“You can’t pour beer over a drum machine, but you can over a drummer,” Phil Collins laments at one point during “808,” a spirited history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine that suggests taking the brunt of angry, drunken bandmates was just about the only thing the device can’t do. With Collins’ appearance alone as an example of the broad capabilities of the machine which set the beat for everything from his “Another Day in Paradise” to Africa Bambaataa and Sonic Sound Force’s seminal electrofunk album “Planet Rock” to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Alex Dunn’s comprehensive movie shows how technology revolutionized music while simultaneously demonstrating how human ingenuity revolutionized what could be done with a machine.
Traveling all around the world in search of all the different beats created by the 808, Dunn and producer Alex Noyer tapped into the enthusiasm of the drum machine’s biggest fans and users, undoubtedly opening the doors for some of the biggest names in music such as current musicians such as Questlove and Pharrell, DJs including Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) and David Guetta and legendary producers such as Rick Rubin and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to reflect on how the machine shaped the pop genre. Yet Dunn and Noyer go deeper, getting entertaining and insightful anecdotes behind some of the most innovative and infectious earworms the 808 helped produce, whether it was Adam Yauch’s experiment to record an 808 backwards to provide the backbeat for the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” or how a misused kickdrum led to the sound that fueled Public Enemy’s rise.
Starting out as something of a failure in its native Japan, the machine’s rather obscure history and the myriad accomplishments it’s been used for make for a compelling story, but not necessarily a natural one to be brought to the big screen, which is why what Dunn and Noyer have done is so special. Shortly after the film made its debut at SXSW, the two spoke about pulling together such a sprawling international history, how their own love of the TR-808 led them on a three-year hunt to tell the tale and letting the music lead the way.
How did you get interested in this subject?
Alex Noyer: Back in the end of 2011, I was having lunch with the producer Arthur Baker about a completely different project. Once we were done talking about the other project, we started to talk about music, specifically about the 808 and reminiscing about the machine and all it meant, and all the records that we all cherish. We had just finished our last feature, which was very different film [about] the New York art scene called “New York Influenced City,” and we were in contemplation of what we should do next, and the light bulb came up — how about we do a proper legacy piece celebrating our love for the 808, and the passion we had just even in this little lunch? I went back to the office, spoke to Alex [Dunn], and his eyes lit up.
You’ve said this started out being primarily about the seminal “Planet Rock” album. While that’s still a major part of the film, how did this evolve into something larger?
Alex Noyer: When we were developing the story, we first wanted to start from a record that we had the biggest and broadest understanding of. Having Arthur onboard as a producer, we were talking about “Planet Rock,” because we all love [the Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force] records so much. It’s the starting point of electrofunk, the bridge between hip-hop and electronic music and this moment where it switched into all those branches and movements that the 808 has generated. That conversation led to the title of the film initially being “Planet Rock & Other Tales of the 808,” but as we spoke to people, their passion for “Planet Rock” was matched by their passion for the rest of the records, and we really felt that we were building up a storyline that Alex [Dunn] wanted to take on.
Alex Dunn: Yeah, the important thing about “Planet Rock” was it was always going to play a big role because that, arguably, was what kicked off the revolution of people using the 808. It had been used before, but this was really something different and really blew people away, especially in New York. But as we started meeting people, it just seemed that we were always going to build off that platform. The story is of the 808, so let’s just tell the story of that and make it all encompassing as possible.
Besides “Planet Rock,” was there a certain criteria you used for which singles or albums you wanted to focus on throughout the film?
Alex Dunn: Not particularly. Apart from Planet Rock, we tried to let the narrative and the music be led by the people that we met in interviews and use their experiences. Working with Arthur and with Luke Bainbridge, a music journalist who was a writer on the project, [they both] have a lot of knowledge of the 808, so they would point us in certain directions and have ideas of what people would talk about. If we went to speak to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, we knew they’d talk about the S-O-S Band, but we didn’t want to nail anything down too much.
Alex Noyer: We wanted to allow people to change their selection. In the early discussions, we were all singling out tracks that we want to cover, but the fact is we let the people we got the privilege to speak to share their passion and use that passion to lead us and lead the story line. That’s why the story line really got developed after [finishing shooting] because Alex and Luke had a huge challenge. We did over 50 interviews, so we’re just allowing for all this to piece together and single out which tracks we’re going to feature. We’re not saying these are all the key 808 tracks. These are the 808 tracks that we can map as a good demonstration of the path that followed.
Alex Dunn: Yeah, there’s conversations about “Freeez – I.O.U.,” for example, or other tracks, but they weren’t the ones that ended up taking to the story once we heard what people had to say, so we let what people had to tell us, drive it. Was that a good story? It was as organic as we could make it off the back of the interviews and it’s not the definitive guide to the 808. I don’t think it can be. There’s too many people and too many songs, so it’s just this cross-section where we’ve reached in, grabbed some stories and some music and made that into an experience for you to go and see, which I like [because] people can then go and investigate more, start their own conversations, and use it as a starting point to talk about other music.
Alex Noyer: We wanted to kick off a stronger cultural movement, embracing that legacy. The film is not a film; it’s a musical journey. It’s a film you can listen to. It’s a film you can dip in and out of. A little bit like when you switch on a track you love, you can switch on a story you love in the film, so when we took on that journey, we knew that all we could do is just lead people to understanding the 808 culture, key points of inspirations, and for them, on whatever platform they listen to music on, discover, explore, and ask more questions.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you can switch the film on like a track because the film seems to have that quality embedded into its very fabric. There’s a VHS-like quality to some of the transitions and as far as the rhythm of the editing, not just its soundtrack, it has a beat. How did that come about?
Alex Dunn: It was always going to be quite difficult to get that right because we’re talking about something that created a rhythm, so how do you create a rhythm for film? There’s so much information, so while it is quite quickfire in a lot of ways, I wanted to create some breathing space for the music as well to give people the opportunity to sit there and experience the music a little bit. The stories are fantastic, but to understand them properly, you then need to listen to the music. You need to engage with that. As far as the VHS thing, it was just my experience of what the ‘80s aesthetic was. I like that “Tron” thing and what the 808 encapsulated was what a lot of the stuff from the 80s, [such as] “Back to the Future,” [where] it’s all very futuristic, yet retro at the same time.
Alex Noyer: It’s a challenge to make a film that has a unique aesthetic, but [we wanted to in] the same way the 808 has a unique aesthetic — if you look a lot at the drum machines that came out afterwards, many are either gray or black, or much more simple. They don’t have this orange, red, and yellow. We wanted to create an aesthetic for the film that was ambitious and piecing together an identity for the film visually was actually similarly important to finding, as you said, the beat of the film. When we created sound beds, we used a real 808. Actually, we used my 808, because it had to be right. The same way as our [title cards]. We had this first design all in neon and our immediate reaction was, “This is beautiful, but we need to make it look a little bit more aged,” and we went back to give it an authentic feel.
This is where the great work of our fantastic animators like Paul Roberts and Pedro Motta, who, worked with us, they really embraced the challenge, and all this under the watchful eyes of Alex meant that we got to create a lot of content. Perhaps not as much as we wished because time and resources were limited, so some of the extra variety we wanted to bring may have not been possible, but what we wanted to nail was a sound and visual identity that carried this conversation that the film is about the 808.
You may say your resources were limited, but it seems like you’d get on a plane at the drop of a hat for any interview that was important.
Alex Dunn: Yeah, it was limited in what we could do, so we had to be careful with how we spent the money. But it’s actually quite nice if it does look like we’ve been able to fly places at the drop of a hat to go and meet these people because that means we worked well with the budget. [laughs]
Alex Noyer: First, I raised the finance to go to Miami in 2012 to do the first section, just to see if we had a film. We didn’t know exactly how far we could push this, or how responsive people would be, so we decided to take a gamble. Once we had that, I could go raise the rest of the finance with more confidence because we had something to show for it. Documentaries are complicated. Towards the end, we got the amazing opportunity of getting Atlantic Records on board and they took on the music, so that obviously was a huge help because it allowed us to remain on course with the huge story we have that contains a lot of music. But we’ve been very fortunate. We managed to make the most out of limited resources and we flew when we needed to. We all stacked up in the same hotel room if we needed to. It didn’t matter, we just wanted to be there at the right place, right time, to get those people if the opportunity was there because the subject needed it.
Even being the 808 fans you are, did this take you in any directions that were really surprising to you?
Alex Dunn: The whole Japan trip and chapter that we were able to get and what, speaking to Mr. K [Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland] was surprising just because no one knew the story, so we didn’t know what we were going to get. The opportunity was fantastic. Apart from that, everyone’s experiences are interesting and [in general], I didn’t know where it was going to take us. That’s part of what I enjoy about documentary filmmaking is that, I didn’t want to go in with this idea of how I’m going to make a film, and I’m going to tell you what I think it’s going to be. It’s going to live through the experiences of the people that you meet. If I’m learning and getting exciting about it during the process, hopefully everyone else that then goes and views it will as well.
Alex Noyer: [Teaming up with Atlantic actually happened] late, because as Walt Disney said, you only get one chance at making a first impression and what we had shot till then was a lot. We had committed already to some big choices, so when we presented to them, they could have gone, “No, guys, you got it completely wrong” because obviously it’s a huge label with a long a legacy in 808. No, they reacted amazingly and felt it was also their story to tell, and jumped on the end of the journey with us. It is a commitment of three years that we’re just wrapping up now, and it’s a bit emotional even.
“808” will open in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge and be available online at Apple Music on December 9th.