“Rockit” Science: ’80s Instrumental Pop in the Brave New (Digital) World

All right, I’ll admit it. I was among the underwhelmed and unconvinced when Herbie Hancock released “Rockit” in late 1983. Was this the same guy who had turned me — a small-town, middle-class undergrad music major of the “Caucasian persuasion” — into a shameless funk-fusion wannabe a scant decade earlier with his back-to-back LP releases of Head Hunters (1973) and Thrust (1974)? After all, Head Hunters was the first album by a jazz instrumentalist to go platinum, and — jazz purist arguments aside — it remained the best-selling “jazz” album of all time until Kenny G came noodling along in the late ’80s.

Plying my trade as a moonlighting musician in upstate New York during the period “Rockit” was released, I remember waxing philosophical (at least publicly) about Hancock’s inalienable right to “cash in” on the MTV phenomenon in order to receive greater financial rewards than he had reaped with his earlier and (at least in my mind) more artistically valid recording projects. Privately, I felt that he had dumbed things down a bit too much and that Chick Corea, Hancock’s primary keyboard rival at the time, would never have stooped so low.

In retrospect, I believe I understand better what Hancock was trying to accomplish with “Rockit”, the premiere airplay vehicle from his 1983 Future Shock LP. Black America’s hip-hop culture was in its infancy, and although it was not likely to die aborning, it nonetheless stood to gain substantial momentum in its maturation through overt endorsements by well-established and highly respected cultural players like Hancock. After all, Hancock — working alongside fellow Miles Davis Band alumni Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea — had co-authored a new musical chapter in the African-American postcolonial narrative throughout the ’70s, one that chronicled the free interplay of jazz improvisation with R&B sonic sensibilities and electronic sound synthesis.

When the urban cultural upheavals of the early ’80s began to suggest the need for a new chapter in that narrative, most of Hancock’s peers evidently felt more comfortable adding footnotes to the chapters they had previously written, in some cases padding their resumes in funk-fusion, and in others expanding even earlier chapters in what could be characterized as a neo-classicist approach to jazz. In stark contrast, Hancock plunged headlong into the world of loops, voice synthesis, MIDI layering, turntable scratching, and electronic drum machines, amassing admirers and detractors in near-commensurate quantities. Along the way he effectively “nudged the narrative” into new territory, aided by — and largely dependent on — a wave of new digital technology.

Right at this point in my retrospective musings, however, a paradox crystallizes in my mind concerning musical artists and their employment of technology. On one hand, musicians can use technical advances to create new cultural expressions, like turntable scratching or electronic loops of sampled sounds. On the other, performers can use such advances to expand upon — or embellish — older traditions, exemplified by Zawinul and Corea using analog synthesizers, rather than acoustic piano, to improvise solos during live jazz performances. In truth, these seminal electronic-era keyboard artists did much to advance the timbral palette of jazz by developing a virtual orchestra of analog (and later digital) sound textures.

More to the point, Hancock’s accumulated discography suggests that he eventually interwove both these approaches, if not seamlessly, then at least with admirable finesse. One example being 1996’s The New Standard, which, as a musical statement, convinced most jazz purists that their alarm over Hancock’s apostasy was perhaps premature. In my mind, then, “Rockit” serves as a case study of how such tensions between well-established and cutting-edge technologies play out in the sphere of popular opinion. Maybe my epiphany-in-embryo can be better understood by looking briefly at the phenomenon of instrumental dance music and its metamorphosis during the era of sound recording and iterative performance.

Instrumental music recordings have constituted a vibrant component of American popular music throughout the mass media era. From Scott Joplin’s ragtime performances recorded on player piano rolls to early jazz recordings by Kid Ory and King Oliver, pioneering musicians and media entrepreneurs provided mediated instrumental music as an alternative to live performances for dancing in a social setting. The demand for recorded music, and the lucrative market that demand created, motivated the nascent music industry to vigorously develop new and ever-improving technologies for capturing musical performances previously only accessible in real time. Progressive improvements in microphone design, magnetic tape recording capabilities, and electronic amplification eventually led to new ways of presenting both live and recorded performances.

Take for example the electric guitar players in ’50s Chicago that updated the sound of the Mississippi Delta blues, or the Hammond B-3 organ’s migration from black churches to jazz combos (and later into the R&B genre). In the same manner, reflect on how Leo Fender’s Telecaster guitar and Les Paul’s pioneering efforts in multi-track recording forever altered the landscape of popular culture. Then consider how trailblazing artists (Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix) and innovative rock-era producers (Sam Phillips, Berry Gordy, Phil Specter, George Martin) all exploited electronic technology to expand both the vocabulary and syntax of popular music.

Imagine attempts at youth empowerment in the ’60s without electric bass, overdriven guitar, wah-wah pedals, and Marshall stacks. Next, imagine the mature rock era of the ’70s without analog synthesizers, Mellotrons, and 16-track recording. Regardless of the example, the underlying cumulative effect of electronic media served to transform and re-imagine established forms of musical expression and to inspire new musical mutations based on specific technological advances.

What of those technological tensions — and their impact on popular discourse — alluded to earlier? Several examples from the third quarter of the 20th century come to mind. Leo Fender’s Tremolux and Vibrolux guitar amps contributed greatly to the soundscapes of surfer rock, but what was a “boss” new sound to some listeners was merely cheesy to others. The same could be said for the Vox and Farfisa electronic organs (and here I am confident that one listening to “96 Tears” on YouTube will drive my point home). Practices of this era also point out how innovation sometimes involves subversive use of more mature technologies. Consider Hendrix: as universally revered as he is today, his overdriven guitar sound, achieved by eliciting feedback from his tube amp and heavy-handed employment of his Fender Stratocaster’s vibrato arm (a.k.a. “whammy bar”), constituted an acquired taste for many when he first began to subvert their more traditional uses.

Now fast-forward to the ’80s, the era at the heart of my own retroactive listening reflections. Early in that decade, the microcomputer revolution led to a breakthrough in digital music technology known as MIDI (music instrument digital interface). Although most musicians applied these advances to pop vocal genres, a handful of artists utilized expanded multi-tracking capabilities to create a new chapter in instrumental popular music, including Czech expatriate Jan Hammer (of Miami Vice soundtrack fame), German film score composer Harold Faltermeyer, and Hancock, who was arguably the most highly regarded of these artists, given his enviable track record as a jazz pianist and composer of contemporary jazz and film scores.

Since MIDI instruments also facilitated the pre-performance recording of percussive rhythm patterns in a process called sequencing, forward-thinking musicians could grasp the possibilities of creating layered rhythms based on an African-derived aesthetic but produced largely by electronic means. This connection between polymetric tradition and the futuristic sounds of electronica resonated deeply with those involved in the genesis of the hip-hop movement.

This, then, was the cultural landscape of the early ’80s in which the vast possibilities of cable television, the inexorable transition from analog to digital music technology, and the creative restlessness of Herbie Hancock all coalesced. If we can remind ourselves that his “Rockit” video appeared within the first two years of MTV’s existence, that it came on the heels of the seminal hip-hop film Wild Style (1983), and that it sought to incorporate such features of contemporary urban culture as turntable scratching and electronic voice synthesis, we can appreciate just how prescient Hancock’s artistic vision was. We can also appreciate his willingness to deviate from the course pursued by most of his closest peers when he embraced those hip-hop cultural expressions and wove them into a new musical discourse, putting them on conspicuous display through heavy rotation on MTV.

That brings us back to the “case study” aspect of Hancock’s Future Shock project from which “Rockit” came, as it demonstrates how artists make informed choices concerning their employment of technology and how they strategically foreground certain cultural manifestations associated with that technology. These choices can encompass the integration of new technology (such as drum machines) or the subversion of established technology (such as the use of stereo turntables as ersatz percussion instruments through rhythmic scratching).

For Hancock personally, after two prior decades of critical acclaim, there followed a period of industry-wide awards and acknowledgements, along with considerable public esteem. He would win no less than 12 Grammys, an Academy award in 1986, and numerous annual jazz music poll victories, while “Rockit” alone would earn the 1984 Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance and five MTV Video Music Awards. For other aspiring musicians, the “Rockit” phenomenon opened doors for electronics-heavy instrumental pop creations, with television and movie themes in particular gaining wide exposure beyond their original contexts due to cross-promotion on MTV.

Those of us old enough to remember Reaganomics will also recall “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer and the Miami Vice theme by Jan Hammer, among others. “Rockit” also undeniably accelerated hip-hop’s journey to mainstream prominence. As one Manhattan-based music journalist wrote in Listening Post, “When the whole breakdancing thing started happening, ‘Rockit’ was the only song that any of us would ever, ever dance to.”

By now, of course, our ears are so inured to those early hip-hop sound collages that we hardly give them a second thought, but it was extremely bold for an artist not primarily associated with hip-hop culture to incorporate them into a unified aesthetic vision at that time. As I reminisce by watching Hancock’s live performance of “Rockit” at the 1984 Grammy Awards on YouTube, I can’t think of a better multimedia embodiment of noted hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose’s astute observation, articulated in an 1993 interview with cultural critic Mark Dery: “If we understand the machine as a product of human creativity whose parameters are always suggesting what’s beyond them, then we can read hip-hop as the response of urban people of color to the postindustrial landscape.”

In a highly palpable way, advances in music technology during the early ’80s influenced both the style and substance of black America’s response to the nascent digital age, with innovative media presentations like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” serves as a vibrant example within the historical archive that chronicles such cultural responses. Did that recording project turn this moonlighting musician into a shameless hip-hop wannabe? Not even close — but I can now look back and understand how one particular nexus of technology and popular culture led to an important new chapter in the African-American postcolonial/postindustrial narrative. Stated another way, I am no longer underwhelmed and unconvinced — rather, I am a little more open minded and a lot more appreciative of those who risk their professional reputations to keep popular discourse dynamic and engaging.

David Kammerer holds a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology and serves as an associate professor of music at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. His scholarship focuses primarily on popular music in the Pacific Islands, but more generally he aspires to make the world a safer place for serious academic inquiry into diverse manifestations of popular culture. He also composes and arranges music for chamber brass and for a faculty world-improv ensemble named Crosscurrent. His favorite iPod playlist alternates selections by Earth Wind & Fire and Tower of Power.