Herbie Hancock is a renown jazz musician who joined Miles Davis' band in 1963. Davis taught Hancock the importance of experimentation, and about how you can achieve excellent results by letting the people working with you experiment as well. And while jazz purists wanted no part of this electro classic, it created a fresh new sound thanks to the production of Bill Laswell and the turntable work of GrandMixer D.ST, who each got the green light from Hancock to do their thing.
Laswell is a bass player who produced the track. Known for creating "collision music," he brought elements of electro, fusion jazz and hip-hop to "Rockit." GrandMixer D.ST, later known as DXT, was a disciple of Kool Herc and one of the first popular DJs on the New York hip-hop scene.
Bill Laswell explained how this song came together to The Quietus
: "I got a call from a guy who knew Herbie who told me he wanted to put together some tracks. I went to New York, saw Bambaataa and people DJing at the Roxy and I don't even think he was really paying attention but after that night out I said 'I'll come to LA in a couple of weeks and I'll bring a couple of rhythm tracks.' So we just recorded very quickly in a basement in Brooklyn. We didn't really know what it was. We took it and Herbie played over it for an hour or two and then it took like another hour to mix. The whole thing didn't take very long. We didn't really know what we'd done. We stopped at a store that sold a lot of speakers on the way to the airport because we wanted to kill some time. The guy went to put on a rock record and we said 'No we don't listen to that kind of stuff.' We had a cassette of the rough mix we'd finished so we said 'Play this instead.' We played it and afterwards we turned round and there was just about 50 kids looking at the speakers, saying 'What the f--k was that?!' [laughs] I think there was Grandmaster Caz from the Cold Crush Brothers and D.ST and we all just looked at each other and everyone was 'Oh s--t! I think we might have something.'"
This was the first hit song to feature scratching, and for anyone not familiar with hip-hop, it was the first time they heard the sounds of a record being manipulated on a turntable to the beat. The technique was pioneered by the DJs Grand Master Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore, who performed throughout New York. Flash explained: "Scratching is just cueing the record. A deejay has to back-cue the record, but he only hears that sound himself. We felt, Why just let us hear it? Let's pull the fader halfway up while the other record's still playing and make this scratching noise, back and forth, to the beat."
The video, which features a host of animated mannequins, was one of the most innovative of the era. It was very popular on MTV, winning five video music awards in 1984: Best Art Direction, Best Concept, Best Editing, Best Special Effects, and Most Experimental Video. Along with Michael Jackson and Prince, Hancock was one of the first black artists to get significant airplay on MTV, but he barely appears in the video (he is shown in a few shots of the television sets), which was by design. The video was directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, who also make the Police video for "Every Breath You Take
." Their directive was to get Hancock played on MTV, a daunting task considering the network's reluctance to play black artists. Keeping the artist out of the video was a way to take the race factor out of it, and it worked.
In America, most people heard this song on MTV, since it wasn't a big radio hit. Herbie Hancock wasn't on the radar of program directors outside of jazz formats, and the song was too unusual for most Top 40 stations.
Hancock's voice was processed using a vocoder, which is what folks used before Auto-Tune to create an electro-vocal. Hancock wasn't a great singer, so the vocoder masked his shortcomings in that area while giving him a futuristic sound.
This song won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance, which made GrandMixer D.ST, whose turntable work was featured on the track, the first DJ to win a Grammy.
Hancock, armed with a keytar, performed the song on the Grammy telecast, sharing the stage with mannequins and props from the video. In a clever twist, some of the mannequins turned out to be real people... who could boogie. They came to the front of the stage and did some impressive breakdancing as Hancock played, making this the first time scratching or breakdancing were featured in a Grammy performance.
The mannequins and other animatronic objects in the video were created by Jim Whiting, a British artist who had been working on mechanical art installations for some time, exploring the intersection of man and machine. When Kevin Godley saw a documentary about his work, he was transfixed. Godley recorded the end of the documentary, and a few weeks later he and Creme got pitched to come up with a concept for the "Rockit" video. Godley played what he had recorded from the documentary in sync to the song; they paired so well together that Godley & Creme contacted Whiting to adapt some of his objects for the video, which he did. By making Whiting's creations the focus, Godley & Creme fulfilled a requirement of the job: keep Herbie Hancock's appearances in it to a minimum because MTV didn't like to show black artists.
A motif in the video is the back-and-forth movement that synchs with the scratching. This wasn't easy to do. In a Songfacts interview with director Kevin Godley
, he explained: "You can't just shuttle it backwards and forwards. So, when we transferred the film to editorial media, we did it backwards as well as forwards so we could cut between the two. It's quite a painstaking process and we didn't really know what the hell we were doing until we had pretty much done it, and it was like, Wow, what the hell is this? They're never going to play this - this is outrageous
. It was pretty avant-garde for the time, but music video was in its infancy and it was growing at an enormous rate."
A jazz musician in his 40s, Herbie Hancock was an outlier on MTV, where young pop stars were the norm. This song incorporated very modern sounds though, including elements of hip-hop. Combined with the eye-catching video, it fit in surprisingly well on the network. The next jazz musician to break big on MTV was Bobby McFerrin, who did it in 1988 with "Don't Worry Be Happy