SXSW Film review: ‘808’ looks at musical innovation

Questlove in '808'
Questlove in ‘808’

Whether you listen to electronic music, hip-hop, or even rock music, the 808 drum machine has often been the rhythmic backbone of some of your favorite songs. You may not have given much thought to the technology behind these tracks, but you’ve likely even heard lyrics referencing “808 beats” or maybe own a copy of Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreak” album.

Alexander Dunn’s remarkable documentary, which premiered during SXSW Friday, breaks down the history of the 808 and explains the accidental way that it changed music forever. In Japan, Roland Electronics had first developed a machine called the CR-78, but by 1980 they had improved on the technology by launching the TR-808. It was intended to be a rhythm machine for recording demos, and the programmable beats didn’t sound anything like actual drums.


As it turns out, that is exactly what made it so appealing. DJ Afrika Bambaataa was already blowing up the early hip-hop scene in the South Bronx. When he recorded “Planet Rock” in 1982 for Tommy Boy Records, it melded the synth lines of German electro-rockers Kraftwerk, with a then-blistering 129 beats per minute song that lit up dance floors around the world.


It would be impossible to comprehensively examine every song that ever used an 808 machine, but Dunn sits down with for insights from some of the most influential people in music history. Within the first few minutes of the film, we hear from Questlove, Rick Rubin, Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, Todd Terry, Arthur Baker and Bambaataa himself, along with footage from the original recording session of “Planet Rock.”


As a movie, “808” attempts to at least touch on all of the genres that used the machine and speak to the people who innovated the most. Ad-Rock and Mike D of the Beastie Boys reveal that Rick Rubin programmed beats on an 808 and then ran the master tape in reverse to create the spastic beat on “Paul Revere.” They readily admit that, “our intent was really to shatter windows.” New musical styles continued to develop, from Miami Bass to House Music, Jungle to New Orleans Bounce, and technology allowed the 808 to be modified and used in new ways.


Interview subjects are plentiful, sprinkled throughout the film with contemporary artists like Pharrell and Diplo as well as legendary producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The movie even makes a final stop in Japan to speak to the founder of Roland, Ikutaro Kakehashi. For music lovers, this is a lovingly fascinating journey through the last 30-plus years worth of musical history that deserves to be heard on the loudest speakers possible.


“808” plays again on Friday, March 20 at 3:45 p.m. at the Alamo South Lamar and again on Saturday, March 21 at 3:45 p.m. at the Vimeo Theater.


Author: Charles Ealy

Charles Ealy edits and writes about books and movies for the Ausstin American-Statesman.

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