How Herbie Hancock Crafted a Hip-Hop Classic

By S.H. Fernando Jr.

In February of 1984, most of the world had never seen anything like it.

As the camera panned across a thundering standing ovation at the 26th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, the thoroughly mind-blown expressions on the faces of Julio Iglesias, Latoya Jackson, and Brooke Shields said it all. Jazz heavyweight Herbie Hancock and his band had just finished a show-stopping performance of their breakout hit “Rockit,” which went on to win the award for Best R&B Instrumental.

In a Grammy performance for the ages, Herbie jammed on his clavitar as robotic figures in masks and suits performed physics-defying breakdancing moves. Front and center, in an elevated DJ booth, stood Grandmixer D.ST, behind the wheels of steel. He had just schooled the audience — not just those in L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium, but the entire world watching at home — on the finer points of scratching a record, a fresh innovation from the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the Bronx, poised for world domination. D.ST treated the Technics 1200s as if they were an electric guitar and he was Eddie Van Halen.

Fast forward to October of last year: Herbie is back in the studio but not making music. Instead, NPR host Diane Rehm peppers him with questions about his storied career in her motherly manner as they discuss his new biography, Possibilities (Viking, 2014). In it, the 74-year-old master musician traces his evolution from classically trained pianist to playing with Miles Davis, revisiting moments in a music career that earned him 14 Grammys and even an Oscar for his score of Round Midnight.

When Rehm asks Herbie about his 1983 smash, “Rockit,” which represented a sharp departure from his work up until then, he says, “Well, it really comes from the hip-hop scene. But at that time, hip-hop was underground — primarily here in New York — and it hadn’t really bubbled to the surface yet. I had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time, with the right people. And it was my record that really brought hip-hop forward to be the cutting edge music recognized internationally.”

Herbie was not pulling a Kanye here, but telling it like it is. When “Rockit” was released in the summer of ’83, it sounded like the future. Boasting an infectious rhythm and an other-wordly melody, the record soared to the top of the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play charts, lingering for almost a month. In addition to the Grammy, the song’s cutting-edge video also copped five Spacemen at the very first MTV Awards in 1984, topping Michael Jackson, who won only three.

Only 17 when “Rockit” came out, Crazy Legs — iconic hip-hop dancer from the legendary Rock Steady Crew — says, “The fact that an artist of Herbie Hancock’s stature embraced and reached out to the hip-hop community and brought it into his world, I think that was a nice shot in the arm for hip-hop.” While the song undeniably helped pave the way for mainstream acceptance of hip-hop, the remarkable thing about it is the perfect storm behind its genesis.

We all have the natural human tendency to take the safe route — to do the thing we know will work rather than taking a chance. But that’s the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present. Jazz is about being in the moment at every moment. It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.
~from Possibilities by Herbie Hancock
Herbie wins a Grammy | Photo: Fotos International/Getty

In 1982, Herbie’s career prospects were not looking good. His foray into disco/pop was a certified flop — Lite Me Up, produced by Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, responsible for writing some of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits like “Thriller” and “Off The Wall.” In fact, Herbie had not had a hit since his classic 1973 album, Headhunters, which had spawned standards like “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man.” With only one record left in his deal with Columbia, he was heavily in debt to the label.

Luckily, he had a new kid managing him. Tony Meilandt, 25, had successfully promoted student concerts while at UC Berkeley, had a passion for music, and a nose for what was new and exciting. While sniffing around the avant-garde, no-wave scene that was happening in downtown New York, he was introduced to a band called Material, whose core included bassist Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn on synthesizer. Along with sound engineer Martin Bisi, this trio also constituted a production team, who at the time were making a lot of underground records for the French-owned label Celluloid.

“Tony was like, ‘This is kinda like Herbie’s last shot, would you be interested?’” recalls Beinhorn, of this chance opportunity to work with a faded legend.

“So he went back to L.A.,” says Laswell, picking up the story, “met with Herbie, and a very short time after that they came to New York, and that’s when the Roxy was blazing.” The converted roller disco at 515 W. 18th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district was where the Bronx came downtown, throwing the first hip-hop parties outside the borough.

“He had Herbie in the VIP room, which had these glass windows so you could watch whoever’s DJing,” Laswell continues. “And that night it was Bambaataa, D.ST, Jazzy Jay, Afrika Islam, Red Alert — that was the line-up — and I said, ‘Well, this is what’s happenin’ now.’ Herbie was like, ‘It looks like there’s a riot goin’ on.’ He didn’t get it.”

Regardless, Meilandt convinced Herbie to work with Laswell and Material, making a deal for them to deliver two tracks on spec. Before his death in 2004, Meilandt told me, “It did not take a whole lot of convincing because Herbie was very much ready to do something else.”

Located in a former factory in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, BC Studios was a 900-square-foot, raw space — unlike typical studios in that the control room was not separated from the live room by soundproofing and glass. Laswell and Bisi, who also lived there, had started the studio with an inheritance Bisi received from his parents, as well as money Laswell secured from producer Brian Eno, who had worked there for two months. Here, they set about the task at hand.

Beinhorn had recently purchased a brand new Oberheim DMX drum machine, which retailed for around $2,800 at the time. Only the second commercial drum machine on the market after the Linn Drum LM-1, rappers favored it for its big sounds. “I did the programming, but I didn’t know how to program a drum machine, so I had to teach myself,” Beinhorn recalls laughing.

Laswell had worked frequently with a Cuban percussionist named Daniel Ponce, whom he describes as, “a genius, like Ginger Baker or Tony Williams,” and he wanted to use him for this project. “I also thought the Batá drums had a tone that I hadn’t heard in any electronic music,” he says.

The Batá is a two-headed drum that comes in three sizes — large, medium, and small — and is usually played by three people. Ponce came alone to the studio that night, and, according to Bisi, he played all three drums. “Rather than it being an ensemble of three people playing Batá, he did three passes — one on each drum. Ponce essentially was a musician/priest, and all the rhythms he would play on those Batá drums were associated with a Yoruba deity. It was basically Santeria.”

Cuban percussionist Daniel Ponce

Beinhorn was also floored. “It was amazing because he knows these rhythms so well he was able to create the feel of three guys playing together.”

The track was slowly coming together.

Laswell wanted to use scratching as an element, so he called his friend Afrika Bambaataa and asked, “‘Who’s the guy I should use for the turntable?’ And Bam said, ‘Whiz Kid.’”

Whiz Kid & MC Globe, of Soul Sonic Force, had a popular record at the time, “Play That Beat Mr. DJ,” (Tommy Boy, 1983), which was one of the first records with scratching. “So I called Whiz Kid and he had just joined the army or some shit like that — he wasn’t available — so he told me to call his protégé, DJ Cheese,” recalls Laswell. Laswell wasn’t sure he wanted to bring a guy named Cheese to L.A., so he decided to use someone he already knew, D. ST.

D, who hailed from the Edenwald projects of the northeast Bronx, was one of the first hip-hop DJs to spin at the Roxy — even before the Zulus. “I was never a Zulu DJ,” he clarifies, “I was an associate of the Zulu Nation.”

D showed up at BC studio one night with some buddies in tow — a Puerto Rican gypsy cab driver from the Bronx, Mr. C. (“not that Mr. C, the original Mr. C,” says D.), and Booski, one of the MCs from his group Infinity Rappers. Though he brought his own turntable and some records, Bisi says, “I think Bill imagined getting creative with the choice of vinyl to scratch.”

There was a pile of Celluloid Records sitting on the floor, including a 12-inch called “Change The Beat” by Fab Five Freddy, which had been recorded by Material in that very same studio. At the very end of the record, there is a snippet of a guy saying, “Ahhh! This stuff is really fresh” through a vocoder. While one would naturally assume it was Freddy, who had been rapping all over the record in both English and French, according to Laswell, it was really the voice of one of his associates — a guy by the name of Roger Trilling, who happened to be in the studio during that session.

Grandmixer D.ST

“I took the ‘Change The Beat’ record and I took fresh, and I did that rhythm — if you see the end of Wild Style, that’s what I was doing, though I changed it a little — I did my ‘Good Times’ scratch with fresh,” says D, referring to the Chic hit “Good Times,” whose groove was also used as the basis for rap’s first-ever hit, “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979.

“Everybody was like, ‘Yo! That’s it,’” recalls D, who recorded his contribution in just one take. Because there was little else on the track besides the rhythm, D, a former drummer, had plenty of room to let loose and show off his skills. “That’s the first record with a musical style of scratching,” he says. “That’s the first time a turntable was used as a soloist instrument in an ensemble, you know what I’m sayin’?” Due to his choice of scratching that one word, fresh, “Change The Beat” also went on to become the most sampled song in history according to the website WhoSampled.com.

Before presenting the track to Herbie, they had to transfer it from 16-track to 24-track 2-inch tape, which was the industry standard for masters at the time. For this, they went to RPM studios, on E. 12th Street in the Village. According to Bisi, “We did some extras, like some little extra screwing around, and that’s where we did the Led Zeppelin stab. It’s essentially a sample, but we didn’t do it with a sampler.” Since samplers at the time were very new and expensive, and not your standard studio gear, he adds, “We did it with the repeat hold function of a Lexicon delay unit.”

Bill Laswell at Jazz Middelheim in 2008 | Bruno BollaertFlickr

Laswell had originally planned to sample a snare off the Led Zeppelin album Coda. “I put the record on,” he says, “and there was a distraction like a phone call or something, but the record was still playing. [The Lexicon] can only sample something for like a second, but it caught a sound, and it wasn’t the snare, it was a guitar chord.” Accidents being a part of the creative process, they decided to go with it, but in order to add the guitar stab to the track they had to manually play it in with a fader since midi recording was still its infancy.

Laswell and Beinhorn went to L.A. to deliver the track to Herbie at his home at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, just off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood — a residence formerly owned by the renowned composer Igor Stravinsky. When they played it for him, in the converted guesthouse-turned-studio behind the main house, Beinhorn says, “He didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” He adds, “So no one has a melody, right, so what happens is me, Bill, and Herbie are standing outside of Herbie’s studio for about 15 minutes, humming, and we basically composed the melody that way.”

Herbie actually used three different synthesizers for his parts, but he had to overdub each one of them — again because there was no midi on any of them. Then he wanted to add some scat phrasing through a vocoder, and Laswell and Beinhorn suggested some phrases culled directly from the lyrics to the 1982 monster hit, “Planet Rock,” such as “Rock it, don’t stop it.” The song finally had a melodic hook and title.

On a second trip to L.A. to mix the song, they brought along D.ST and Grandmaster Caz of Cold Crush Brothers. That session, held at legendary El Dorado Studios on Hollywood and Vine with engineer Dave Jerden, who went on to produce such groups as Jane’s Addiction, Alice in Chains, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, took no longer than an hour and a half. According to Beinhorn, “Dave told me Herbie came up to him and was like, ‘This is cool, isn’t it?’ ‘Cause he just had no idea at all. To me, it felt like a case of when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”

As soon as the song was mixed, they left for the airport with a reference copy on cassette. “We had some time to kill,” Laswell recalls, “so I said let’s stop at this speaker store. And we went inside and wanted to hear some different speakers. The guy in the store was going to play some bullshit rock stuff, so I said, ‘Here, play this. I want to hear how this sounds.’ And it was ‘Rockit.’” Laswell cranked up the volume. “When we played it,” he says, “there were all these kids from the neighborhood, and they gathered around us, and they’re like, ‘What the fuck is this?!’ I looked at D, and I was like, ‘That’s a hit record.’”

Sure enough, by the summer of 1983, “Rockit” was all over the radio on its way to becoming a Billboard #1 Dance hit. However, Laswell says, “I don’t think Sony/Columbia would have released it if not for the video. They totally didn’t get it.”

The quirky video clip, directed by the British duo of Kevin Godley and Lol Crème, the creative minds behind the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” video, gained instant traction on a new cable network called MTV. It featured robot-like mannequins — designed by British artist and inventor Jim Whiting — dancing, spinning, and gyrating to the infectious beat. Herbie himself appears only briefly, displayed on a TV screen in the background. At a time when the only black artist MTV was playing was Michael Jackson, the video turned out to be a major coup for Herbie, garnering eight MTV Award nominations.

In a music industry perpetually obsessed with the bottom line, “Rockit” represents the rare intersection of art and commerce. “It established that urban culture could be national,” Bisi says.

“That’s what it did, which is just huge. It’s a mind boggling accomplishment.” Beinhorn adds, “There was something about the whole project that really had this strange sense of kismet about it, ya know. Like it felt fated in some way to be something.”

Thanks to its success, Material was deluged with offers for bigger production work. D.ST, who was only 21 at the time, was asked to join Herbie’s band, with which he toured for the next three years. He says, “It was a bridge between young and old. It showed that new technology and new ideas can coexist with the old.” When asked how “Rockit” changed his life, D says, “Well, I’m in the Rock Walk of Fame, and there’s a whole bunch of people who will never do that shit. ‘Rockit’ was a path to that.”

Herbie Hancock rehearses onstage during the 57th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on February 6, 2015 in L.A. | Photo by Kevin Winter | WireImage

As for Herbie, his career was rescued from certain extinction and flourished. He went on to create several more forward-leaning electronic albums with Laswell, including 2001’s Future2Future with celebrated turntablist Rob Swift of the Executioners, who was inspired to become a deejay by D.ST. In 2013, Herbie received a Kennedy Center Honors Award for achievement in the performing arts.

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