Art Doc of the Week | 808

Early in the documentary 808, directed by Alex Dunn, it’s noted that the Roland TR-808’s inability to faithfully reproduce the sound of a real drum was considered a handicap early in its existence, and that it was really only meant to be a demo placeholder for real drums. For the most visionary hip-hop, dance and experimental music artists, however, that limitation was quickly realized to be a strength. As is noted in the scripted voiceover, the machine sounded “otherworldly,” making it the perfect anchor for late 1970s/early 1980s American music subgenres being shaped for and around marginalized groups (Black and brown youth in post-industrial American cities; queer bodies looking for a new sonic aesthetic; disenfranchised art school kids of all races and proclivities) on a quest for soundtracks that repped who they were and how they lived and imagined.

Questlove in still from 808

Questlove in still from 808

In 808, Dunn – who co-wrote the film with Luke Bainbridge – gives the layered, fascinating origin story of the 808 (an enterprising Japanese technologically savvy businessman) and then maps out its genre and aesthetic sprawling career trajectory, letting everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and Francois K to Questlove and Diplo (all just a fraction of the dazzling who’s who of music past and present included in the film) explain the towering significance of the machine/instrument in 20th and 21st century music. But it’s the old, interwovern footage – video, concert, and news – crackling with energy that really illuminates the impact and power of the 808. A vintage clip of a New York b-boy breakdancing to the sound of Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force’s classic “Planet Rock” is still as thrilling and “on some next shit” as the day it was filmed, and at the center of it all is that beat.

808 will be released worldwide exclusively via Apple Music on December 9th before being available on the  iTunes Store a week later alongside the official soundtrack release on Big Beat Records. It will open theatrically in Los Angeles at the Arena Theater in Hollywood on December 9th.

Top photo courtesy AP Photo/Carlo Allegri.