Black music, especially jazz, has never been afraid of change. Since strutting out of the Storyville whorehouses where piano players and horn blowers created the new sounds in the social areas of ancient hoochie-coochie spots, jazz has gone from its traditional roots to explore various timbres, textures and tones. But from hot to cool, traditional to bebop, formal to avant-garde, sometimes jazz fans find it difficult to appreciate the next school of sound.
Years before Robert Glasper began ruffling the sensitive feathers of jazz lovers by dissing Thelonious Monk as well as the conventions of “what is jazz,” keyboardist Herbie Hancock was at the forefront of musical change. The piano/synthesizer playing brother critic Stanley Crouch loves to hate, Hancock was a classical piano prodigy as a boy growing-up in Chicago. “I hated jazz when I first heard it,” Hancock told Musician magazine in 1985. “It sounded like noise to me.”
However, when Herbie was 14, jazz was heavy in the Chicago air, and he was introduced to the art of improvising via a kid his own age. “Chicago is a highly musical town,” author Ytasha Womack says about her and Hancock’s native city. “Music is everywhere.” A few years later, majoring in engineering at Grinnell College in Iowa, Hancock realized that jazz was going to be his life. Returning to the Windy City in 1960, he took a gig at the post office while also becoming an in-demand session musician.
After being swooped away by Donald Byrd, he landed in New York City and was signed as a soloist to Blue Note Records two years later, where he stayed for eight years. Recording the original versions of well-known staples like “Watermelon Man,” “Cantaloupe Island” and “Maiden Voyage” during that same period, Hancock also started playing with Miles Davis in 1963. “The music Herbie Hancock made with Miles on records like Miles in the Sky, Filles de Kilimanjaro and In a Silent Way had a very composer kind of vibe,” explains Burnt Sugar keyboardist Micah Gaugh. “When he wanted to, Herbie Hancock could be very straightforward, but he also knew what was going on in the world.”
Certainly, what was going sonically in the world in the early 1970s was rock, funk and the freedom to try something new without fear. Having left both Davis’s group and Blue Note in the dust, Hancock signed with Columbia Records in 1972 and got into a whole new thing. Like his mentor Miles Davis with records like Bitches Brew, the pianist was making a conscious effort to merge jazz with what “the kids” were listening too.
Those cool cats got rid of their suits and started dressing flier and looser than ever before. They drove foreign cars, dressed in custom designed clothes and traveled all over the world playing music. “Herbie has always been that dude with swag,” Micah continues. “He is like the James Bond of jazz.”
Producer Brian Bacchus explains, “When Herbie did his first Columbia album Sextant, he was getting into using these crazy keyboards to get various sounds. Herbie had been listening to James Brown, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield, and he was ready to funkifying jazz. Those were the kind of grooves he began bringing to the music.”
The following year, Hancock recorded his groundbreaking fusion album Head Hunters and changed the game. Adopted by the non-jazzbos who were always in need of new weed toking soundtracks, Head Hunters went gold, a rare feat for a jazz record. For those of us coming of age in the 1970s, listening to the Head Hunters album was itself a rite of passage.
“I was not trying to make a jazz record,” Hancock told Musician. “It came out sounding different from anything I could think of at the time. But I still wasn’t satisfied, because in the back of my head I wanted to make a funk record.” Head Hunters is just one of the discs included in the upcoming massive Legacy Records box-set Herbie Hancock: The Complete Album Collection 1972-1988. The retrospective of 34 discs includes Thrust, Man-Child, V.S.O.P., various albums only released in Japan and Future Shock (featuring his 1983 Grammy winning single, “Rockit”) are also a part of the set.
“I grew up listening to Herbie and was really into what he started doing music with electronics in the ’70s,” says “Rockit” producer Bill Laswell. “Later, Herbie and I did three albums together, and the process was always pretty quick. Working on ‘Rockit,’ we knew we wanted to use the turntable as the lead instrument. I did the music in New York, flew out to L.A. where Herbie added his keyboards, and we mixed it in a few hours.”
A sound collage containing snippets of Afro-Cuban music, as well as Laswell’s own bass playing inspired by Pharaoh Sanders, it was the scratching of Grand Mixer DXT that made this song into a break-dancing anthem as well as a revolutionary piece of music. According to the pioneering turntablist, Hancock was bought by Laswell to see him spin at the Roxy, the popular downtown hip-hop club in the 1980s, and Herbie was impressed. “As history shows,” says DXT, “‘Rockit’ did a lot of damage.”
WordSound label owner, producer, and recording artist S. H. Fernando Jr. is currently working on a documentary with Bill Laswell. “I remember being in grammar school when ‘Rockit’ was released and it changed my life,” he recalls. “I used to break-dance when I was a kid and ‘Rockit’ was our anthem.” Over the years, Laswell, who’s worked with a diverse roster of folks including Bootsy Collins, Sly and Robbie and Mick Jagger, has also collaborated on various projects with Fernando.
“When I first met Bill, the only thing I knew about him was ‘Rockit.’ I thought of him and Herbie as hip-hop heroes. When I started going back listening to older material, I realized how much his work has been sampled.” The short-list of artists who have sampled Hancock includes Mobb Deep (“Shook Ones Part II”), Pete Rock (“[Pimp] Strut”), J. Dilla (“Zen Guitar”) and Organized Konfusion (“The Extinction Agenda”).
Indeed, Hancock’s music has long inspired creative folks working in various mediums. “Although I usually paint in silence,” says painter Danny Simmons, “either before or after I’ll find myself listening to the wildness of Head Hunters or the more classic V.S.O.P. album.”
Looking at the spacey album covers for Flood and Thrust while listening to the equally otherworldly music, it’s obvious Herbie Hancock was another Chi-Town Afrofuturist unafraid of flashing his sci-fi side. Writer Ytasha L. Womack, who penned Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Culture, says, “Listening to Herbie Hancock’s early ’70s music, he clearly was exposed to the ideas of Sun-Ra and the [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. Herbie built the bridge between trained musicians and users of technology. He clearly found innovation exciting, but he was one of the few jazz artists who could experiment and still be mainstream.”
Funk music expert and Bay Area DJ Rickey Vincent, also a Herbie Hancock aficionado, cites the funky, disco inspired Feets Don’t Fail Me Now as one of his favorite albums. “Herbie wanted to reach the future of music. His work was always on the cutting edge and nothing ever felt forced, no matter what he was doing.
“Feets Don’t Fail Me Know is a real funky dance album. Songs like ‘Ready or Not’ and ‘Honey From the Jar’ was disco at its best, but Herbie put his own stamp on it. Meanwhile, a resource like AllMusic disses it and gives it one star, simply because they don’t understand what he was doing.”
Currently, Herbie Hancock 73 and still doing his thing. In 2008, he won a Grammy for Best Album of the Year for River: The Joni Letters. A tribute album of Joni Mitchell covers that became so much more under his guidance, it featured the vocal talents of Norah Jones, Leonard Cohn and Tina Turner. Says Bill Laswell, “When it comes to making great music, Herbie still has a light around him. He’s a winner.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.