Artist: Herbie Hancock
Description: single; album track, Future Shock
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983
Herbie Hancock may not even have been previously known by the generation that learned his name anew from Rockit, an out-of-the-blue instrumental hit that was so of its time, so cutting edge, so future-shocking, it would have seemed inconceivable that its creator had his roots in 1960s jazz. But Hancock – classically trained, something of a prodigy, but one who “learned” jazz with his ears – was no stranger to changing the game. As a pianist, he’d been sought out by Miles Davis for his egalitarian Second Great Quintet in 1963, where he was able to fuse elements of free jazz into something more structured.
It’s perhaps ironic that Davis’s interest in other music – soul, funk, even rock – led to the dissolution of the Quintet in the late 60s, because Hancock would prove just as open to other forms, expanding into soundtracks and experimentation with electronic instruments. Like a freeform shark, he kept moving – and still does. These days, aged 74, he’s indentured at UCLA and Harvard, lecturing on “the ethics of jazz”. Nice. And here, in the early 80s, when hip hop and electro ripped up the road map out of the ghetto, he was, Zelig-like, nailing a whole new hybrid sound to the gatepost along with fellow explorers bassist Bill Laswell and synth scientist Michael Beinhorn.
Scholars usually cite Rockit as the first hit to feature “scratching”, although Malcolm McLaren’s seminal Duck Rock album landed the same year, preceded by its early-adopting Buffalo Gals single, which as well as popularising synchronised skipping and South African sounds, also prominently showcased turntablism – a new, tactile artform unpacked by McLaren in the album’s sleeve notes as “a technique using record players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar with the needle of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of a record.”
No matter who beat whom to the North Pole of the patent office, Rockit was a hit in over a dozen countries, exploding like a rocket. There was no rapping or singing on it, just a galloping robot beat injected with sampled brass bursts, a side order of extraneous bongo, an almost atonal riff on bold, squelchy synthesiser and – dig it – a needle being moved manually across the surface of a gramophone record. Actually, to be pedantic, it’s the surface of a gramophone record being moved manually under a needle by New York’s Grandmixer DXT, the Bert Weedon of groove-wristing. It was science fiction that announced: greet the new dawn. The moreish Godley & Creme video, which featured android legs and torsos created by artist Jim Whiting, helped to make Rockit an event.
I remember hearing Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock for the first time and recognising a tectonic shift happening before my very ears, but Rockit was universally bought and loved. It crossed over, without, to my mind, losing a gram of its avant-gardist, underground veracity. Pretty soon, graffiti and baseball hats and rapping would be used to sell yogurts, but the subculture remained thrilling for a number of years. And Rockit does not lose its shine with the passage of time. The breaks where it’s just scratching and a vestige of the beat are pure circus.
There’s no lyric to unpack, beyond a punctuation-mark “Come on, y’all” towards the close. The music does the talking.
If it were just historic, it would be something. But to still induce dancing 30 years later is something else.
I know one thing: all this scratching is making me itch.