2015 SXSW Interview (Excerpt): Alexander Dunn (Director) - '808 The Movie'
Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘808:The Movie‘ at the 2015 SXSW Music, Film & Interactive Conference, we spoke with the documentary’s Director Alexander Dunn about all things Roland 808, SXSW and digital music. Be sure to catch ‘808: The Movie‘ TODAY, as well as Friday, March 20 and Saturday, March 21, 2015.
Why did each of you feel this documentary was important to produce? What are your own personal experiences with the Roland 808?
Alexander Dunn: The 808 has just left such a large indelible mark on music. It’s everywhere, even now. Artists have name-checked it in songs and named albums after it.
Even if you don’t really know what an 808 sounds like, you’ve definitely heard it, danced to it, it’s been part of the soundtrack of your life. It’s played a huge role in some of the music you’re into, almost certainly. It’s universal but still uniquely individual. It’s synonymous with hip hop and having “that kick”. The deep, sustained, floor shaking kick that has driven countless hip hop classics, old and new. But it’s not just hip-hop, it featured heavily in the emergence of the techno scene in Detroit, the house scene in Chicago, Acid House in the UK, Miami Bass, Drum and Bass and countless other genres… even as far a field as metal, where bands have utilised the low end of the 808 to create that infamous sub drop.
Personally a big part of my youth was spent DJing drum and bass in the UK and I loved it. I didn’t really understand the composite of the production back then, how the 808 was being used, really anything about it at all. I just loved the music and a huge part of that, which I understand now, was the 808 kick. But it wasn’t used in drum and bass as a kick drum predominantly. When it was used it was tuned to create baselines, so the use was yet again another different direction for the 808. Those baselines shook the system of any club, car or home system and there was something really exciting about that music to me.
Alexander, as a filmmaker, and a documentary filmmaker, describe your Directorial approach to ‘808’? What was the narrative you wanted to put forth? What were some of your original strategies in how to effectively do so? How did this strategy change (if it did) over production?
Alexander Dunn: Personally what I wanted to do with 808 was allow the story to be created by the contributors, allow their stories to sculpt the narrative and keep that very personal angle to the film. Then craft their stories and experiences together in an intertwined fashion that respects the personal nature of their stories but also charts the story of the 808 at the core.
I think that was key to bringing the 808 to life. It’s sounds are individual and influential, but not without the artists and producers that used it. They really had to be at the forefront of the narrative. They’re the ones who stumbled upon it or chose to have it in a studio with them. Made decisions on how to take its sounds and create something new. To mess with those sounds, layer them up, reverse them, just take them to another place sonically. So it’s their creativity that added the personality to the 808 and really made it as influential and iconic as it is.
Aside from that I always knew the way the music was integrated was key. It needed to play a big part in the way the film flows and is structured. And it needs to be loud! As a music documentary, I wanted to give it as much prominence as possible and make this very much an audible journey as well.
At the inception stage of the film, Alex Noyer got the initial funding together for us to get out to Miami during Winter Music Conference and get some interviews under our belt and kick off the project. While we, along with Arthur Baker and Luke Bainbridge, had decided that the entry point for the film should be Planet Rock. I think maybe at the start I thought Planet Rock may have played a bigger part in bringing the documentary together and holding it in place. But as the stories progressed it was obvious to me that while Planet Rock was indeed the catalyst for the film in many ways, the 808 and the contributors stories were strong enough to hold the weight of the film.
I always had it in mind for the film to end the way it does from a reasonably early stage when we found out it could be possible. I won’t give it away here, as you need to go to see the film, but I’m very glad Alex Noyer (executive producer) and Roland, were able to make that happen for me and the film. So that was definitely a detail that stuck as soon as we knew it could happen.
Personally, I have always attributed “electronic” or digitally produced music as a natural musical evolution, which (prominently) includes classical and jazz. This is because, as is stated in the documentary, with such genres/movements/eras also comes new musical instrumentation. I find that the apprehension to allowing digital instrumentation to be considered “real” instrumentation is somewhat counterintuitive toward a wider dialogue of, both, technological possibility, as well as the inevitability of sound evolution. What are your impressions on the debate of digital vs. analogue, in regards to musicality? In brief, how would you describe the place of electronically produced music within the wider musical spectrum
Alexander Dunn: I personally don’t really buy into the idea that authenticity in music comes from anything to do with the instruments that are used, digital, analogue or otherwise. To me it’s just down to the creative freedom any instrument can offer and of course the music at its outcome.
It’s a very similar argument to the whole film vs digital debate in filmmaking which has happened in the past. There’s definitely a great argument for the integrity and authenticity of shooting on film. It’s not necessarily a debate that focuses on films like 808, but if new technology that was faster and cheaper wasn’t available, film makers like myself wouldn’t be able to make an independently funded film like 808, it just wouldn’t work, financially and practically, however much I would love it to.
So to me it’s just taking on the development of technology and embracing the elements you need to create what you want to create.
With an impressive and eclectic roster of interview subjects, were there any you found particularly memorable?
Alexander Dunn: We had the privilege of filming a lot of great interviews for the film with some iconic producers and artists.
For me, I’d say my I really enjoyed the Ad Rock and Mike D from The Beastie Boys. Their contribution to the film is really fantastic and brings experience, humour and energy to the film in equal measure. They had a load of amazing stories and a lot was begrudgingly left on the cutting room floor!
I think Todd Terry, Armand Van Helden and Hank Shocklee gave great interviews that had great scope and really tie together the whole film. Again, with Hank he’s so full of enthusiasm and knowledge it’s really fantastic on screen.
Rick Rubin was also great. He’s produced so much iconic music from so many different genres and he produced some of my favourite hip hop and rock albums of all time. He’s a real authority on the subject… and he says he still uses an original 808 now.
What are some of your own personal favorite 808 based tracks?
Alexander Dunn: LL Cool J – “Jack the Ripper”, LTJ Bukem – “Horizons”, Beastie Boys – “Brass Monkey”, 808 State – “Flow Coma”. There are just so many great 808 tracks out there but these are some of my favourites.
Explain why SXSW is an appropriate place for ‘808’ to premier?
Alexander Dunn: SXSW is the perfect place for 808 to premiere. With the crossover of film, music and interactive I really can’t imagine anywhere better. 808 certainly reflects that convergence in every way.
– Interview Conducted by Steve Rickinson