Hank Shocklee
Photo: Maarten de Boer / Pitch Perfect PR

Exploring the Hip-Hop Vibration with Hank Shocklee

Tying in his legacy to a new short film trilogy, legendary Public Enemy/Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee traces the line from his classic grooves to our modern sound.

YE! A Jagun Story
John Oluwole ADEkoje
Jagun Fly Productions / Shocklee Entertainment
TBA 2024

“Hip-hop,” Hank Shocklee says, “is a vibration”. Shocklee’s vibrations have traversed hip-hop history. They’ve wobbled through radios taping Kool DJ Red Alert mastermixes. They’ve pumped through cinema speakers relaying Radio Raheem’s Bed–Stuy boombox barrage. They’re felt in new-jack-friendly nightclubs playing Bel Biv Devoe and sticky rap bunkers blasting 3rd Bass. They’ve crossed coasts, coolin’ in Cali with The 7A3 and bruising cerebellums up the block with Ice Cube.

Right now, the vibrations from his voice project from my laptop speakers, having first been recorded into a microphone in his New York studio and converted into digital bits through a process called sampling. Shocklee knows a thing or two about sampling.

His production crew, the Bomb Squad, used sampling to concoct a new and unmistakable hip-hop sound, a concentrated collage of Black musical history skewed into cacophony. The sound of a sampler straining tension through its teeth. Their vibrations backed Public Enemy‘s rallies for education, freedom of speech, and Black solidarity, creating some of the most politically outspoken popular music of the 20th Century.

Shocklee can be credited for lots of vibrations, but to him, the vibration called hip-hop is universal. Not a format, but a feeling. “It’s a vibration more than it is a genre, so to speak,” he says. “Because you can’t bottle it. You can’t sit there and say what the format is. You can’t sit there and say, ‘Okay if you put these progressions together, you put this horn arrangement on top of it, you put these vocals in it, then you got hip-hop.’ That’s not what hip-hop is.

“Because if you do that, and you can do that very well, that record might not appeal to anybody. And why does it not appeal to anybody? It has all the elements that should appeal to everybody, but it doesn’t. So what is it missing? It’s missing that x-factor. And what is that x-factor? That’s that vibration.”

Ramble Jon Krohn, the producer known as RJD2, first heard Public Enemy’s vibrations at age 12. Yet to nab his high school degree, let alone an MPC, RJ confused “Night of the Living Baseheads” for noise pollution piped in from outer space. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m even listening to,” RJ says, recalling the experience.

“I could listen to Led Zepplin IV at the age of 12 years old and envision Jimmy Page playing a guitar. That sounds like it’s coming from Earth. Paul’s Boutique sounds like it’s maybe from Mars. In that solar system, Public Enemy was the farthest shit out. It was so far out, sounded so foreign, that it was almost completely devoid of having any sensibility around what I had previously thought of as a performance. It was simultaneously so organized and so chaotic. That disparity made it such an intense listen that for years, I was just like, ‘How is this music even made?'”

The answer lies in Shocklee’s process. “You can create a hyper-realism that doesn’t exist in the live world,” Shocklee says.

By “live world”, he means live music, as in music performed by real musicians in real-time inside a real venue built with real-world materials and filled with real people. 12-year-old RJ would be forgiven for reading “reality”. Imagine the Shocklee brothers as alchemists transfiguring saxophone squawks into an aural rendering of freebase effects.

“Please don’t confuse this with the sound,” Chuck D raps on “Night of the Living Baseheads”. He seems concerned listeners might mistake PE’s “dope jam” for what the Controlled Substances Act classifies as a Schedule II drug. As if the “live world”, through a script flip of sensory perception, could dose listeners faster than Chuck can yell “Bass!”

“Now keep in mind that the live world is still a great medium,” Shocklee says. “I’m not an advocate for one over the other. I don’t look at sound the way most people look at sound. I don’t look at sound as being good or bad. I just look at each frequency as being different from each other.”

Shocklee’s contributions to the Bomb Squad sound came from combining the frequencies of live and recorded music. He traces this interest back to a childhood spent listening to live bands, his nascent 45 collection, and his father’s 210-gram audiophile pressings of jazz records.

“I was a record collector since I was five years old,” he says. “I was collecting early 45s. I also lived next door to a band, so I got a chance to see how bands communicate through their instruments. By being able to see that and then see the recording process, I saw that there was a difference between the two. When you go see a live concert, you’re hearing the instruments almost separated, so you don’t really grasp the understanding of it until you actually hear it on a recording. Because then the recording is pretty compressed. All the instruments are well-manicured, and so you don’t really hear the individuality of the tonalities coming from the instruments.

“That gave me a different perspective on the music because I thought that all live musicians should sound like the record. I couldn’t understand the differences. And so that’s why I started DJing. I found out that when you’re listening to the record, it evokes a different kind of energy than it does when you’re watching it or listening to it in a live performance setting.”

Shocklee began DJing as a teenager in the mid-1970s, spinning records at the Roosevelt Youth Center in Long Island. In his hip-hop history book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang goes as far as to deem Shocklee “the Afrika Bambaataa of Long Island.”

In the early 1980s, Shocklee transmitted hip-hop’s vibrations – 12-inch singles from crews like the Treacherous Three, the Disco Four, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – over the New York airwaves. Spectrum City, the DJ collective he started with his brother Keith, hosted a radio show on WBAU out of Adelphi University called the Super Special Mix Show. When they started running out of records to play, they improvised, bringing in Chuck D and other MCs from the neighborhood and recording their own rap tracks to fill the runtime.

“When you’re DJing with vinyl, and you happen to be using one record that you’re going back and forth between for a period of time, after a while, the groove in the record gets a little worn out,” Shocklee recalls. “You start to get that hiss that comes in … That, to me, was the area that gave it that extra excitement. It was cool to hear the beats coming through this haze of white noise, but it wasn’t exactly an overlay of white noise. It was white noise that had a pulse to it. And that to me is the advent of hip-hop and what hip-hop was and what it represented.”

Few DJs have indulged in vinyl’s crackle and pop more than Eric San, who records maximalist turntable patchworks as Kid Koala. He constructed his latest album, Creatures of the Late Afternoon, by recording each instrument, pressing the recordings to vinyl records, and cutting them up with wrist work that would have Terminator X buck whylin.’

San was influenced by the densely layered calamity of Bomb Squad productions. These days, he probably hears a lot of surface noise on his 12-inch copy of “Night of the Living Baseheads”, one of the first records he bought as a teenager with the money he earned from his newspaper route. He practiced his cuts with the “Anti-High Blood Pressure Encounter Mixx”, which explodes from the dead wax with transform scratching, a record speaking on how to defile itself down to the grain. San obliged.

“That record traveled with me in my crate all the time,” he says. “I know it from just practicing on it and knowing where the different sounds are, how they’re laid out, how to scratch and rephrase things off it. It was sort of like my first battle record.”

The hip-hop vibration is best felt in the mix. The DJ slides the fader, stabs the downbeat, blends out the bridge, and drops in the bass. These maneuvers stitch the set together, adding dynamics and flair to the process of keeping bodies in motion. Soundwaves crest and plummet. The crate empties. The stack of records spun wobbles like a cartoon skyscraper. The rhythm compels people to the floor. The groove settles in their muscles, causing heads to bob back and forth. A mix is like a river. Its pace changes gradually, and though its beauty is distinguished by passing discrepancies – a water lily, a school of colorful fish – its power comes from incessant flow.

Mixing records is the act of making repetition interesting. It’s also the act of using repetition to delve deeper into a feeling, a state of mind, a vibration. Repetition is the bedrock of hip-hop. Shocklee understood this from his time spent DJing, and it caused him to approach his productions through one of the genre’s inherent tensions. “At what point does something become musically satisfying?” he asks. “At what point does it become just an irritation and a noise?

“I think that repetition is that mid-point,” he continues. “When something repeats itself too many times, it becomes kind of boring. Anybody can do that from the musician’s perspective. But from the listener’s perspective, it adds a different element. Now, I can dig and dig inside the groove. Now, I can blow up a certain portion of a passage, and I can just get inside that portion. Normally, when I was to listen to that record in its fullness, I would just hear that little portion, and it goes by so quickly I never get a chance to appreciate it. So now you got this kind of macro lens into that little section. That’s the thing that got me excited on my journey: the art of repetition and the art of taking small bits of information and blowing them up to become huge.”

Public Enemy blew up with their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Chuck D’s rhymes had achieved the gravitas of rhetoric, his flow flourishing at street level while aimed at the elevated podium of seedy politicians. Flava Flav had perfected his role as the group’s spark plug, generating enough hype-man wattage to explode streetlamps when kicking his “flyest dope maneuver technicality.”

The Bomb Squad’s beats bustled beneath the rhymes, providing the backbone for missives against the US prison industrial complex, the US military, junk-food television, tardy first responders, and myriad dispensers of racism. Loops of classic funk frequencies bristled with static as if an ant colony had blasted through the channel outputs of their SP-1200. The album consummated the Bomb Squad aesthetic, a sonic interplay between live-on-stage gusto and late-stage deliberation.

“I’m listening for excitement,” Shocklee says. “Sometimes the excitement is not in the perfection, it’s in the flaw. If the flaw is happening at the right moment, it becomes a part, and that part lifts the song up.”

For Earl Davis, who produces music as Damu the Fudgemunk, this facet of the Bomb Squad sound serves as a lesson on how to keep his records raw. “When I think about all the technology today,” Damu says, “the MPCs have gotten better, the software, the way we use computer recording. We’ve been given the ability, even just from the way that we communicate in the digital realm, to publish our ideas with no imperfections … At some point, you lose the human element because you can be so precise.”

“For me, the biggest takeaway from listening to a Bomb Squad record is leaving a lot of the imperfections in there. Now, the human element is still in the music. You can go back and you can actually hear a part of my spirit in the music versus there just being this perfect product because I like to look back on my records and things that I create and hear that they’re alive.

“Even though I use terms like imperfections and flaws, those Bomb Squad records are perfect, in my opinion. They’re great, but they’re alive when I listen to them. Because of the imperfections, you can’t necessarily replicate that. Kind of like a Picasso, you know? His approach wasn’t textbook, so you have to recognize that this is a one-of-one. When I listen to a lot of those Bomb Squad records, they’re one of one.”

The Picasso comparison is apt. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Shocklee compared his process to the collage works of Romare Bearden, stating that he set out “to take colors and put them in ways that people would not think that those colors should be there.” Initially unconcerned with musicality, Shocklee wanted “to prove that it was the records that inspired [him].” The literal dissonance generated by Shocklee’s approach to sampling evokes the writer Donald Barthelme, whose stories were products of literary collage. In his essay “Not-Knowing,” Barthelme discusses how the magic of literature is created through “the combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together.” Replace “words” with “sounds”, and you have an accurate description of Shocklee’s production style.

Shocklee’s approach to sampling can also be viewed as a curatorial practice. The sonic collages built from his record collection serviced Public Enemy’s resolutely Black perspective, bolstering the lyrical content with a sonic world grounded by the art of Black American musicians. “As a DJ, you can hear a lot of the staples of music that was common in the Black experience,” Damu says. “There’s a lineage there.”

“When you’re thinking of the 1960s and 1970s, and especially just as Blacks were finding their voice at that time, all the way up to hip-hop, you have Motown, the Temptations, of course, James Brown, New Birth, Funkadelic, etcetera. A lot of these artists built the foundation for hip-hop. I don’t know if that was deliberate, but just the fact that it’s there and it’s very prominent in the grooves of [Public Enemy’s] music, the same way you can think about breakbeats with Kool Herc and so forth. ‘Welcome to the Terrordome,’ that’s the Temptations, but the way it’s hooked up, it’s presented in a completely different way. It’s a reimagined way, but someone two or three generations back can go, ‘Wow, they’re taking music from my childhood.’ It’s been passed on from generation to generation. By the time I was listening to Public Enemy, I’m hearing hip-hop and Motown at the same time.”

Conversing with Hank Shocklee is as dynamic an experience as listening to his records. He gets excited. He gushes about Megan White’s tom rolls on White Stripes records. He talks about his favorite rock band, the Beatles, explaining how Ringo Starr was “the glue” in the band because “the simplicity of his beats made the whole thing gel together.” He celebrates the studio contributions of inept musicians, outlining how a clumsy bassist challenges a masterful drummer in a way that injects energy into the recording. He says that “you get the most interesting vibrations” not from “any one person’s flavorful totality” but from the tension natural to interactions between human beings, “a combination of this push and pull where everybody’s trying to compensate for the next situation.”

“I think that the area where people get it twisted in terms of music is that everybody is looking for this musical messiah, so to speak. The Svengali. The person that does it all. I never looked at that being a viable process. There are some people who are genius at it: Prince, Stevie Wonder, for example. Those are the two that come to mind. But everybody else is good in their ways and weak in ways as well. The idea is being able to take the strengths and weaknesses and balancing them out so that you get a good piece of music.”

He discusses low-frequency oscillators and note velocity and enlivening variations on conventional verse-chorus-verse song structure. He imagines a dance track arranged in the manner of “a Bob Marley Rasta-man vibration.” He sketches a vocal approximation of a 1990s boom-bap beat (“b-boom-b-tat, b-boom-boom-tat!”), a primitive low-pass filter created by jiggling a plug into an SP-1200 output jack (“woom-woom-woom”), and death metal (“blaaaah!” and “da-ah-ah-ah-ah-arrrou!”).

He arrives at the intersection of his work and “what the ambient guys are doing now”, unspooling “infinite loops” that “become a timeless motion”, a pool of textures and variations in which “the human brain can’t comprehend where the beginning and end starts”. My brain is a closed-loop cassette tape sustaining infinite overdub.

It would be inaccurate to compare Shocklee’s conversation to a stylus skipping on wax. It’s more like he burrows into a subject. He seems engaged not in the act of rattling off a long-held belief but in wracking his brain to discover a fresh way to approach some aspect of the creative process, whether it’s dreaming up experiments in song arrangement or considering what lessons can be gleaned from close listening to jazz improvisation. He rarely references specific tracks. Almost everything is discussed in the present tense. At times, it feels like we’re brainstorming new ways to generate the hip-hop vibration; the interview as an act of collaboration.

In fact, Shocklee’s ideas about creativity are often inseparable from the collaborative process. Combine this with his perspective that sounds are not “good or bad,” only “different from each other,” and it makes perfect sense that he has carved out a second career composing film scores. He produced his most recent score, for John Oluwole ADEkoje’s film YE!, with the goal to blend the sound design and score with the dialogue, regarding each as an inextricable part of the same process.

“How you work with somebody is all based on who’s in front of you and what their relationship is to their particular persona and art. That’s how you want to look at music and art and film and everything … When you’re working with an artist your mission is just to try different kinds of ideas in front of them. Whatever idea they gravitate towards, or however their frequencies bounce off that frequency, that is where the art of exploration begins.”