Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Embracing the Future with Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”
As an 11 year old, child prodigy, playing the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, young Herbie Hancock could never have imagined the transformative and expansive music career that lay ahead. However, in the past 60 years, Hancock has proven to be one of the most innovative and visionary musicians of the age. “I do what I want to do. I’m interested in people, I’m interested in music, I’m interested in learning about music and learning about myself,” Hancock told NME in 1983. His musical curiosity has led him through classical music, jazz, electronic music, rock, funk, disco and hip-hop. His 1983 hit single, “Rockit” not only earned him a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental, but has been cited as one of the most influential tracks in bringing DJ scratching into mainstream attention.
As a young musician, Hancock came of age under the guidance and mentorship of Donald Byrd and the legendary Miles Davis. In his memoir, Hancock credits Davis for teaching him how to take chances and explore new territories: “We had all learned – from Miles himself – that the secret is to keep moving forward, never look back. There are always new avenues to explore and new mountains to climb…” Indeed, like his mentor, Hancock would spend the next decades traversing new musical territories and fusions, and experimenting with innovative technologies and practices.
The spirit of exploration and imagination that Davis had encouraged him to embrace would characterize the years after Hancock left the Miles Davis Quintet in 1968. Throughout the seventies, he would experiment with fusions of jazz, disco, pop and funk, and embrace African and Indian musical influences alongside electronic devices and instruments. His 1973 Head Hunters combined elements of jazz with funk, and soul and became the first jazz album to go Platinum.
In 1982, Hancock was listening to a tape of music a friend had made him of some of recently released records. It was on this tape when he first heard Malcolm McClaren’s “Buffalo Gals” (a track that McClaren had recorded in response to first hearing scratching in New York). Hancock began seeking out other scratching records, immediately inspired by the technique. He explained: “I heard a looseness and a mixture of different sounds that contributed to the rhythms. Something only appeared maybe once or twice, things that didn’t have a real obvious structure. There’s structure in general, and then there are other things which are more like happenings of the moment. And I like that kind of freedom, that use of sound.”
Hancock wrote “Rockit” in collaboration with Bill Laswell, Michael Beinhorn. At the same time that Hancock had discovered Mclaren’s single, Laswell and Beinhorn had put together a series of rhythm tracks for him to consider for his next record, including the scratch track by Grandmixer DXT (D. St. at the time) that would become the basis of “Rockit.” Laswell recalled that all three were intent on placing scratching, not as a sonic novelty, but truly as the centerpiece of the track telling Ebony in 2013: “Working on ‘Rockit,’ we knew we wanted to use the turntable as the lead instrument.”
Before bringing it to Los Angeles for Hancock to record his part, Laswell and Beinhorn brought in DXT to scratch over what was basically a rhythm track. This gave him the freedom to really think of his part as a soloist – as the lead role in the piece. He explained: “That’s the first record with a musical style of scratching. That’s the first time a turntable was used as a soloist instrument in an ensemble, you know what I’m sayin’?”
At Hancock’s home studio in Los Angeles, they recorded Hancock’s contribution using three different synthesizers and layered in an Oberheim DMX drum machine. Then, they headed over to Eldorado Studios in Hollywood for DXT to record his final turntable sounds alongside Grandmaster Caz, Mr. C and Boo Ski.
According to Laswell, the song came together very quickly. It wasn’t until an impromptu stop on the way to the airport that they began to realize that they had a hit on their hands. He told The Quietus in 2009:
“The whole thing didn’t take very long. We didn’t really know what we’d done. We stopped at a store that sold a lot of speakers on the way to the airport because we wanted to kill some time. The guy went to put on a rock record and we said ‘No we don’t listen to that kind of stuff.’ We had a cassette of the rough mix we’d finished so we said ‘Play this instead.’ We played it and afterwards we turned round and there was just about 50 kids looking at the speakers, saying ‘What the fuck was that?!’ …I think there was [Grandmaster] Caz from the Cold Crush Brothers and D.ST and we all just looked at each other and everyone was ‘Oh shit! I think we might have something.’”
“Rockit” was released as a single in June, 1983 and included on Hancock’s album Future Shock, which came out two months later. The album’s title comes from a Curtis Mayfield song that Hancock had covered on the album, which in turn drew its inspiration from the title of futurist Alvin Toeffler’s 1970 best seller. In the book, Toeffler coins the term “future shock” to describe the perception of too rapid change in too short a period of time – a critique that staunch purists had laid on Hancock’s own musical evolution and genre-crossing tendencies in the decades leading up to “Rockit”.
However, in embracing the innovations of hip-hop and scratching, and fusing those with his own career and legacy as a jazz icon – Hancock offered that, perhaps, the anecdote to such experiences of “future shock” might just be the future. “Rockit” captures the exhilaration and energy of the future of music. He saw in scratching and hip-hop the same freedom and possibility that he had always sought in his experiences with jazz, and he shared it with his audience. DXT referred to “Rockit”’s legacy as “a bridge between young and old. It showed that new technology and new ideas can coexist with the old.”
When it was released, “Rockit” peaked at number 1 on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play charts and number 8 on the UK singles charts. It won a Grammy and the song’s music video brought home five MTV Video Music Awards. However, perhaps its most important legacy has been bringing hip-hop and scratching to mainstream audiences. Hip-hop dancer Crazy Legs (Rock Steady Crew) posits: “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.” Musicologists Mark Katz and David Vanderhamm credit Hancock and DXT’s performance at the 1983 Grammys as the inspiration for the next generation of DJs:
“Indeed many of the great turntablists of [DJ] Qbert’s generation only became DJs after seeing the pioneering DJ Grandmixer D.ST scratch a record in the televised performance of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” on the 1983 Grammy Awards broadcast. Many had heard the sound of scratching but they knew little about how it was created, and the practice was rare enough that few people had seen it demonstrated in person.”
With “Rockit” Herbie Hancock introduced hip-hop and scratching to the larger music community and audiences around the world. As Miles Davis had done before him, Hancock validated the future of music as an exhilarating journey to be welcomed and celebrated, encouraging audiences and generations of musicians to seek out innovation and embrace “future shock”