Tracing the roots of contemporary music, you’ll find many influential artists who’ve made major musical breakthroughs using the TR-808 drum computer. Egyptian Lover, Drexciya, DJ Rashad, Juan Atkins… the list goes on. But the music of Ammar 808, made with the long decay of the 808 kick drum alongside the beguiling melodies and intense rhythms of North Africa music, is something altogether different from past innovations. As Bandcamp Daily published when assessing his latest record, Maghreb United, ‘Ben Youssef joins the ranks of artists shedding a light on North African futurism by taking a critical and nuanced look at past traditions and remaking them into something that can serve as a window to the region’s unique heritage for the citizens of a distant future.’ We’re thrilled to be bringing this inventive, inspiring artist to Manchester and ahead of his set at Soup Kitchen, we managed to chat to him about his solo sets, his working process and that key piece of kit, the TR-808. He also kindly put together a cracking Spotify playlist of his favourites for us, which you can check out here.
You grew up in Tunisia but currently reside in Belgium and have spent time in various parts of the world. Where do you feel most comfortable or ‘at home’ and is that the same place where you feel most creative?
Ammar 808: ‘Brussels is my home now, it is a very special place when it comes to speed… it has the best speed for creative people and as a producer I feel more headspace over there… it definitely feels like home, I have lived there more than 12 years now.’
How did you meet the musicians that you collaborate with in The Maghreb United and what was it about those artists that made you want to work with them?
Ammar 808: ‘I met my musicians in all sorts of places: festivals, studio sessions or travelling. After meeting by pure chance again and again, a friendship started to build. Music in those cases just follows.’
You’re performing solo here in Manchester. What changes with the solo show? Does it give you more freedom to experiment and do you do things differently than when you play with a larger band?
Ammar 808: ‘The solo is totally different, it is somehow clubbier and dirtier, I guess I don’t have to worry about feedback from the sound system. I usually do a North West Tunisian repertoire for this one. The fact that I have everything at the tips of my fingers makes the whole approach more open to experimentation in real-time. And of course a huge amount of dirt and risk taking. I think I practiced the set so much that I can go any direction and combine all elements from all the songs in all different ways. But when I perform with musicians on stage it’s a more song-centred approach.’
Krakens create an important rhythmic component of North African music, which we hear in contemporary music by yourself, Acid Arab, Innov Gnawa and others, as well as traditional music. How important is the instrument and its history to people within the Greater Maghreb?
Ammar 808: ‘The kraken is an instrument specific for gnawa and stambeli music, some people perceive it as the equivalent of a hi-hat from a drum set. I personally think it’s much more than that, it has a very essential quality to it as a groove driver.’
The Roland TR-808 is another major component of your sound and approach to production. Who do you think has used it best throughout music history and what inspired you to use one?
Ammar 808: ‘The inspiration to use the 808 came from the machine itself. I think I did connect the machine to the sound very late in my life, it was one of those “Eureka” moments where it all makes sense. On my first encounter with the machine, I started fiddling around, it sounded very familiar, and then suddenly I start to realise that the 808 was everywhere, sooo many tracks made with it. That’s how the love started…’
What are you working on at the moment, or hoping to work on in future? Would you like to do another album, collaborate with any new artists or work in any other areas of art?
Ammar 808: ‘I am constantly working on new stuff as a freelance producer, there are also a few tracks coming up, and I am always looking for new collaborations. But I will definitely keep the lid on the new album because it’s going to be a surprise… a very rhythmic one.’