There is a particularly revealing moment at the very end of 808—the just-released documentary on Roland's TR-808 Rhythm Composer, which has served as the backbone of hip-hop, R&B, electro, freestyle, synthpop, house, techno, trap, and pretty much any other electronic genre you can name. In the final moments of the film, Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, in his mid '80s with an oxygen tube in his nose, explains why his company ceased manufacturing the drum machine after only three years of production. As he tells it, the 808's signature sound of thwacking snares, staccato handclaps and that unmistakable whomping kick was sort of a fluke—the byproduct of a defective semiconductor. "This was the source of the sizzling sound," the inventor explains. Without those wonky little devices, the 808's manufacture would have been impossible.
This poignant coda is one of many moments that provides 808, available now via Apple Music, with far more humanity than you might expect from a movie about a drum machine. The idea for the documentary came about a half decade ago, whenfilmmaker Alex Noyer was casually chatting with the veteran music producer Arthur Baker. Baker, who's worked with everyone from Diana Rose to New Order over the course of his four-decade career, was the knob-twiddler behind Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock"—a boundary-smashing 1982 hit that was one of the first releases to feature the 808 as its centerpiece.
"We just ended up talking about the 808, and we both thought that this was a story that needed to be told." Noyer recalls to THUMP. "I mean, there are really just a few instruments that people can speak about with that passion, and the 808 is one of them."
"Before we made 'Planet Rock,' the 808 didn't really exist, and up to that point I had used live drums," Baker adds. "But we wanted to try a machine for this one… You could feel really something happening. After we finished the music, before we even had the rap done, I said to my wife, 'I think we made musical history.' It just sounded so fresh, so different."
808 relies on an array of talking heads to tell the story, cycling through a massive array of interviews with the likes of Rick Rubin, New Order's Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, Questlove, and approximately 45 others. Some of the subjects (Baker, for instance) are a hell of a lot more illuminating than others (er, David Guetta). But as Kakehashi's transistor tale makes clear, it's not about perfection, it's about effect—and 808 is surely the most thorough examination in recent history of a drum machine's relevance to our musical landscape.
Following the film's theatrical premiere in LA last week, we asked Baker and Noyer to share some of their favorite 808 tracks: Some of them under the radar, others are well-known, but all with imbued with the Pavlovian appeal that the machine lends any cut that it's used on. As to the source of the 808's everlasting appeal, Noyer has a simple explanation: "It's magic."
1. The Imperial Brothers—"We Come to Dub" (1984)
2. Hi Fidelity Three—"B Boys Breakdance" (1984)
"These were both produced by Aldo Marin and Jerry Caliste, who were also the team behind Hashim's classic "Al-Naafiysh." Both tracks capture the NYC electro scene of '84 really well. The engineer, Jay Burnett, and the mastering engineer, Herb Powers, both worked on "Planet Rock."—Arthur Baker
3. Rodney O & Joe Cooley—"Everlasting Bass" (1987)
"When some think West Coast 808 sound, the first thought is NWA and Easy E—but I was reminded recently of this track, and been listening to it in my usual rotation ever since. It is so cool, and delivers its own take on the East Coast signature mix of electronic organs and 808s. It is a very raw production, and that's why I feel this track is too little known, but very telling of the way the 808 became pivotal for emerging artists."—Alex Noyer
4. Nairobi and the Awesome Foursome—"Funky Soul Makossa" (1982)
"This was another one of my tracks on which I used the 808. I produced this with John Robie [the synth whiz from "Planet Rock" and ], who was the "Nairobi" part of the group name. Additional fun fact: The B. B. & Q.'s band's Pee Wee Ford played the bass on this. "—AB
5. Charanjit Singh—"Raga Bhairavi" (1983)
"That song blew my mind when I heard about it. I remember coming down into the edit room and Alex Dunn was playing it, and I said, "Cool, we're putting some more acid house into the movie." Then I heard the story that he's the man who unwittingly invented acid house, and I'm so glad the song made the cut. I told the story in a tribute I posted when Singh recently passed away, and I got a lot of stick. Purists can say what they want…and the fact is he never claimed to have invented acid house, nor rereleased his music as such, but the chronology and sound make it impossible to detach this piece from what we recognize as acid."—AN
6. Mantronix—"Needle to the Groove" (1985)
7. Joyce Sims—"(You Are My) All And All" (1986)
"Kurtis Mantronik was extremely influential on the NYC club scene, and his "Needle to the Groove" worked the 808 to a maniac effect in the clubs. He used the 808 on so many of his productions, including crossover hits like this one by Joyce Sims." —AB
8. Yellow Magic Orchestra—"1000 Knives" (1981)
"The one that got away. This track is so incredible, and it was heartbreaking when the clearance (for 808) got denied. It is the clearest demonstration of the electro sound that the 808 opened up, and it's also recognized as one of the main influence on the electro-funk of "Planet Rock," on par with Kraftwerk. The Germans didn't actually use the 808, but YMA were among the first and mastered it from the get-go. They are influencers, inspirations and innovators, and no one should overlook their work when considering the development of electronic music as we know it today. And put simply—that composition is sick."—AN
9. Freestyle—"Don't Stop the Rock" (1985)
"I love the fun vibe of that track. It summarizes so much of 80s production—and whether it's the 808s, the basic synth, the echo or the vocoder, I just love feel. This is a Friday tune, and it is awesome." —AN
10. Aphex Twin—"Xtal" (1992)
"I was discussing this on at length with Matt Jarman, our music supervisor. Aphex Twin's early ambient works are a reference for what a modified 808 is—or more accurately, what it sounds like. Richard James took the hardware and messed with it to deliver his own 808 sound. In a 1993 interview for Future Music he said, 'I really hate the idea of using other people's equipment. I've got a bit obsessed, I supposed…I don't want to use preprogrammed drum sounds.' His work has always been unconventional, and his lesser-known early work was incredibly advanced."—AN
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