Song Of The Week: “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock

How does a legendary jazz pianist end up co-writing one of the most influential early hip-hop records? Let’s see, shall we?

For those who haven’t heard of him, Herbie Hancock is a, well, a legendary jazz pianist. He spent the 1960’s making some of the finest jazz records of the decade both as a solo artist and as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. The 70’s found Hancock pushing the genre forward both technologically and musically as he added every manner of synthesizer to his arsenal and began incorporating heavy funk and R&B elements into his music. This led to grumbling from purists, but everybody else loved it. Take that, purists!

By 1983, his acoustic jazz albums still garnered praise, but Hancock’s more commercial efforts at electro-disco-jazz-pop received neither acclaim, nor sales. Enter Bill Laswell, a bassist and up-and-coming producer in New York. A mutual acquaintance asked Laswell if he’d like to fly out to L.A. to meet with Herbie and see if it sparked any musical magic, so Bill grabbed producer Michael Beinhorn and the two holed up in a Brooklyn basement, quickly constructing a couple of basic rhythm tracks.

The two producers flew the tapes out to California where they met Hancock at the studio. Herbie played keyboards over one of the tracks for a couple of hours and just like that the trio found themselves with a mostly finished song.

Nobody was quite sure exactly what they had, though, until the producers stopped into a stereo and speaker store to kill some time before their flight back to the East Coast. The clerk suggested a rock song to demonstrate the power of his equipment, but instead, Laswell handed him a tape, fresh out of the studio. A rough mix of “Rockit” blasted out of the speakers and Laswell soon turned around to find everybody in the store gathered behind him, staring at the speakers in awe of what issued forth. Now he knew he had something big.

Released as a single in 1983, “Rockit” received little in the way of radio play, but MTV put the song in constant rotation, not only due to its cutting edge sound, but also its award-winning video. For most people, “Rockit” would be the first place they would hear the DJ technique of scratching a record. The song also provided a soundtrack for many a fledgling breakdancer.

Here’s the sound of hip-hop, leaving the streets and the clubs and making its way into everyone’s living room.

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