"Rockit" is a composition recorded by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and produced by Bill Laswell. Hancock released it as a single from his 1983 album Future Shock. The selection was composed by Hancock, producer Laswell, and synthesizer/drum machine programmer Michael Beinhorn.
|Single by Herbie Hancock|
|from the album Future Shock|
|Herbie Hancock singles chronology|
The track was a big hit in 1983–1984, driven by its deejay scratch style, performed primarily by DXT, and its eye-catching music video created by Godley & Creme, which was put in high rotation on MTV. "Rockit" won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance in 1983, and it won five MTV Video Music Awards in 1984.
The song was constructed and composed in 1982 during the recording process at various studios, first at BC Studios in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, then RPM studios in Manhattan's Village, then Hancock's home studio in West Hollywood, and finally at Eldorado studio in Hollywood, Los Angeles. The production trio of Material (bassist Bill Laswell, synth player Michael Beinhorn, and engineer Martin Bisi) were based at BC Studios, recording underground club music for Celluloid Records. Hancock's 25-year-old manager, Tony Meilandt, approached Laswell to write a new song for Hancock, whose career needed a boost. To gauge this potential new direction for his career, Hancock accompanied Laswell to hear a set of popular club deejays including Afrika Bambaataa and D.ST spin at Roxy NYC in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Warily eyeing the crowd which to him looked like a riot, Hancock needed more convincing by Meilandt before he contracted with Laswell's team to deliver two tracks. Meilandt later said "Herbie was very much ready" to try a new kind of sound.
At BC Studios, Beinhorn used a new Oberheim DMX drum machine to lay down a basic beat, and Laswell brought in Daniel Ponce to augment this with Afro-Cuban batá drums. Ponce played the three drums one at a time during three recording passes, to make it sound like three drummers invoking a Santería spirit. Grand Mixer D.ST came to the studio with two deejay friends from his group Infinity Rappers to scratch for the track, bringing his own vinyl but allowing Laswell to choose a Celluloid Records single as the foundation, "Change the Beat" by Fab Five Freddy, which had been recorded in the same studio. D.ST found an interesting portion of the 12-inch vinyl near the end – the voice of manager Roger Trilling saying "Ahhh! This stuff is really fresh" through the studio's vocoder – and he scratched through that section. Trilling had been playing with the vocoder in the studio, mocking Elektra Records executive Bruce Lundvall who was in the habit of sitting back in his chair and declaring a song "fresh" if he liked it, without knowing that the word fresh was current in hip-hop subculture. This moment was captured on tape, and Laswell worked it into the conclusion of "Change the Beat".
The 2-inch 16-track master tape containing rhythm parts and scratching needed to be transferred to 24-track 2-inch in order for Hancock to work with it at his home studio. Laswell and Bisi took the tape to RPM Studios in Greenwich Village, but instead of simply transferring the format, they added some extra sounds, especially a stab of guitar taken from a Led Zeppelin song on the album Coda. Using the repeat hold function of a Lexicon Prime Time digital delay, they attempted to capture a Led Zeppelin snare drum sound, but a moment of inattention resulted in the guitar stab, which Laswell found better suited his purpose.
Hancock first heard the work-in-progress in West Hollywood at his home studio, a former guest house in back of his main residence. Hancock determined that the song needed a melody line. Hancock, Laswell and Beinhorn composed one on the spot by humming out loud to each other. Then Hancock recorded his ideas on three different synthesizers, performing on them one at a time. When Hancock suggested performing some vocoder vocal scat, Laswell and Beinhorn said they could instead sample lyrics from a hit song, specifically the line "Rock it, don't stop it" from "Planet Rock", which was at that time a hit for Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force. This lyric sample gave the song the title of "Rockit".
A final recording session was convened at Eldorado Studios located at Hollywood and Vine, Hollywood, Los Angeles. To round out the turntablist sounds, D.ST flew out from New York along with his colleague Grandmaster Caz. Session engineer Dave Jerden remarked to Beinhorn that Hancock appeared hopeful about the song, but that he did not realize what he had. After the brief 90-minute session, the New York contingent went to a local stereo shop to pass the time before their flight home. Carrying a cassette tape of the final mix, they listened to "Rockit" on some loudspeakers at the shop, attracting the attention of kids from the neighborhood who were amazed and curious. Judging their reaction, Laswell told D.ST, "That's a hit record."
- Herbie Hancock – synthesizers, composition
- Bill Laswell – samples, production, composition
- Michael Beinhorn – Oberheim DMX synth drums, composition
- Daniel Ponce – batá drums
- D.ST – main turntables
- Mr. C of the Infinity Rappers – additional turntables
- Boo-Ski of the Infinity Rappers – additional turntables
- Martin Bisi – engineering at BC Studio and RPM Studios
- Grandmaster Caz – additional turntables
- Dave Jerden – engineering at Eldorado Studios
The music video, directed by the duo of Kevin Godley and Lol Creme and featuring robot-like movable sculptures (by Jim Whiting) dancing, spinning, and even walking in time to the music in a "virtual house" in London, England, garnered five MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, including Best Concept Video and Best Special Effects. Hancock himself appears, and plays keyboard, only as an image on a television receiver, which is smashed on the pavement outside the front door of the house at the end of the video. The video also won two Billboard Video Music Awards, one for most innovative video, and another for best art direction.
The composition features scratching and other turntablist techniques, performed by D.ST - an influential DJ in the early years of turntablism. Some years later, turntablists such as DJ Qbert and Mix Master Mike cited the composition as "revelatory" in the documentary film Scratch, inspiring their interest in the instrument.
The single was a major radio hit in the United Kingdom and a popular dance club record in the United States. Two decades later it was featured on the soundtrack of the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, on the fictional radio station "Wildstyle FM".
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