Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" (1983): How the main soundtrack from The Courier was created (1986)
"Rockit" is a composition by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, released on a single as part of the album Future Shock (1983). The driving force behind the track is the scratch style. The song earned the musician several prestigious awards, including a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance and the MTV Video Music Awards for the music video.
The composition "Rockit" is one of the most interesting musical recordings of all time. It touches on all forms of twentieth-century American music, from blues to jazz, from rock to techno... It is also one of the seminal documents of global hip-hop. And what about its performance at the 1984 Grammy Awards? Even decades later, "Rockit" is still as fresh as ever...
History of creation
This composition certainly epitomizes the 80s of the last century. The keyboard instruments are especially reminiscent of a bygone era... It's easy to laugh at them, but Herbie embraced the instrument for a good reason: it lets him get up on his feet dancing while he plays. Isn't he happy? This joyful ease is clearly and distinctly expressed in his playing. The idea of a dancing keyboardist stands in stark contrast to the musician's classical piano tradition... But as great as the live performances of "Rockit" were, the original studio version is the most important. This track is a knot in an immense musical rhizome! Its roots and twists go deep into the history of music: it connects horizontally with everything that happened in the 1980s, and its branches go far into the future... But before we go deeper into the track, we suggest getting to know its creators!
Herbie Hancock is a famous jazz musician who joined Miles Davis' band in 1963. It was Davis who taught Hancock the importance of experimentation and how to achieve great results by letting the people working with you experiment. And while jazz purists didn't want to participate in this electro classic, it set a fresh new sound thanks to Bill Laswell's production...
Bill Laswell is the notorious bassist who produced the track. Famous for creating "collision music," he brought elements of electro, fusion jazz and hip-hop to "Rockit. In his interview, Laswell explained how the song came to be:
"I got a call from a guy who called himself Herbie and said he wanted to record some tracks. I said: 'I'm coming to L.A. in a couple of weeks and I'll bring a couple of rhythm tracks.' So...we just recorded really quickly in a basement in Brooklyn. We really didn't know what it was. We took this track, 'Rockit,' and Herbie played it for an hour or two... And then it took another hour to put it together..."
"...On the way to the airport, we stopped at a store that sold a lot of speakers because we wanted to kill time. When the guy, the consultant, went to put the record on, we said, 'No, we don't listen to that kind of stuff. We had a cassette with a ready mix on it, so we said, "Turn it on." He turned it on. When we turned around, we saw about 50 kids looking at the speakers and saying, "What the hell is this?" Herbie and I just stared at each other..."
It was the first hit song to use scratch. For those unfamiliar with hip-hop, it was the first time they heard the sounds of a record being manipulated on a turntable to the beat. DJs Grand Master Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore were the first to perform this technique, performing all over New York City. Flash explained:
"Scratching is just a mark for the record. The DJ has to make a backward mark for the recording, but he only hears that sound himself. We thought, why just let us hear it? Playing and making the scratching sound back and forth to the beat..."
Hancock's voice was processed with a vocoder, which people used before AutoTune to create electric vocals. Hancock was not a great singer, so the vocoder masked his shortcomings in that area, giving him a futuristic sound.
The video with many animated mannequins was one of the most innovative of its era! The clip was very popular on MTV, winning five music awards in 1984: best feature film, 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 receive significant exposure on MTV. True, he himself barely appears in the video (he's only shown in a few shots). It was directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Krim, who also directed the Police video for "Every Breath You Take." Their directive was to show Hancock on MTV, which was a difficult task given the network's reluctance to broadcast black artists...
The mannequins and other objects in the video were created by Jim Whiting, a British artist who worked for some time on mechanical art installations, exploring the intersection of man and machine. By focusing on Whiting's creations, Godley and Cream fulfilled a basic requirement of the work: to keep Herbie Hancock's appearance in the video to a minimum, because MTV didn't like to show black artists. And they managed to pull it off!
The idea of the video is to move forward and backward in sync with the scratching. It wasn't easy to do. In an interview, Kevin Godley explained:
"It's a pretty painstaking process, and we really didn't know what the hell we were doing until we pretty much did it... It was like, "Wow, what the hell is this?" It was pretty avant-garde for the time, but music video, which was in its infancy, was growing at a tremendous rate..."
The jazz musician, who was over 40 at the time, Herbie Hancock was an exception on MTV, where young pop stars were trending. The thing about the song "Rockit" was that it had a very modern sound, including elements of hip-hop. Combined with the catchy video, Hancock fit the entourage surprisingly well! By the way: the next jazz musician to achieve success on MTV was Bobby McFerrin! It was 1988, with "Don't Worry Be Happy".
In America, most people heard this song on MTV, since "Rockit" was not a big radio hit. Herbie Hancock was not on the radar of program directors outside of jazz formats, and the song was too unusual for most Top 40 radio stations. However, it won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance, making GrandMixer D.ST, whose turntable work was featured on the track, the first DJ to win a Grammy!
Armed with keyboards, Hancock performed this song at the Grammy Awards, sharing the stage with mannequins and other props from the video. As it turned out, some of the mannequins were real people who could boogie-woogie dance! While Hancock played, they performed an impressive break dance! So, scratch and break dancing were first introduced at the Grammys.
The soundtrack to the cult film The Courier
Several years after its release, the track "Rockit" was used as the soundtrack for the cult Russian film "Courier"! Slightly broken in its sound, the composition perfectly complemented the dance scene:
Speaking of the film: it was directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and released on the big screens in December 1986. The film tells the story of a graduate named Ivan. While waiting to be drafted into the army, Ivan works as a courier in one of the newsrooms. He has an amazing ability to turn any event into a grandiose affair, and, on the contrary, to make the hilarious fun irreparably sad...
As it should be a real hit, "Rockit" has been remixed and sampled many times, including two mixes by the Grand Mixer DST itself. But "Rockit" isn't just a collage sample. It's a real tune written (in part) by a jazz musician! Usually the history of Western music and musicology is presented in the form of a tree. But where in the tree-like folder system would you put "Rockit"? Is it techno, hip-hop, jazz, funk, rock, all of the above or none of the above at all? Does it come at the end of jazz or the beginning of electronic dance music? Rockit is hardly ever mentioned in books about jazz. Even when jazz historians write specifically about Herbie, they focus on his 1960s recordings and treat "Rockit" as an awkward afterthought (if they mention the track at all).
Herbie's tune uses a variation of the A minor blues scale: A, B, C, D, D-sharp, E, and G. His solos are also mostly in A minor blues, enhanced by his usual wild chromaticism. Jazz critics consider synthesizers impersonal and cold, but Herbie's touch on this instrument is sometimes even more personal and distinctive than his touch on the piano... Just listen to the first note from the studio version of "Rockit." It comes back from the blues, and you can't do anything like that on the piano...
The movie "Courier" used a remix by the band B.T. & The City Slickers. Compare it with the original.
P.S. There is an assumption that the authors of the film wanted to bypass the copyright, and found this song in a different key from another performer.