“Rockit” by Herbie Hancock, an unlikely sound track in 1983, arrived as a completely tangential entry into the world of pop. But besides reaching the Billboard #1 dance hit that summer, it broke a number of other thresholds as well. Hancock’s single was the first by a black artist to be aired on MTV–aside, that is from Michael Jackson. Jackson occupied a very different space in the Hall of American pop along with a personal narrative of race and body arising from a rare medical condition.
Hancock’s “‘Rockit” on MTV, on the other hand, was a calculated use of pop to reconfigure the racialised body in the music industry’s designations.
“Rockit”‘s significance lies in the convergence of new intersectionalities of the body that arose in the eighties. This writing draws them together so that masculinity from black subculture and radical feminist theory from academia entwine in a new body politics that goes beyond the human. That is, the futureshock of the body that awaits us (to paraphrase the 1983 album
Futureshock that “Rockit” is a part of).
An expansive narration of the making of the “Rockit” sound track comes from journalist, musician, and filmmaker S.h. Fernando Jr., in his article, “How Herbie Hancock Crafted a Hip-Hop Classic“. We get to know the circumstance and serendipity that takes Hancock and his jazz mingling with blues and funk into a recording session with turntable artist Grandmixer D.ST, bass guitarist and producer Bill Laswell, and synth/drum machine programmer Michael Beinhorn. Out of this session, an hour and a half at El Dorado Studios at Hollywood, the track emerges.
It personifies Laswell’s concept of “collision music”, whereby artists from different genres come together to try it on; and it meshed well with Hancock’s rejection of anything predictable, to be willing to work blind, to avoid what he calls the “butter notes” as his mentor Miles Davis advised. Yet this could be read in many ways. On that recording session at El Dorado, Fernando Jr. writes, “Dave [Jerden, the sound engineer] 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.”
Fernando Jr. further recounts how the song got its first public airing: “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.'”
This is how one hit single came to present the new soloist of the pop world: the scratch artist with only the turntable as an instrument. Hancock had stumbled upon hip-hop and scratching barely a year before, through Malcolm Mclaren‘s 1982 song, “Buffalo gals”. The Sex Pistols producer took the hip-hop scratch out of the Black “hood” and subculture into the white mainstream. The transition has a story from its producer Trevor Horn. Given Mclaren’s compulsion to produce a cover of “Buffalo Gals” from Piute Pete‘s 1940s-era Square Dances album, Horn asked him, “Why don’t we do a rapping scratching version of ‘Buffalo Gals’?” So they flew over the hip-hop crew The World’s Famous Supreme Team from the Bronx to London, whose response was, “Nah, we can’t do that – that’s Ku Klux Klan shit. That’s what the Ku Klux Klan dance to.”
But then we learn how music, race, politics, and aesthetics came to be churned around in the hip-hop mill. And that in time led to Hancock’s “Rockit” to open up a new age of the body in pop. Key to this was the “Rockit” video without which the sound track may never have found the airtime. Fernando Jr quotes Bill Laswell saying, “I don’t think Sony/Columbia would have released it if not for the video. They totally didn’t get it.”
MTV did not show work by Black artists at the time, so Hancock went for self-erasure. “I don’t want it to look like a ‘black guy’ video”, he recounts saying in his autobiography
Possibilities. So indeed in the “Rockit” video, Hancock was to be seen, dowsed in blue filter, in very brief snippets on a portable TV screen with his synthesizer. The voice, meanwhile, is overridden by a vocoder to synthesize it. Hancock had exorcised the black association of the body. In its place were macabre white mannequins, droids jerking their way through the scratch mix.
A classically trained jazz pianist who spent five years as part of Miles Davis Quintet (1963–68), Hancock is also a practising Buddhist who chants “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” for an hour each day. Ideas about transcending the body could be as much a consideration as the erasure of the body in the “Rockit” video. Such ideas connect the strands of Eastern karmic philosophy of freeing the body from the wheel of life and representation to a Western civilizational thread of the body as taboo–from the Garden of Eden to Plato’s “the body is the tomb of the soul”.
Yet between erasure and transcendence lay contemporary re-workings of who are we and what we are – between man and machine, race and gender. And therein lies the significance of “Rockit” that takes us to the way the whole terrain of body politics was changing in the mid-’80s. Body politics allows us to intersect hip-hop and its black male gang-culture with radicalizing white feminist discourse coming out of academia. Through these we understand how pop came to enter a brand new age, its cyborg age.
Cyborg is a ’60s term for a hybrid being, a hybrid of machine and organism. Donna Haraway, a professor in the History of Consciousness Department at UCL declared in 1985 that we are now all cyborgs. Her Cyborg Manifesto first published in The Socialist Review writes, “By the late 20th century, our time, a mythic time, we are all …. fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”
For Haraway our ontology, our politics now belongs to the cyborg. The cyborg anthropologist Amber Case helps explain why this requires a new understanding of ourselves with the way we are now tooled up, clicking on screens and obsessively pressing buttons, etc.. The political space this comes to beget between biological essentialism and the cyborg hybrid is what we are left grappling with.
In Haraway’s manifesto, the cyborg is to free us from the pre-determined male authored world. The cyborg, she writes, “is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, post-modern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code.” For this undertaking she suggests, “we must never again connect as parts to wholes, as marked beings incorporated into unmarked ones, as unitary and complementary subjects. We must have agency – or agencies – without defended subjects.” By the latter, Haraway of course meant the “man, that is, the author of a cosmos called history”.
Yet this where the world of hip-hop with its techno-synthesis, its scratchy beats, its bodily rawness of rap and b-breaking enters the age of new intersectionalism, ironically, by its essentialism. An essentialism rooted in the only way hip-hop could come to be–all black all male. There are no shortage of accounts on how hip-hop started in south Bronx house parties in the late ’70s as narrated in New York Public Radio. Others pin it down to a specific party on a specific date. Aaron Millar in National Geographic writes it as such:
“On 11 August 1973, at a house party on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx, hip hop was born. DJ Kool Herc threw a party for his sister, Cindy, in the rec room of their apartment block. It was the first time all the elements of hip hop culture came together: breakdancing, graffiti artists, DJs and an MC.”
It took a few years before the hip-hop house party came downtown to Manhattan. Grandmaster Flash with ‘The Message‘ (1982) gave us the defining anthem. The house party was how the American shadow self also took the licence using hip-hop to intervene in the public domain in new ways.
How the tenor of street culture changed is storyboarded in films like Stan Lathan’s Beat Street (1984). The underground everywhere from Paris to Palestine had a new voice through rap. But the further hip-hop sound went, the further it loosened from its transgressions (of the body and sound).
The real explosion was hip-hop’s appropriation into pop consumerism with the different elements of hip-hop freely scattered into global space. We see that clearly in an alt-hip hop sample like M|A|R|R|S’s “Pump up the Volume” (1987) from the East London acid house scene. The homage to its roots is clear, Yo all you homeboys out in ‘Bronx, this one’s for you but it’s a male techno-capitalist cyborg, Rhythmatic, systematic world control extrapolating out into the entire universe.
In the passage of a hip-hop decade before the days of the internet we came to see how the narrative of the body fused with the meta-narratives of capitalism and individualism through technology. It’s a process that popular culture, in particular music, embodies transparently, if to also remind us how the body remains as the battlefield; the battlefield that we fight over as much as we run from. How the escapist dimensions of a cyborg body by which we are liberated from the gendered racialised biological body in turn creates a counter politics through another body.
This came through Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry’s “Zombie Manifesto” of 2008 as a direct critique of Haraway’s manifesto. The zombie originates from Haitian folklore, the dead slave body that comes alive to haunt its master. But it also reminds us of the slave master who then used the zombie to dissuade the slave in the plantation from suicide (so as to escape the treadmill of its slavery). The double bind here is that it applies as much to the enslaved as the free. The zombie manifesto transposes this onto the American dream and the treadmill of modern everyday consumerism. This is why the zombie cut so deep into the common psyche with films like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) followed by Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985) that invoke the underlying repressions of the American dream.
The zombie manifesto refers us to Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), which suggests that the individual, the hallowed subject of modern life, is a fiction. A fiction conjured by an economic structure to ensure greater domination. “What Horkheimer and Adorno and others illustrate is that the illusory separation of subject and object, the fata morgana [sublime mirage] of individualism, keeps happy the camp of zombies—the slaves to capitalism who are merely deluded into thinking that they are free.” In this delusion of free subjecthood and consumption as the means of fulfilment only the commodity fetish animates (subjectivises) life. At the same time, it objectifies the human subject. What remains is the living dead, the zombie who renders irrelevant the difference between the subject and object. The zombie thus counters Haraway’s cyborg, its claims to transcend the subject/object divide.
Screengrab from “Rockit” video
This conflict of the body as cyborg or as zombie comes to act out in a sublime way in “Rockit”. The video depends largely on the work of the English conceptual artist, Jim Whiting – a nomadic outsider with little time either for the art world or for state patronage. With the documentary series, South of Watford (1986), Nigel Miller delves into Whiting’s working language: the recycled assemblages from scrapyards as the dead matter of consumer culture that comes to find a second life. We see convulsing legs, wanking men, insecure pervs all writhing in agitated clothing, each one cobbled out of salvaged objects brought back to life from the scrapheap.
A decade later Whiting went on to set up Bimbotown a variété club in Leipzigk which the critic Julian Spalding describes: “the extraordinary creation of one extraordinary mind, human beings hunt and are hunted, drink and devour, fuck and get fucked, kick and get their kicks, all amid bucketfuls of laughter.” Whiting’s creations tell us how the discarded re-patched conveys who we are and what we are. He suffered from rickets as a child; thus it is not surprising that Whiting’s creations use frailties and weaknesses to make us all the more human.
Whiting shows us the dissonance between how we shape technology and how technology shapes us. His figures in “Rockit” use the sound track to open up the conflicts of the body in the road to come. They signal battles of the body yet to be framed. Between the cyborg transhumanists who believe science and technology will alter the human condition (for the better) transforming us into the “post-human” and the zombie, the living dead who warns that “we can get posthuman only at the death of the subject”, is not a new subject. The zombie is the post(mortem) human who returns. It returns us to our biological body – the body that in its everyday dies an untold number of deaths in its own denial forced by the modern configurations of gendered and racialised society.
This is what hip-hop in its raw essence released from the ghetto party only to be appropriated, co-opted by capital. The double fate of its subversion now tells us that we are bodies in a chain gang. That we are programmed, propelled by the need to perpetually consume. Never mind the PR images of cyber fantasies, Elon Musk’s Space X and so forth–they are only for our consumption. We do not go to the future; we are taken to it.
Yet if we can learn from seeing “Rockit” anew, it is in how Herbie Hancock slipped the body through the race filters with a naiveté that comes from his belief in chance. As he says in Possibilities, “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.” The video returns us to the ambition of Haraway’s manifesto to re-hash all of the permutations of our future body politics: “self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man…”.
Who decides how these permutations will intersect to create our future selves? In a future that opens as a game of chance, we may yet not be ordained as cyborgs to become zombies bound to the wheel of capital turned by the same old hand of Enlightenment white and patriarchal technology. But by the agency of chance, we can escape the clutches of that grip, to smuggle ourselves out piece by piece. Where to and how we get there is the futureshock of the body that awaits us.
Millar, Aaron. “New York: the birthplace of hip hop”. National Geographic. 19 May 2018.