In 1983 a strange video clip was premiered. It contained images of moving robots. However, most of the robots were partly finished. Wiring and electronics were clearly visible. Even the heads were not completed. The music sounded out of this world. Electronic, distorted voices and something ‘new’: scratching.
The following is a story on Herbie Hancock, scratching, Rockit and Future Shock.
I soon learned that the video clip and the song (Rockit) were by Herbie Hancock, a big name within jazz and held in high esteem within funk circles.
Hancock is a jazz musician, who started his musical career in 1960, when he heard jazz pianist Chris Anderson play, upon which Hancock begged him to take Hancock on as his student. After moving to Chicago he started working with trumpet player Donald Byrd and saxophone player Coleman Hawkins. He soon left his mark. In 1962 his first solo album was released: Takin’ Off.
Miles Davis got the album and was interested. At the time Davis was putting together a new band and subsequently asked Hancock to join, which he did in 1963. Hancock refined his playing and brought his innovation to jazz, by his way of playing, his harmonies and use of chord(schemes) which, until then, were not used frequently in jazz music.
Simultaneously he kept on recording and releasing music under his own name. A couple of those records are considered jazz classics, like 1964’s Empyrean Isles and 1965’s Maiden Voyage. The song Cantaloupe Island off the 1964 album turned into a big hit in 1993 by the group US3: the fantastic Cantaloop. Several albums followed, which didn’t reach large audiences, but are revered by music-lovers. He started to make soundtracks as well. His first was made for the 1966 movie Blowup. Many soundtracks would follow.
When Miles Davis started adding rock and other, more popular, music into his own music, Hancock was ambivalent. At Davis’ insistence Hancock started using electric pianos, like the Fender Rhodes. The move would prove to be very significant for the rest of his career.
Davis moved on and started working with other musicians. Hancock started his won band. However, Hancock would still contribute to Davis’ music on a regular basis and can be heard on the great albums In a Silent Way, A Tribute To Jack Johnson and the genius On The Corner.
Influenced by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Hancock’s interest in using electronics grew during the 1970’s. The synthesizer made its debut. The experimental albums Mwandishi (1971), Crossings (1972) and Sextant (1973) were released. They contained improvisations and were inspired by modern-classical composers.
Hancock wanted to play music that was funky. A new band was founded: The Headhunters. It led to the 1973 album Head Hunters. It was an enormous hit and ensured a cross-over to a wider audience (much to the chagrin of jazz-purists). Another two Headhunters albums would follow.
Hancock’s music became more commercial with every release. Criticism increased as well. In 1982 Hancock played a solo on Hunter and the Hunted on the Simple Minds album New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84).
In 1982 Hancock started working with avant-garde bass player and recordlabel owner Bill Laswell. That cooperation resulted in three highly electronic albums: Future Shock (1983), Sound-System (1984) and Perfect Machine (1988).
After releasing a couple of successful albums during the 1990’s, Hancock released Future2Future in 2001, for which he teamed up with Laswell again. To this day, Hancock remains a well respected musician and guest on stages all around the world and gladly works with contemporary artists.
In 1983 Hancock released Future Shock. The phenomenon scratching was given ample room. But what is it? Scratching is the moving of a (vinyl) record back and forth (by hand) quickly using a so-called ‘direct drive’ record player, with the needle placed in a record groove. The sound that is made is highly recognizable and was used many times in (early) hip-hop. Nowadays scratching can also be done by using software.
Scratching originated during the early 1970’s, when DJ’s used it as an added percussive sound to entertain the dancing crowd and heighten the trance when dancing. One of the biggest names in the development of scratching was DJ Grand Wizard Theodore. He discovered that the ‘direct drive’ record player SL-1200 by Technics kept playing at the set RPM (rotations-per-minute, 33 or 45 rotations), even if the DJ ‘manipulated’ the records. The Technics SL-1200, which was available for the first time in 1972, is the record player that, to this day, gets employed the most when scratching and DJ-ing.
Pioneers like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Christian Marclay and Grand Mixer DXT refined the technique, which was utilized for the first time on The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel in 1981; a song by, yes indeed, Grandmaster Flash. In 1982 Malcolm McLaren & The World’s Famous Supreme Team released the single Buffalo Gals. In 1983 Rockit emerged. Scratching was introduced on a global scale. A lot of the current DJ’s reference this song, and Herbie Hancock’s performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards in particular, as their introduction to and the phenomenon.
The song itself was amazing, but the accompanying video was remarkable and innovative as well. Rockit was written by Hancock, Laswell and synthesizer/drum machine programmer Michael Beinhorn. The song was created at several different studios and employs the skills of GrandMixer D.ST as the ‘scratcher’. the song was a major hit all over Europe and was very popular at discotheques in the US.
The video was made by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, a popular duo that made many innovative video clips. The video shows (parts of) robot-like creatures, that move and walk rhythmically to the beat of the song in an English town house. Hancock can be seen on a tv-screen.
Grammy Awards 1984
Rockit was played live at the 1984 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. The crowd, made up of many big stars, was completely blown away by Hancock and his band. The performance is a classic moment in the history of the Grammy Awards. Hancock played his clavitar (a ‘keytar’, a keyboard that is carried like a guitar) with robotic figures who were ‘break dance’-ing. A keyspot was given to Grandmixer D.ST.: the world witnessed scratching first hand for the very first time.
A year later Hancock performed at the Grammy Awards again. This time as part of a synthesizer jam, together with Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby and Stevie Wonder. The main Rockit theme was part of the jam. This performance is also considered to be a defining moment in the Grammy Awards history.
The song accomplished the first musical breakthrough that was directly influenced by hip-hop. Scratching had turned into was a household name overnight. Hundreds of DJ’s started their careers after hearing the song and witnessing Hancock’s performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards.
The album Rockit was culled from was Future Shock. It was released in August of 1983 as Hancock’s 35th album. The album was very successful and quickly turned platinum. It’s the first album that features Bill Laswell and Hancock’s first forays into electro-funk and hip-hop.
The majority of the album was composed by Laswell and keyboard player and producer Michael Beinhorn and played live in 1982 with their band Material, meaning to record them for the planned successor to Material’s One Down album. They approached Hancock to work on some of the recordings. The end result was Future Shock, which was released using the Hancock moniker.
The 1999 remaster of Future Shock contains a booklet with liner-notes. Laswell tells the tale of him buying some new speakers. He tested the speakers with demos of Rockit and Earth Beat. When the music played other shoppers started to dance. Laswell told Hancock and remarked: “We got something good here”.
Which is correct. Rockit alone is great, just as the rest of the album, that was different, innovative and, despite all the electronics, funky. A classic album in the development of both hip-hop and electro-funk.
All songs written by Herbie Hancock, Michael Beinhorn and Bill Laswell, unless stated otherwise.
- Future Shock (written by Curtis Mayfield)
- Earth Beat
- Herbie Hancock – piano, EMU keyboard, clavinet, synthesizers (Fairlight CMI, Rhodes Chroma, Minimoog, Dr. Click Rhythm, Memory Moog, Yamaha GS1 & CE20, Alpha Synthauri, Emulator)
- Bill Laswell – bass
- D.ST. – turntables, background vocals
- Pete Cosey – guitar
- Michael Beinhorn – keyboards
- Daniel Poncé – percussion
- Sly Dunbar – drums, percussion
- Dwight Jackson Jr. – vocals on Future Shock
- Lamar Wright – vocals on Rough
- Bernard Fowler, D.S.T., Roger Trilling, Nicky Skopelitis – background vocals
Do you know this album by Herbie Hancock? What’s your opinion? let me know!
Herbie Hancock image: falsearms.com
Herbie Hancock – Empyrean Isles image: discogs.com
Herbie Hancock – Fender Rhodes image: fenderrhodes.com
Technics SL-1200 image: musictech.net
Herbie Hancock – Rockit – Video image: danceforum.ru
Herbie Hancock – Grammy Awards 1984 image: pinterest.com
Herbie Hancock – Future Shock image: apple.com
Herbie Hancock – Future Shock – Ad image: vintageadbrowser.com