SXSW Preview: New Film Looks at the 808 Drum Machine -- 'The Rock Guitar of Hip-Hop'

questlove -- 808 film still -- 2015
Courtesy of You Know Ltd.

A still from the 2015 documentary film "808" featuring Questlove.

Alex Noyer's documentary examines the Roland-TR 808 drum machine, one of the most ubiquitous musical sounds of the past 30 years.

Since its launch in 1980, the Roland TR-808 drum machine has gone from fad to icon, appearing in everything from early hip-hop and Prince hits to Kanye West songs and EDM tracks. 808, a new documentary from You Know Films/Atlantic Films premiering at South by Southwest on March 13, pays homage to the machine through such enthusiasts as Rick Rubin, Questlove, and Mike D and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys. The film is narrated by former BBC radio host Zane Lowe and has an accompanying soundtrack on Big Beat/Atlantic Records due out this summer. 

The 808 was manufactured for just three years, but not before it found its way into the hands of pioneering producers like Arthur Baker, who served as a co-executive producer on the documentary. "I was at the BRIT Awards last week," Baker said, "and Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Madonna -- each one [incorporated] 808 drums. As Questlove says, the 808 is the rock guitar of hip hop."

Billboard spoke with the film's executive producer Alex Noyer from his office in Los Angeles about the project's beginnings, and the misconceptions about the mysterious 808.

How was this film born? 

Three years ago, I was having lunch with Arthur Baker and a British actor, discussing music and films, and we got talking about the cult of the 808. It hit me right away that this was my next film. My business partner, Alex Dunn, helped me get the wheels in motion and we were shooting by Miami's Winter Music Conference in March of 2012.  

How did you carve a compelling storyline out of a machine? 

The story came together at the end. In the beginning, we wanted to find out what this machine means to people -- their attachments, emotional memories, practical dependencies on it. We did not want to do a chronological story about a piece of music equipment. We wanted to illustrate its legacy in hip-hop and electronic music. So we spoke with musicians over the course of three years, and it was astonishing how deep the industry's relationship with the 808 goes. Fatboy Slim told us his whole career was impacted by it. By the time we were done shooting, Luke Bainbridge and Alex Dunn weaved all the little surprises and twists together into a story about how the sound traveled. 

What are the misconceptions and mysteries behind the 808?  

The physical machine appeared and disappeared quickly, but its sound stuck. It's been used repeatedly, religiously, for decades. The misconception comes from the fact that a lot of producers have never actually used an 808, they've used samples. And really, the disappearance of the 808 is still an open topic in people's minds: Why was it pulled from the market so quickly? What other factors were involved? We get into that in the film. 

Do you own one? 

I do, and it's used in the film. We remade "Planet Rock" in New York and got loads of people to play on it, and that was a pretty emotional experience. 

This film is packed with big name interviews. Who were you set on getting from the beginning? Who did you have to have? 

First and foremost, we wanted to get the story of "Planet Rock" right. It's a seminal record. The film was initially called "Planet Rock and Other Tales of the 808." It was a big deal, and we were getting Afrika Bambaataa, so we knew we had to nail that part of the story. 

Everybody had little obsessions -- the British contingency wanted to make sure we had New Order, Arthur was keen to represent Miami bass, I wanted to spotlight house music, which we did we with Todd Terry -- but we all had a focus on getting Phil Collins. He was the drummer, and we desperately wanted to explore the relationship between the drummer and the drum machine. And it's not every day you meet someone of his stature. He's an absolute legend of a man. And hearing about his relationship with the drum machine, which he's used continuously for 19 years, made my jaw drop.

When it came time to find a narrator, why Zane Lowe?

We were producing in the U.K., and a personality like Zane is omnipresent. And yes, he interviews people like Kanye and Eminem, but it's more than that. It's his whole persona. He has this infectious energy and deep knowledge about music -- it's pure enthusiasm. And thanks to his experience on the radio, he's a natural storyteller. This film aims to get people revved up about musc. If there's one thing Zane can do, it's that. 

You mentioned that shooting took three years. That's a long time. How come? 

Yes, three years is rather unusual, but we had the opportunity to travel to Miami, New York, L.A., Japan, Finland... so we felt it was worth it. And you know, we're indie filmmakers, we're not lavishly financed. We didn't have the luxury of going out and getting it all at once. Independent productions are a job of passion. 

Why is it significant to release this film now? 

We're in a time when technology is changing and challenging the way music is made, pushing it into something new. That is exactly what was happening when the 808 came out thirty years ago. Modern hip-hop sounds the way it sounds because of the 808. And even though it wasn't cheap, at around $1,000, it was approachable enough to wind up in the hands of some of music's most creative minds, like Rick Rubin. And my favorite thing about it is the fact that it didn't sound right, which invited people like him to mess with it. Incredibly awesome things came from that. 

808 will premiere on March 13 at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. For tickets and more information, visit the film on the festival website. 

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the March 14 issue of Billboard.


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