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Industrial Hancock: Future Shock, Perfect Machine & Sound System

By BK

Keyboardist/pianist/composer Herbie Hancock has been the limelight in recent years. His Verve release Gerswhin won many an accolades. Through his Rudy Van Gelder Re-releases and a six CD box set, Blue Note Records celebrated the 1960s acoustic output of Hancock. Columbia/Legacy returned us to the funky side of Hancock with re-releases of great Hancock 1970s albums such as Thrust and Sextant. In 1996, Hancock received a Grammy for his album "The New Standard" which was a collection of jazz interpretations of contemporary pop songs. This is an age-old formula that has been attempted by everyone from Jimmy Bruno to Roland Kirk. When Hancock does it, he wins a Grammy. Now Columbia/Legacy is revisiting Hancock’s electronic 1980s recordings – Future Shock, Sound System and Perfect Machine. For these three landmark albums, Hancock put away the acoustic grand piano and chose the Fairlight CMI, Rhodes Chroma, Yamaha DX1 and DX7, Kurtzweil K-250, Yamaha TX 8/16, Akai 900-S, Sennheiser Vocoder, Clavitar, Dr. Click Rhytm Controller, E-mu 4060 Digital Keyboard, Oberheim Matrix-12 and the Mini-Moog as his primary tools of destruction. These albums combined elements of hip-hop, rap, experimental, electronica and jazz and was more commonly known as industrial funk. Considering that many of these aforementioned characteristics describe 1990s music, Hancock’s 1980s albums are considered way before their time.

The most famous of these recordings was 1983’s Future Shock which produced the hit "Rockit". Although a song full of catchy rhythms, the success of "Rockit" was primarily the result of MTV, which was in its infancy. For this video, it was liking walking into the studio of some mad mechanical engineering. As a 13-year-old lad, "Rockit" was my first introduction to Herbie Hancock. In contrast to most my elder music fans, my appreciation of Hancock went against the grain. I started with "Rockit" which was enjoyable but I also passed it over just like most other music passing through my head at that age. Then I came across the funky tribal rhythms of Headhunters era Hancock and finally into the introspective acoustic lyricism of albums such as " Maiden Voyage" and his work with the Miles Davis Quintet. After going to the roots of Hancock, I made the return trip to the future.

To really appreciate the Hancock of the 1980s, you must look to the man behind the scenes, engineer Bill Laswell. When considering the great engineers of the music era – Alan Douglas, Teo Macero, Rudy Van Gelder – Laswell belongs amongst the same ranks. Through his own label, Axiom, and his various bands such as Material and Praxis Laswell can be considered the forefather of New York City experimental sound. Laswell also played in the punk-jazz band Last Exit with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. In recent years, his remixes of Miles Davis’ album, Bitches Brew, titled Panthalassa created quite a stir.

Laswell’s band longtime band Material formed the nucleus for all of these recordings. The band first came together in 1979 and the band played a zany combination of metal/fusion/R&B/techno/hip-hopfunk. Throughout the years, the band became a play ground for the most experimental musicians in the world –guitarist Sonny Sharrock (who played with Herbie Mann, Miles Davis and Pharaoh Sanders), guitarist Fred Frith of the avant-garde progressive group Henry Cow, multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill, saxophonist Archie Shepp and even a young Whitney Houston.

In addition to Laswell, key elements to these recordings were Daniel Ponce and Henry Kaiser. It was Ponce’s percussion work on "Rockit" and the majority of these albums songs there Latin, tribal feel. Kaiser, although often associated with his love of the Grateful Dead, is one of craziest guitarists alive. In contrast to the melodic, lyrical solos of Jerry Garcia, Kaiser’s real talent lies in playing jagged angular guitar lines. His most recent album Yo Miles! is a collaboration with avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and a tribute to the 1970s fusion of Miles Davis. Another off shoot of the Davis fusion era is present on Future Shock with the guitar playing of Pete Cosey who played on classic Davis albums such as Dark Magus, Panagea and Agartha.

Some other noted musicians who came in and out of the studios for these three albums were guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, who was a veteran of sessions with Jonas Hellborg, Sonny Sharrock, and the Golden Palominos, and was well known for his dub-trance electronica guitar playing and Anton Fier, a veteran of Pere Ubu, the Feelies, Golden Palominos, John Zorn, Yoko Ono and the Lounge Lizards.

 

Future Shock also featured Grand Mixer DST who played on the 1981 Material album Memory Serves as well as being the main turntable guru for Afrika Bambaataa’s block parties. These late 1970s Bronx River Project events helped bring rap into the nation’s eyes. In addition, Bambaataa was a key player in the creation of the Zulu Nation, which was a social alternative to New York City gangs. Instead of brandishing guns and knifes, the members of the Zulu Nation used turntables, breakdancing cardboard boxes and spray paint cans as their weapons of choice. Without the early pioneering of Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, hip-hop may not be the multi-million dollar industry that it is today.

In a 1999 interview with Bob Belden, Bill Laswell discussed the recording of Future Shock: "………the music scene was changing pretty drastically as we did those three records. But the first one being Future Shock was sort of the beginning, a little bit the initiation of hip-hop culture into the mainstream and that influence was quite strong in the concept of Future Shock."

1983’s Sound System, which was influenced by Detroit techno and Derrick May, received criticism for sounding a little too much like Future Shock. With the opening "Hard Rock", there is quite a bit of similarity to "Rockit" with similar rhythms, scratches and beat. What is fundamentally different with Sound System is that the edge is harder and the songs are drawn out further. Both Kaiser and Skopelitis provided the hard edge with their edgy guitar solos.

On the tune "Karabali", the structure is less industrial and more focussed on Afro-Pop. For "Karabali", Hancock teams up with his longtime friend Wayne Shorter. These two comprised 2/5s of the famed mid 1960s Miles Davis Quintet and also reunited in 1999 for a successful duet tour. For this track, Shorter plays the lyricon and Hancock abandons the massive use of synthesizers for a traditional grand piano keyboard sound.

"Junko" is another tune that features a Afro-pop slant and derives from the industrialism of the album. The real star of this track is Foday Musa Suso, a multi-instrumentalist from Gambia, who provides much of the tune’s polyrhythmic textures through the use of instruments such as the kora, kalimba, and dusunguni. This tune was also part of the "Official Music of the 1984 Olympic Games". This compilation also featured Loverboy’s "Nothing's Gonna Stop You Now", Christopher Cross’ "A Chance for Heaven" and Foreigner’s "Street Thunder".

Hancock finished out the triumvirate with 1988’s Perfect Machine features a remake of "Maiden Voyage" as well as Bootsy Collins, who played with Parliament/Funkadelic, and Sugarfoot from the Ohio Players. With the opening title track, there is a combination of 1980s new wave keyboard effects and syncopated drum machines. Not quite as dance orientated as "Rockit" as there was much more emphasis on an overall textured sensation. "We felt that all music could be combined and that the rhythm was the ambiance and every other sound was just decorative, " Laswell continued in the interview, " You could create a collage of music at one time, whether its jazz or noise or anything. It could be in a collage system to produce a result which would hopefully be musical and definitely rhythmic." The tunes, "Obsession" and "Vibe Alive" continues with the multi-layering of effects but they also have Sugarfoot on vocals to help give the songs a pop/techno/funk appeal. Perfect Machine also was a reflection of the times as Hancock used an Apple/Mac Plus to help facilitate his soundscape.

Hancock’s 1980s output was no different than any of his previous eras, No matter the style of music he was playing, Hancock always pioneered. It didn’t matter if he was using a grand piano, Fender Rhodes, Mini Moog or ARP Synthesizer, he was always pushing ahead. These three albums are no different. In his aptly titled book, Funk, author Ricky Vincent explained the Hancock phenomenon. "In many ways, Herbie’s spectacular combinations of future and past delivered a high tech cartharsis that brought the industrial funk era to its zenith just as it was beginning." In some ways, Hancock’s work was self-defeating – right from the beginning, his creativity with industrial style funk was difficult to surpass.