SIFF 41: Nothing sounds quite like an 808

Director Alexander Dunn has created a love letter to the drum machine that pioneered music in his documentary 808.


The 808 kick drum makes the girlies get dumb…” – Sir Mix-A-Lot

I’ve always enjoyed hip hop, have I been an avid fan? No, but I don’t think anyone can deny the rhythm and the power of beat.  The first time that I heard License to ILL, I knew that I couldn’t get enough of it.

But where did that slamming bass come from?  There’s no way in hell that came from a kit!

It came from one small machine produced by Roland electronics from 1980-1983 that changed music and spawned countless genres.


In 808 director Alexander Dunn takes us to the beginning of the New York hip hop scene with Afrika Bambaata and the Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock.  Dunn uses this as the starting point on the 808’s globally successful use and then proceed to interview an amazing group of DJ’s, producers, artists, and even the machine’s creator Ikutaro Kakehashi.

808b-boysEach step of the film is one more forward in the use of the 808.  The subjects interviewed range from The Beastie Boys to Phil Collins to Goldie and in each interview you begin to realize just how important this machine was to tracks that had been previously taken for granted and not appreciated for their groundbreaking use of the 808.  I’m not being biased, but Mike D and Adam Horowitz from the Beastie Boys completely steal the show in their interview about the creation of their track Paul Revere.

These candid interviews are part enlightening and often hilarious.  This comedic element helps balance out the fact and science elements of a doc that is basically about a machine.  That had to be the hardest part for the filmmakers to iron out.  As the movie rolls on, you realize that the film isn’t so much about a drum machine, but about the artists who used it to create art that became appreciated world wide.

And the soundtrack!!! Oh my God what a soundtrack.  There had to be 30 to 40 different tracks used in telling this story and it dusted off some serious old gems for me.  Specifically (I’m embarrassed to say it) Let the Music Play by Shannon, I love that song.

As a doc, this film works great with very little down time and a linear timeline that made appreciated the subject streamlined and easy to understand.  Even for a moderate hip-hop/electronic/dance music fan like myself, I walked away with a new appreciation for an instrument that I had always taken for granted simply because I barely new how important it truly was.

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