Herbie Hancock & The Rockit Band: The Bill Laswell Years (1983-1988)

Herbie Hancock's Rockit Band Albums

Herbie Hancock, whose turning 77 today, is a musician who has consistently celebrated diversity in his sound. And most importantly, he did so without ever diminishing any sense of ethnic identification. That was particularly significant in his embrace of African percussion styles on his early 70’s Mwandishi trilogy. After his electronic jazz/funk triumphs with the Headhunters and a series of solo albums after,the music tide around Hancock had turned again. Hip-Hop’s emphasis on minimalist beats,turntables and sequencers swam in with that tide by the early 80’s.

After working with Rod Temperton in 1982, Hancock began an affiliation with bass player/producer Bill Laswell. Along with his group Material, Laswell was formulating a musical concept which he referred to as “collision music”. That meant taking unlikely but complimentary musicians, from different genres, and seeing where the sounds would land. Laswell was also a strong jazz funk musician himself-with an avant garde twist. This collision music concept dovetailed beautifully with Hancock’s vision. And the two recorded a trio of albums released in 1983,84 and 88.

Each of these albums showcase the Rockit Band,who also released a concert film with Herbie on VHS tape during this period. These albums were not only the first to bring the jazz/funk sound of the 70’s into the electro/hip-hop age. But they also did so by eventually incorporating elements of different world musics into the mix as well. I’ve done Amazon.com reviews on a couple of these albums. But am going to add some of my own commentary here for this overview of one of Herbie Hancock’s most commercially and creatively vital periods in his long and amazing career.


Future Shock/1983

Between 1980 and 1982,Herbie Hancock found himself in an important transitional phase musically. In 1981 he released the album  Magic Windows,a hardcore contemporary funk album whose final number-the instrumental “The Twilight” clone began the journey to what would inevitably occur on this album. Of course between that was an interesting musical side bar in  Lite Me Up,a pop-funk album very much in the vein of a Qwest type release and featuring such Quincy Jones luminaries as Rod Temperton and the Brother’s Johnson along with vocalist Gavin Christopher.

This made perfect sense with Herbie’s involvement with that group of musicians even earlier on. Few but Herbie could’ve guessed what his next musical move would be. During the earlier part of the decade,a new music was already beginning to emerge from the also gestating hip-hop genre. It was called scratch-very much an improvisational art that utilized turntables in a percussive manner. So Herbie rounded on the high diversified bassist Bill Laswell,leader of the avant garde funk band Material as well as Grandmixer DST on turntable for a shift in musical priorities that would be extremely relevatory. Not only for Herbie but for the music of the 80’s in general.

“Rockit” is of course a scratch icon song of it’s day-the song that altered Herbie Hancock’s entire musical priorities while at the same time maintaining a bluesy jazz melody amid all the vocoder,synthesizers,drum machines and turntabling from DST. “Future Shock”,an elongated version of the Curtis Mayfield 1973 message song from his Back to the World album is the exact opposite of how this album starts and continues-its a pretty clean percussion/Clavinet based funk groove,featuring a Mayfield like falsetto from the very capable vocalist Bernard Fowler,that is something of a contemporary redressing of the sound of the Headhunters.

“TFS” is one of my favorites here-a strong electro funk jam that still mixes in a clavinet and a powerfully melodic acoustic piano solo from Herbie towards the songs end. “Earth Beat” is very much in tune with Laswell’s Asian oriented musical approach-utilizing a lot of samplers and found sounds in rhythmic patterns. “Autodrive” again gets back into the more funky electro groove of the title song,again with a cleaner rhythm while “Rough” builds a heavy drum machine pattern with a very Arabic rhythmic/melodic pattern before going into a megamix bonus track of “Rockit” that includes not only songs from this particular album but also the synthesizer break from Herbie’s 1973 funk breakthrough “Chameleon” from his iconic album [[ASIN:B000002AGP Head Hunters]].

One factor of this album that even I often thought about was the fact that Bill Laswell is a producer/musician often known for an intense musical smothering effect. In short,anything he touches musically becomes almost totally his. That is part of his art though-even though he sometimes gets a bit lost in his musical journey by being a little too eclectic. But one thing that you can say about Herbie Hancock is that he is an artist with a very focused vision.

Whether through the musical filter of DST’s turntabling or Laswell’s playing and production,the album possess funk’s key quality that is even shown in how one tends to dance to it-a quality of controlled looseness. Though some of the pan-international rhythms and melodicism plays into this music,the focus is very much on the groove and the always high quality of Herbie’s own composing ability and musicianship. Of course this album did for him commercially,with “Rockit” especially what Head Hunters had done for him a decade before.

It established Herbie as a fully contemporary artist and even got him some video airplay (even on MTV) with his clever music video for the single. Herbie had made at least one album every year during the 80’s before this came out,most not his best known works and few actually still in print. Yet this stands as his 80’s breakthrough and,although it was by no means a comeback,much of its commercial success might be owed to the fact it somehow  appeared to be.

Sound-System/1984

With the success of Future Shock and its big hit “Rockit”,Herbie had made one significant musical contribution to the 80’s decade: he managed to put an instrumental dance record onto the pop charts and even the music video world. And opened up the door for other musicians such as contemporaries of his such as Jan Hammer to do the same. The following year Herbie was back in the studio with Bill Laswell to record the follow up to that album.

As he was in the early 70’s,Herbie was continually fascinated by how to combine the modern electronic/hip-hop sample/scratch oriented effects that interested him with the heavily Afrocentric variety of funk. Again on the heels of another possible cultural innovation,Herbie bought in the Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso,who played an electrified African string instrument called the Kora,which produced a reverb laden Harp-like effect. This would have the effect of extending even further on the musical revelations he’d made on his previous album.

“Hard Rock”,”Metal Beat” and the closing title track are all very much in line with the approach of “Rockit”,but the instrumental sound is very different. The rhythmic patterns,keyboard parts and the addition of the Kora on the title song especially infuse these songs with an enormous Afro-Latin quality about them-which draws out the expansiveness of the groove and manage to make the electronics of it seem totally non-rigid.

“Karabali” has almost no relation to these songs at all-its an almost totally African,almost Cameroonian Makossa beat type number built heavily around Suso’s Kora. “Junku” perfectly blends the tight and danceable electro-funk sound of Herbie’s with the same Kora sound. Bernard Fowler returns for another vocal number in the bluesy funk of “People Are Changing”,very much a generational cautionary take where Herbie delights on both synthesizer and acoustic piano alternately. The bonus track is an extended version of “Metal Beat”,which draws out the African percussion element even more.

Something tells me this album didn’t resonate with the public the same as its predecessor had. And it isn’t because the album is too repetitious of it. It actually isn’t at all. But the basis for all of the songs on this album are African oriented drum patters and different rhythmic ideas-with anything American blues based rarely being showcased. While this album is chocked full of massively grooving break dance friendly electro funk,the basis for it isn’t particularly American it all.

It takes the heavy Afro-Latin influence of the previous album to a whole other level in fact. In many ways,that makes this one of Herbie’s best albums of the 80’s as the music is extremely close to his heart in the sense of being technically futurist yet rhythmically grounded in the tradition of the Earth itself. Manu DiBango himself could extend on the sound from his album in particular on his own release from the following year Electric Africa. As for this,Herbie may very well have sparked the public’s interest in Africa and African musical rhythms during the mid 1980’s. So again Herbie himself gained some success for himself while being a trailblazer.

Perfect Machine/1988

By the time this final album from the Rockit band was released, Herbie Hancock had already recorded a live album with Foday Musa Suso entitled Village Life,which was released in 1985. He’d also contributed to the Dexter Gordon staring film ‘Round Midnight a year or so after this. Along for the ride with Laswell and the Rockit Band were Ohio Players lead singer/guitarist Leroy Sugerfoot Bonner and P-Funk innovator Bootsy Collins with his space base. Both funk veterans were than making comebacks. And Hancock really helped them along on this album too.

The open title track and the closing “Chemical Residue” adds a pronounced Asian pentatonic scale type melody and sound (often used by “neo geo” dance music icon Ryuichi Sakamoto) mixed in with the electro/hip-hop rhythms. “Obsession”,”Beat Wise” and the highly successful “Vibe Alive” all feature Bootsy and Sugarfoot’s well oiled funkiness into Herbie and Laswell’s grooves with near perfection. A remake of “Maiden Voyage” with the new composition “P.Bop” puts the original melody into that digitized grooves. And really bring out the melody and rhythm together in one vital place.

Perfect Machine may actually be the most funk and soul based of the three Bill Laswell albums. The Asian twist to some of the melodies continues the tradition of the 1980’s proving Duke Ellington’s musical theory very correct: that American culture overall was taking on more and more Asian style overtones to it. Each of the Rockit Band era Herbie Hancock albums explored the electro/hip-hop style of jazz-funk with an abundance of musical ideas. And this album represents a fine closer to this particular period of Hancock’s artistry.


One of the interesting things about the Rockit Band period of Herbie Hancock’s career is that, although it took place during my childhood in the 80’s, it was dancing around the living room with my father to Hancock’s 1973 funk remake of “Watermelon Man” that represented my first exposure to his music. Perhaps its an odd jumping in point. But upon hearing tunes such as “Rockit” and “Hard Rock” in the mid 80’s,it made clear how much breadth Hancock’s music had. Always wondered what came between 1973 and 1983 with his music. And was very happy to discover it over a decade later.

The Herbie Hancock/Bill Laswell collaboration actually marked the first time where Hancock was actually hitting on an innovative approach before his mentor Miles Davis did. By no means to imply any competitiveness between the two. But its interesting to wonder if Hancock’s earlier in the game hip-hop/jazz innovations didn’t inspire Miles with his posthumous Doo Bop album in 1993. At any rate,what Hancock,Laswell and the Rockit Band did on these albums did open the door for later jazz-funk hybrids. And represent how the younger generations of today generally remember Herbie Hancock.

 

 

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