How the Roland TR-808 makes the theme tune for ‘Succession’ so addictive
HBO’s Succession – which tracks the travails of the dysfunctional Roy family – returns for a third season on 17 October, which means you can expect to hear plenty more of composer Nicholas Britell‘s infectious theme music over the coming months.
New York native Britell, who won a Primetime Emmy for the Succession theme in 2019, in the category of Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music (not to mention an Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series a year later), rose to prominence with his scores for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), both of which earned Oscar nominations.
Other notable soundtracks of his include The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018), however he’s been providing compositions to the silver screen for more than a decade – other contributions include New York, I Love You, 12 Years A Slave and Free State of Jones. He also helped produce the multiple-Oscar winning Whiplash (2014).
But for Succession, his first television score, Britell drew upon inspiration from his early years – when he was a member of instrumental hip-hop group, The Witness Protection Program at the turn of the Millennium.
“When I started doing stuff with them I started basically composing a lot of hip-hop beats and just a lot of music in general,” he told the Harvard Crimson back in 2004.
“Composing was something I had done when I was a kid, just for fun, but I never really approached it from a serious vantage—that fall I sort of set up a studio in my apartment and I started recording a lot of beats… That was just total serendipity—just meeting your friends and realising they were also interested in the kind of a band that you were also interested in.”
It’s this hip-hop sensibility that underpins what makes the Succession theme so addictive – a slowed down TR-808 provides the drunken rhythmic undertone to the melodic strings and piano on top; a classical refrain clashing head-on with the sound of the streets.
Writing about his style in Film Comment in 2020, Soraya Nadia McDonald described Britell’s works as being able to “organically straddle accessibility and sophistication in a way that goes beyond the typical programming of a big-city pops orchestra. They never sound as though they’re meant to be confined to padded symphony halls where the average age of the patrons is on the high end.
“That might have something to do with the fact that Britell has long had one foot in the world of hip-hop and another in the world of classical music. […] Britell, who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, came of age during the ’90s, the golden age of hip-hop. He’s a human bridge between the South Bronx and Lincoln Center.”
Of all the various drum machines to grace the musical troposphere, the Roland TR-808 IS hip hop. Launched in 1980, while many initially scoffed at the colourful synthesiser’s attempts to emulate real drums, its variety of unique percussive sounds helped provide the backdrop for any number of future-leaning artists throughout the 80s: Afrika Bambaataa, Beastie Boys, Cybotron, Mantronix… it even provides the rhythmic backdrop to Marvin Gaye’s sultry Sexual Healing.
“Over the past forty years, hip-hop is certainly the most impactful new artform that has emerged,” Britell told Harvardwood in 2019. “I was really fascinated by hip-hop and I spent every day thinking beats, exploring how hip-hop music was crafted, and studying it.”
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On the Succession theme, the 808 is used to perfection – hinting at the disharmonious environment that pervades the show.
As Time magazine put it a couple of years back the theme tune helps remind the reader that “this is no Downton Abbey, gilding an image of a genteel patrician family, but rather something less polished and pleasant, reflecting the nastiness of the Roy family dynamics.”
Or, as Insider noted, “In the Succession theme song, the 808 baseline plays over the duration of the song leaving you in a surreal situation where you’re bobbing your head to orchestral strings and cellos.
“Let’s single the drum out. You can hear that the drum has notes that correspond to the melody of the strings and piano. By adding the 808 drum, Britell transforms the orchestral song into something that’s more danceable, more modern, and apparently more memeable.”
Regardless of which direction the new season of Succession takes us – that chugging drumbeat will continuously remind us that all is not well in the ivory towers of Waystar RoyCo.
[Main pic sourced from HBO/WarnerMedia.com]