The singular defining aspect of all modern popular music is its deep, thumping bass. This new documentary explores the principal electronic architect of that bass, the Roland TR-808 drum machine. No other piece of musical equipment in history is known so globally by its model number, and that 808 moniker continues to receive frequent shout-outs and respect in all genres with a beat, including electronic, pop, R&B, and hip hop.
The filmmakers take a historical approach to the subject, tracing the 808’s emergence as a powerful music tool in the 1970s through to its continued current use. While they don’t ever get too far into the technical details of the equipment, they do feature footage of various artists utilizing it, giving viewers a glimpse of how it actually works. Although it’s popularly known only for its earth-shaking bass, I enjoyed learning that it is a full-featured drum machine that allows users to program and manipulate complex and varied rhythm tracks as well.
Since this is a film about a piece of music equipment, it includes a wide variety of music featuring the 808. The songs tilt heavily toward the hip hop and electronic genres, but also provide a fair representation of the many other genres utilizing it. The sheer breadth and quality of music included makes this a film that demands to be viewed on a system with a competent subwoofer, not a phone or laptop. I appreciated that the filmmakers prominently displayed the artists and titles of all of the songs in the film, especially since they helped me to identify a couple of songs that I’ve known for years without ever really knowing what they were.
The film features an impressive array of artists extolling the 808’s virtues, including New Order, the surviving Beastie Boys, Pharrell Williams, Damon Albarn, David Guetta, Fatboy Slim, and even Phil Collins. Producers also weigh in, with interviews by Rick Rubin, Hank Shocklee, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Even after all of the stellar guest stars, the film saves its best surprise for last: an interview with Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi where he drops a bombshell about what made the machine so unique and why it was only manufactured for such a short timeframe even though it remains in high demand today.
808 is now available exclusively on Apple Music. It will be released on the iTunes store next week, alongside the official soundtrack from Big Beat Records.