Updated: Aug 9, 2021
Written by Ernesto J. Green Rután on 5th, January 2015. Revised by the same author on 7th, November 2018.
'Rock it' is a musical composition produced by a bassist Bill Laswell and his band Material in collaboration with innovative jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. It was released in 1983 in United States and distributed by CBS Record. It was the first track and massive hit on Herbie Hancock's album 'Future Shock'. The piece had a huge commercial success, a million-selling single granting Hancock his first Grammy Award for the Best R&B Instrumental Performance featuring DJ Grand Mixer D.ST. 'Rock it' took the radio airwaves by surprise with its futuristic and controversial sound. It had a transcendental impact on the dance floor, paving the way for hip-hop DJs and turntablist artists. I believe this composition helped to revolutionise the 1980's technological development of electronic dance music, and encouraged the quest for musical evolution and further experimentation.
As Hancock writes, “We all have a natural tendency to take the safe route - to do the things we know will work - rather than taking a chance.” (Hancock with Dickey, 2014, l.71). The lesson learned by Herbie Hancock during the mid sixties as a jazz pianist for Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet, widened his horizons and inspired an innovative approach in his musical career. Bill Laswell, a prolific, versatile composer, bassist and producer sharing a similar experimental view as Hancock decided to join forces with him and 'shock the future'. This concept was applied to the sonic composition and musical structure of their project. The final product was a contentious futuristic sound, heading towards post-modernism, placed at the cutting edge of music technology at the time.
'Future Shock' debut album falls within the electronic genre due to the predominant use of electronically manipulated sounds, synthesizers and analog instrumentation. 'Rock it' and the majority of the compositions in the album are instrumental featuring sound effects and short vocal phrases extremely manipulated during mix-down with applied audio effects techniques such as chorus, reverb, delay, flanging and vocoder. These aesthetics were part of the electro style in its inception period during the early 80's. In the United States, B-Boys or break dancers used to name it 'electro boogie', in Britain some people called it 'electro funk'. Others mistakenly would call it 'Electric Boogaloo', the name of a street dancing group formed in Los Angeles (USA) in the late seventies.
The sonic trademark of the 80's electro scene was the renowned sound of the Roland TR-808 analog drum machine. It became popular because it was relatively cheap comparing to the other analog drum sequencers such as LinnDrum module. Moreover, it played a notorious bass kick, which gained its reputation by being on the bottom end of most rap tune resonating through the speakers of ghetto blasters, and rattling the cars' windows driving across the streets of the Bronx in New York. As a result of its programming capabilities and its established and distinctive sound, this drum machine has become the cornerstone in the production of electronic dance music. Nowadays, there are digital devices and sample kits emulating the sound of the original 808 modules, but the result is not accurate enough for the complete satisfaction of purist music producers. Henceforth, this drum machine has attained longevity in the industry, and you can find the vintage Roland TR-808 and its predecessor the TR-909 still selling on the market for a very high price.
In addition, the sound of the Roland TR-808 played an integral part in the drumbeat programming of pioneer electronic artists like the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the German group Kraftwerk. Many old-school tunes or B-Boy classics such as 'Planet Rock' by Afrika Bambaata, 'Al-Naafysh' by Hashim, and 'Supersonic' by J. J. Fad featured the popular sounds of this analog drum module. You can also hear it in 'Clear' by the electro group Cybotron and in the song 'Sexual Healing' by the iconic R&B singer Marvin Gaye. The deep bass drum, the frosty hi-hats, the galactic handclap and the analog detuned cowbell was the TR-808's signature on most of the electro boogie compositions during the early eighties.
Laswell and Hancock were obviously influenced by the creativity of electronic music and the cultural scene of the eighties, but instead of using the celebrated TR-808 drum sequencer to lay down the rhythm section for the single 'Rock it', they preferred to enjoy the benefits from Simmons SDSV analog drum kit synthesizer. Sly Dunbar, a very experienced Jamaican drummer, known for his work with bassist Robbie Shakespeare, was invited to take part in the project. He played the Simmons SDSV electronic drum kit and other percussion elements. The Simmons SDSV electronic drums were very popular throughout the eighties, epitomising the rhythm sonic texture of numerous pop hits such as 'In The Air Tonight' by Phil Collins, 'You Are The One For Me' by D-Train and 'Midas Touch' by Midnight Star.
The first two bars of the album version of 'Rock it' began with Sly Dunbar playing the Simmons analog drums, breaking through the introductory part of the tune, accompanied by the DJ cuts of Grand Mixer D. ST. The fat sound of the Simmons drum kit breaking down in conjunction with the scratch cuts of the D. S.T. delivered a powerful shocking effect at the beginning and all through the theme. This was the very first time in history a DJ performed live as member of a musical ensemble and used the turntables as a musical instrument. The vinyl record manipulator had an integral part in the execution of the piece, which brought about an open-minded approach to performance and musical composition. Therefore, it bridged the gap between trained musicians and club DJs, as Chanan writes, “Music is a form of social communication; performance is a site of musical intercourse, and a form of social dialogue.” (Chanan, 1994, p.23).
Derek Showard, otherwise known as DJ Grand Mixer D. S.T., played a significant role during his time working with Hancock on the 'Future Shock' album. As Brewster and Broughton explained, “He demonstrated that scratching could have a melodic and a rhythmic impact over a musical piece. Besides, his turntable dexterity brought him to the attention of Herbie Hancock and earned him a place of pride in the groove of Hancock's 1983 single, 'Rock it'.“ (Brewster and Broughton, 1999, p.280). Some of the scratched samples applied in the composition were extracted from the song 'Change The Beat' by Fab Five Freddy featuring Beside—released in 1982 by Celluloid Records. 'Change The Beat' is one of the most sampled rap songs by hip hop DJs and producers, and the part of this record that was cued and used for turntable manipulation was its ending vocal phrase '...ah,this stuff is really fresh' which had a vocoder effect on it. The word 'ah' and 'fresh' were the main sample tools Grand Mixer D.S.T. used for his scratch execution on the theme 'Rock it'. This is the scratched sound that captures our attention, and we all remember after listening to this innovative, groundbreaking composition.
As Brewster and Broughton wrote. “...D.S.T.'s urgent, insistent vinyl percussion was the essence of the record. Judged as 1983's Best R&B Instrumental Performance, 'Rock it' also gave D.S.T. the honour of being the first DJ to win a Grammy.” (Brewster and Broughton, 1999, p.281). 'Rock it' music video collected five MTV Video Music Awardsin 1984, not to mention the Best Concept Video and Best Special Effectsprize. Thereupon, a new era of cultural transformation and musical development erupted in major cities around the world, ignited by the culture-shock appearance of this commercial hit. Prevalent electronic musical genres such as electro pop, electro hop, electro rap, trip-hop, and electro dub-step have been inspired and emboldened by it.
Hip hop culture originated in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, well known for its multicultural demographics. During the late 70's and early 80's, America was going through a tough period of economical crisis. Industry deregulation and political mockery provoked a high inflation and unemployment rate. Many civilians from Caribbean Islands and Latin countries migrated to United States, seeking employment and economical improvement, thinking America was the land of opportunities, and that finding work was going to be easier than in their native land. But upon their arrival, many of them were disappointed and had to face the harsh reality that was hitting the Big Apple at the time. America was overcrowded, and a lot of immigrants were sent to marginal areas called 'the projects', totally unemployed and without any kind of social security.
The South Bronx was a rough area where West-Indians, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and black Americans shared the pain of the oppressed class having to struggle for survival. As Alan Light writes, “ The South Bronx was tough turf, characterised by burned-out buildings, brutal street-gangs, and the scourge of drugs and poverty...” (Light, 1999, p.15).
In spite of the social and economical chaos affecting Bronx, the creativity of the destitute people did not cease, and a new wave of DJs, MCs, graffiti artists, B-Boys, lockers and poppers were emerging out of the streets of the Bronx.
During the 70's and early 80's, the cultural interaction between the young Black Americans and Latinos—searching for a common ground and a sense of identity in the new land—gave birth to what is nowadays known as hip hop culture. As Claude Grunitzky explains, “In essence, we are saying that 'Transculturalism' defies race, religion, sexuality, class and every sort of classification known to sociologist and marketers...”, (Grunitzky, 2004, p.25, p.26).
Clive Campbell, well known as DJ Kool Herc, Jamaican born but living in South Bronx, was one of the pioneers of the hip hop movement in the early 70's. He is said to be the first DJ who manipulated records using the old school technique 'back to back'. He used to launched block parties and events across the Bronx, and spin old funky records through his notorious Sound System's speakers. Using two turntables and two records of the same song, he would cue the break part of the record, and he would bring it back and forth extending the duration of the breaks so B-Boys and poppers would dance and show off their new moves. Later on, DJ Grandmaster Flash from the Furious Five mastered the technique Kool originated and took it the next level. The scratch sound is created by the back and forth movement of a vinyl record when the phonograph stylus is tracing the record grooves. This technique was first detected by a New York DJ called Grand Wizard Theodore whilst his mother was talking to him. He deserves the credits for being the originator of the scratch technique in DJ-history.
Kool Herc inspired many DJs, including Grand Mixer D. ST who proudly represented the culture, and took it from the tough streets of New York to mainstream audiences worldwide, making use of his turntable skills on the platinum-selling single 'Rock it'. This sensational event was the foundation for a modern art form known today as turntablism, which is based on the use of a direct-drive turntable as a musical and performing instrument. A large number of deejays and turntablists were inspired and embarked on their musical career when they watched the inspiring performance of DJ Grand Mixer D. S.T. alongside Herbie Hancock and The Rock it Band at the 26th,1983's Grammy Awards. Some of these talented DJs and professional turntablists express their views and share their career experiences on the 'Scratch' documentary film directed by Dough Pray in 2001.
The rhythm section and sonic content of the single 'Rock it' constructed by Sly Dunbar's tight sound of the Simmons SDSV analog drum kit synthesiser, and the percussive scratch routine executed by Grand Mixer D. ST, is then complemented by the simple and contagious rhythmic pattern of the congas performed by the legendary Cuban percussionist Daniel Ponce. Finally, the groovy funky bass line delivered by Bill Laswell joined all the percussive elements together, creating a strong groundwork for Hancock's keyboard mastery and his shoulder synthesizer's memorable melody line.
'Rock it' is an extraordinary composition released under Herbie Hancock's name, it exhibits the fusion and experimental approach of the musicians involved in the project, a clear example proving the wise expression 'Sky is the limit'.
I conclude by saying that when a group of individuals come together in the right place at the right time in a respectful manner, combining and exchanging their knowledge and abilities, great things can be achieved.
Hancock, Herbie with Dickey, Lisa (2014). 'Possibilities'- Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
Chanan, Michael (1994). Musica Practica: The Social Practice Of Western Music From Gregorian Chant To Postmodernism , London - Published by Verso.
Brewster, Bill and Broughton, Frank (1999). Last Night A DJ Saved My Life : The history of the disc jockey – Published by Headline Book Publishing.
Light, Alan (1999) 'The Vibe History Of Hip Hop' – Published by Plexus Publishing Limited (UK), Published by arrangement with Three Rivers. Member of the Crown Publishing Group (USA).
Grunitzky, Claude (2004).Transculturalism : How the world is coming together– Published by TRUE Agency, Inc (USA)
Herbie Hancock and The Rock it Band at the 26th1983 Grammy-Awards.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSxMtDnRS24
Herbie Hancock & The Rockit Band – Rockit (live, 1984)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nChgPNldOn4
New York, Bronx (South Bronx) in 70's and 80'shttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtI-En92Xso
80 Blocks from Tiffany'sa documentary film by director Gary Weis and writer Jhon Bradshaw https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDb8Nr_gVcw
Birth Of TURNTABLISM 1984-rare Grandmixer DST- LOST TV- herbie Hancock ROCKIThttp://www.dailymotion.com/video/xkipul_birth-of-turntablism-1984-rare-grandmixer-dst-lost-tv-herbie-hancock-rockit_music
'Scratch'Hip hop Documentary Film (2001), Edited and produced by Dough Pray