Herbie Rides Again?
Jazz, Funk, and now Hip Hop — Herbie Hancock's done it all. We grab a few words with the great man.
Herbie Hancock's music and instruments have moved with the times; Bill Mukowski reports.
Walking up Fifth Avenue on the way to interview Herbie Hancock at Columbia Records' Manhattan office, one can't help but notice the prevalence of street-corner break-dance troupes pandering to tourists and passersby. Young kids, some as young as 10, perform their dizzying feats for loose change and scattered applause... And about half of them are breaking to Hardrock, Hancock's answer to the great success he scored last year with the instrumental Rockit from Future Shock.
In 1972, he had been introduced to synths by Patrick Gleeson, who played keyboards on Hancock's Crossings album. And the excursion into electronic keyboards and various hardware went on from there. As Hancock says to those who rail on about the "impurities" of electronics: "Getting into synthesisers was a natural evolution for me, not only because I'm fascinated with the possibilities of creating new sounds and colours, but because I have a streak in me that loves electronics, which is a carryover from when I wanted to be an engineer [he studied engineering at Grinnell College in Iowa]. I love gadgets and buttons, and they help me not only to make notes, harmonies and rhythms, but to be able to create from scratch the very sound that's gonna produce these notes."
Following the funk-oriented Headhunters, Thrust and Manchild, Hancock took a slight detour on the late-'70s albums Sunlight, Feets Don't Fail Me Now, Monster, Magic Windows and Light Me Up! These featured less sophisticated rhythms and harmonies.
It was a deliberate move toward simplification, beginning with Manchild, which Hancock defends: "We jazz listeners tend to like clever, complex treatments of simple ideas ninety percent of the time.
"But what I found out is that it's even harder to create something new, but without that complexity. We've been getting away from repetition for so many years that it becomes difficult to play something with a familiar sound and still make it new and fresh."
In producer Bill Laswell he has found a collaborator who is uncompromisingly fresh. As Laswell says about his work with Hancock on last year's Future Shock: "I just tried to recapture some of that energy I remembered feeling when I first heard Headhunters".
Coincidentally, Hancock says Rockit's melody was inspired by the melody for Chameleon, the hit track from that album: "Chameleon has a melody that's based on two notes played fast together. So I said, 'Wow, two notes. That's the basic foundation. How can I use two notes?' I decided that instead of it being the same two notes played real fast, I'd have two different notes played slow. So Rockit is like do-da, do-da, do-di-di-di. And Hardrock is the thing turned around."
Curiously, Hancock sees a direct connection between the new hip-hop influenced music and his old avant-garde meanderings with the sextet. "When I first heard scratching, the first thing I thought about was sound as it was used on Crossing and Mwandishi. I heard it from that standpoint; putting different sounds together."
"Whereas the funk albums like Headhunters and Thrust emphasised solo improvisation and had a lot of keyboard solos right up front, the sextet albums were more concerned with working with sound. And it's the same with these two albums. Future Shock and Sound-System are primarily focused on the juxtapositioning of all kinds of new sounds, even non-musical sounds used in a musical way. And now, because of the advent of the Fairlight and other digital synthesisers, we're no longer limited to the normal kinds of synthesiser sounds. For example, on Hardrock we sampled the sound of a train going over a track; a clickety-clackety kind of thing. And that became the basis for the keyboard sound."
On Sound-System, Laswell used an Oberheim DMX drum machine to provide the basic backbeat for the tracks he delivered to Hancock. But on tour, the Rockit band have been using a Yamaha RX-11.
Rounding out the tour band were D.St on turntables and Yamaha DX7; Jeff Bova on Oberheim OBX, DX7, Minimoog, Fairlight and Rhodes Chroma keyboards; Brathwaite on Fender Jazz Bass; J.T. Lewis on Simmons SDS5 kit; Anton Fier on Simmons SDS7 and an acoustic kick and snare; Foday Musa Soso on kora, chatan and talking drum; and Bernard Fowler on vocals, DX7 and Fairlight. All keyboards were MIDI'd together, and there were no amplifiers on stage; each group member going directly into the PA.
Hancock's equipment now consists of a Fairlight, a Yamaha GS1, a Memorymoog Plus, a Rhodes piano and Chroma, and an Apple computer. The keyboardist says laughingly, "I've got a whole new set of toys to play with."
Helping him use those toys on the Sound-System album was Rob Stevens of Manhattan's Evergreen Studio, who, together with Bill Laswell, recorded and engineered the project.
The recording of Sound-System was a very unorthodox process, as was the recording of Future Shock. Both albums were the result of bicoastal collaboration between Laswell and Hancock.
"The tracks were done in New York, cut on an Ampex twenty-four-track," says Stevens. "We recorded for about twenty-five days, at which point I did some rough mixes of everything we had. Then Bill went out to California with those mixes, played them for Herbie at Eldorado Studios in Los Angeles, which is where the album was eventually mixed by Dave Jerden. Bill gave Herbie cassettes to work with, at which point Herbie came up with melodies and auxiliary parts. He basically shaped and reshaped the contours of some of the stuff we did. For example, People Are Changing had a whole different harmonic structure before Herbie got to it. And he totally turned it around, brilliantly. And after three or four days lead time to work on some stuff, I flew out there, and we began recording him. We left four or five tracks open for Herbie to play with, and he did his thing on those tracks."
Recording Hancock, says Stevens, presented no problems at all, despite all of the hardware he was carrying.
"His garage had been turned into a keyboard museum. The gear that he has practically represents the history of the electric keyboard. It boggles the mind. He's got all the current state-of-the-art stuff like the Fairlight CMI, the Rhodes Chroma, the E-mu 4060 digital keyboard and the Apple II computers, plus he's got a lot of old things that are now fairly outdated in terms of technological advancements yet still serve a vital purpose. For instance, he's got a Minimoog, which is a monophonic keyboard that still gets one of the better synthesised bass sounds around. And he's got a Hohner clavinet that sounds just great. Nowadays, to get a clavinet sound, a lot of people are using clavinet programs on Oberheims or Memorymoogs or Yamaha DX7s.
"It was really a snap to record him because he knows how to use his hardware. So by the time it was all plugged into the Soundcraft console and the Ampex MM1100 he's got in his garage, all I had to do was bring it up and make sure nothing went wrong."
For Hancock's acoustic-piano parts on Karabli, Junku and People Are Changing, they used the Yamaha grand piano in his living room and ran cables from there directly into the tape deck. "We didn't go through the console because it's not really capable of handling some of the transients that the piano creates" says Stevens. "We used customized mikes made by Doug Sacks from the Mastering Lab in Los Angeles, went directly through those into preamps and plugged directly into the machine."
This patchwork method of recording may not be common, but it is clearly effective — ask the body-poppers and breakers!
Interview by Bill Mukowski