, who had recently finished his 2011 film New York Influence City about the art world, brought the concept to Dunn, whose “eyes lit right up.”
A three-year, filmmaking odyssey began as Dunn, Noyer, Guardian and GQ writer Luke Bainbridge, and Baker and his decades of connections in the music business all conducted interviews with more than 55 well-known 808 adherents around the globe. They included old heads such as Afrika Bambaataa whose hit Planet Rock set off the 808 revolution in hip-hop and dance; to dance music DJs and artists such as David Guetta and producers and artists such as Pharrell, Phil Collins and Felix Da Housecat; a rare interview with surviving Beastie Boys Mike D and King Ad-Rock; and the founder of Roland, Ikutaro Kakehashi aka “Mr. K.”
With so many talking heads, Noyer said the initial cut was around six hours of artists talking about an influential but inanimate object. The film doesn't waste much time or effort on a lot of artful artifice.
The film 808 doesn’t narrate its own story (as voiced by Ice-T!) and there’s no fancy magic-hour shots of an 808 laying in peaceful repose in a field of poppies or metaphorically killing a drum set. Filmmakers instead chose several seminal, influential records to trace the 808’s 30-plus-year musical journey through the artists and genres that used the machine.
It all begins with Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker and Planet Rock.
“We all had wishes and hopes and then throughout when we’d talk to some of the amazing people we talk to, we’d have recurring tracks,” Noyer said of the process.
“Of course we started with the topic of Planet Rock because that’s the seminal record, but going on we realized there were some records that were mentioned more than others and we discovered that we had to sacrifice some of the big ones because either we couldn’t get the rights or we couldn’t get the right interviews,” he said.
Some viewers point to the absence of Egyptian Lover, the ’80s producer/rapper whose 808 based tracks such as Egypt, Egypt killed many car, home and stage speakers.
“He was not in L.A. when we were there and we’re a tiny production, so we just didn’t have the budget to go back,” Noyer said.
There were several songs and artists whose music the documentary’s producers simply couldn’t get the rights to include.
“We lost some stuff we really wanted to put in because of silly reasons or reasons we found silly. Of course we reached out to Kanye and of course we reached out to a lot of the people that people wanted us to get. Similarly, we tried to talk about Kraftwerk in the most respectful way we could, but they didn’t use the 808,” Noyer said of the seminal German electronic group whose song Trans-Europe Express is the base of Planet Rock.
Noyer will tell anyone who’ll listen that he doesn’t claim the film to be the definitive or encyclopedic look at the 808.
“The purpose of the film is to fuel a conversation about the 808,” he explained. “The 808 is a cultural movement. It’s not a film or a machine. It’s a cultural movement. So we are contributing to the conversation, and of course the conversation doesn’t end with our film.
“But if we fuel it and it continues, then we’ve done our job.”
Noyer has taken 808 to several film festivals and he’s pretty excited to bring it to the Rock Hall.
“We’re closing our round at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Imagine how we felt when we got the invitation. The 808 is a machine that deserves the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We know that. But that our film is good enough to show there and be appreciated there is a great thing.”
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml and/or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.