During the 1980s, Japanese electronics giant Roland designed a handful of machines to help producers whip up demos. Musicians weren’t always available and samplers were inordinately expensive. The affordable TR-808 had a sequencer and some inbuilt drum sounds so users could sketch ideas out quickly.
It was not intended for making actual music. Its kicks were deep and synthetic, its snares and hats tinny. It sounded nothing like a drum kit. Few people bought them and Roland only made 12,000. Then, almost as soon as the last 808 left the factory, house and hip hop producers fell in love with it. Its booming low-end was perfect for nightclubs. They could programme loops in seconds for rappers to spit over. And for artists revolutionising music, it sounded nothing like the drum kits battered by punk and rock bands.
Today, Roland’s mistake is a staple in studios from Kanye to Questlove. A new documentary, 808, by director Alexander Dunn, traces how what might have been a footnote in pop history became one of the most important machines in music. The film follows the TR-808’s story from Japan, with Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, and reveals why production of the TR-808 was ceased just as producers were discovering its potential.
Narrated by Zane Lowe, the documentary features contributions and interviews with Pharrell Williams, Afrika Bambaataa, The Beastie Boys, Damon Albarn, Phil Collins, New Order, and Norman Cook, as well as pioneering producers including Rick Rubin and Jellybean Benitez, each of whom has taken the most ubiquitous sound in music and made it their own.