Herbie Hancock: Future Shock

by Aqua
October 14, 2007

Herbie Hancock is from the land of the "Go." That's Chicago, and it's a longshot, but maybe part of the Windy City's proficiency in Hip-Hop music can be traced back to Hancock's use of scratching in "Rockit" [Note: Peace to Grandmixter DXT]. After all, though Hancock had long been considered a giant in jazz circles, "Rockit" is what earned the talented pianist his first Grammy award. Methodical in his speech - every word will be accurately understood - Hancock offered up insight in everything from his days in Miles Davis' band, to utilizing Hip-Hop in his music, on down creating his latest work on Verve Records, River: The Joni Letters inspired by singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell's work.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: You've been successful in varied genres of music. If someone unfamiliar with your work, say on Jupiter, asked you humbly what you did, what would you tell them?

Herbie Hancock: It happens, I meet people who don't know me. Basically I tell them I'm a jazz musician; that's a simple way.

AHHA: You're from Chicago and classically trained&

Herbie Hancock: That was the only training you could have back then [laughs].

AHHA: How influential was your Chicago upbringing in your music?

Herbie Hancock: Oh very [influential]. Chicago, first of all - it's a very cultural city. It's very supportive of the arts, particularly the graphic arts. It's got a lot of art museums, and the Art Institute is a major educational facility there. And when I was a young jazz musician in Chicago, what I experienced was a lot of support for developing musicians. Not just the guys that had their act together, but the ones that are trying and the ones that are working on developing [themselves] - a lot of support for that.

AHHA: By support you mean the established artists looking out for the younger ones?

Herbie Hancock: Yeah, cause it's the kind of support that I needed to encourage me to develop and get to the point where I could go - at that time, [to] New York - and get with the big boys [laughs].

AHHA: When did you know jazz was going to be your focus?

Herbie Hancock: It was in college where I really made that big decision. I started off as an engineering major in college, electrical engineering, and then I changed to music composition. One day I looked in the mirror and said, "Hey man, who you trying to kid?" As much as I like science, music was my heart and that was the thing that was really inspiring.

AHHA: Is there any one lesson that stands out from your days with Miles Davis?

Herbie Hancock: The first one that comes to mind is the importance of listening. What I noticed was that Miles, when it came time for his solo, was playing in a way that indicated to me that he was listening to me. At the same time, I could tell he was listening to the drummer, Tony Williams, because of certain rhythmic things that Miles would do against the rhythms of the drums. And at the same time, I could [tell] he was listening to Ron Carter the bass player because of the direction of the notes would sometimes be in contrast - like if Ron was going down playing his notes, Miles would be playing something going up. Contrary motion we say. And, I was so impressed that Miles would listen to me? [laughs] I said to myself, "I wanna learn how to do that."

Before Miles would play, sometimes we'd all be playing different things that we would be working on because Miles told us, "I pay you to work on stuff, not to be perfect," which was already great. When he would play it would kind of bring it all together. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts; that was a really important lesson. I mean it taught me something about respect for what the other musicians were playing as well as listening. It's quality listening. And Miles was not judgmental in playing. He'd never say, "Don't play that." Unless we were playing something that we had practiced in our room -he said, "Don't play that." Play something fresh, for the moment.

AHHA: You get a lot of praise for your unique use of chords. What do you credit that to?

Herbie Hancock: That goes back to Chicago again. Chicago is one of those places where particularly the piano players prided ourselves in developing an ability to re-harmonize a melody and kind of put a different spin on it by figuring out another set of chord changes or chord patterns or chord placement that would be special in the moment. I remember that sometimes two or three piano players would get together and we'd decided to take some song, and each guy would play the song and create some new harmonies for it, and when he finished doing the one chorus, then the next guy would come up [and] play the same melody but come up with some new harmonies.

Piano players really developed a harmonic approach to music. One of the teachers that I had was a guy named Chris Anderson, who still lives in New York, he's an amazing player. He has a particular gift about harmony and melodic structure. Using melodies in the voicing of the harmonies. He played stuff that would bring tears to your eyes it would be so beautiful. I studied with Chris not long - it was only a week or so - but even in that short a time, he opened up some things in me that carried through even up to today.

AHHA: What's your opinion on sampling?

Herbie Hancock: Look, sample me [laughs]. As long as you pay me it's great. And for the most part people have been honoring that. What I like about it is many of the pieces that are written in the past&sometimes they were kind of obscure things that were on a record, but didn't get much attention. Sometimes artists from today find these things, find something that the can use, flip it and make it viable for the audience of today. Put it in a context where it would be "happening" for the ears and the tastes of today. And that's cool with me. It would be like re-purposing something that I did in the past that had been long since dead and resurrecting it in a new form. I love that. It breathes new life into something in a present day.

AHHA: You got your first Grammy in 1983 for "Rockit." What made you open to using this emerging Hip-Hop sound, scratching, since you got flack from your peers for doing so?

Herbie Hancock: I had been through that before. I already had developed an attitude, and it was very clear for me about what I should respond to and what I shouldn't. Realizing that I'm the only one behind the keyboard and as long as I'm doing something I believe in, that's what I'm supposed to do. But what attracted me to the whole sound of scratching had nothing to do with Hip-Hop. To me, it was a sound that actually reminded me of something that we'd use in a band I had called Mwandishi; well we call it that now. It was an avant-garde period for me when we were playing some far out space music. We would take any kind of sound, not just from a musical instrument, and if it sounded interesting, we'd use it in some way that we felt was musical.

So that's what I heard [scratching]. I had actually heard scratching on a tape that a young friend of mine had sent me the week before we recorded "Rockit." When I heard that sound I said, "I like that. I want to do something with that." Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, who were the producers of "Rockit" and the record, Future Shock, when then flew from New York to LA to my studio, they always like to prepare some ideas they'd recorded to bring to me and then we would shape it. I was prepared to tell them I want to do something with scratching. So the first thing they put on had scratching on it! I said, "This is cool" [laughs].

AHHA: Was your openness to embracing new sounds related to why you embraced the synthesizer?

Herbie Hancock: When I first did synthesizer I didn't know I would get flack for it. The first time I had synthesizer on one of my records was with the Mwandishi band we recorded called Crossings. I think it was Crossings, which I think is one side of the vinyl record, my then manager David Rudenson, suggested since we were always looking for a way to include elements in this far out music that could help bridge the gap between what people were used to hearing and the new stuff that we were doing. David said, "Hey there's this thing called synthesizer that's starting to show up on a lot of rock records. So you might consider having something with the synthesizer on this record."

He suggested there was a guy in San Francisco, where we were recording, that had all the equipment and he had his own studio and he was a synthesizer player, he could do it. So I said, "Okay why don't you have him do an introduction to this song?" We actually gave the guy the tape and the next day he brought the tape back and we played it. And the introduction knocked me out! Right after that I hired him to go on tour with us. This is the early days of synthesizer where you had to "patch" things, none of it was digital, none of it was programmable, you couldn't store sounds, there was no presets, none of that stuff.

The next thing I did was the Headhunters record, and that was the first time I played synthesizers. But what I wanted to tell you was, when I was in college I was a science major at first, I was an engineering major. So I was accustomed, I always like science. Even when I was a kid, it's my basic nature. I'm a musician who is a frustrated techie [laughs]. I don't get to do that stuff very much, except with synthesizers I do. So when synthesizers came out, I wasn't afraid of them. It was natural to me. It was like water to a fish. I knew the language, I had a concept of what amplifiers were, what voltage was, resistance, some of those electronic terms because back in those days because they didn't have presets you had to deal with some more technical basic things in order to be able to get a sound and play it on the instrument. I just jumped right into that; I loved it.

Synthesizers were so new when I did Crossings, and the band wasn't like a space avant-garde band so I didn't get any flack that were into that far off space music. It fit right in. Then when I did Headhunters and it was funky jazz that was a whole different thing. Then a lot of the critics were like, "Oh you're not supposed to play that [laughs]." My thing is, do you know where I was born? You know what ethnic group I'm in? What do you mean I'm not supposed to play that? [laughs] This is music for my peoples, ya know? What did they think I listened to when I was kid, rhythm and blues. It's where it all comes from. I'm from Chicago, [a] blues town. So for me that's part of my heritage. So nobody can say I'm not supposed to do that.

AHHA: Now River: The Joni Letters, how did this new record come about?

Herbie Hancock: Actually it was the suggestion of the person who's head of A&R for Verve Records, which is the label I'm signed to. When I was first discussing with her what I might do for my next Verve project, she knew that I had a great respect for Joni Mitchell and that she was a friend. So she suggested, "Would you consider doing a record of the music of Joni Mitchell?" I though about it, I said, "What a hip idea!" because I really respect Joni. She's awake and aware, she's independent and she speaks her mind. She's not afraid to tell the truth.

[I've known her] since we did a record called "Mingus," that was her record. Since then I got to know her, we knew mutual friends. One person was her then husband Larry Klein, who is now her ex-husband but he's the producer of River. Although I wasn't familiar enough with a lot of my music to consider myself a fan, from that standpoint I was a fan of hers. It wasn't typical of jazz musicians to pay attention to words and that's where she comes from - words. She's a poet. The words to songs were not something that immediately attracted my attention. But she would talk in the same kind of metaphors like the words she writes and it's just fascinating to hear her talk. She's a genius. She's so creative. I thought it was a great idea to do her music.

AHHA: How did you approach making music around lyrics first?

Herbie Hancock: Since her music is driven by the lyrics, it was clear to me that if I was really going to do justice to her music, I had to have the lyrics be the primary source for me. It gave me a great opportunity to do something I really didn't have experience in doing, which is paying attention to the words. So for the first few months of working on this record that's all [Larry Klein] and I talked about. He would suggest certain songs I might think about for the record. I would look at the lyrics, I'd discuss it with him because he not only [had] been married to her, he's a bass player and played in her band.

We spent a lot of time discussing the meaning of the lyrics and the conditions under which she might have been stimulated to write the song and the structure and textures of the songs. Little by little, we whittled down the number of songs to choose from until we got the songs we wanted. By then it marinated in us, [so] we were coming from that standpoint of empathy for the spirit of the lyrics [when recording]. That was a new experience for all of us.

AHHA: Did you listen to the original compositions?

Herbie Hancock: Yeah, that's what I did first - listen to how she did the songs. We had decided early on that we didn't want to do it the way she did because that was already done. We wanted to create our own fresh musical environment that comes from us for these versions of the songs.

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