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Two Turntables and a Keytar: The Night Herbie Hancock Rocked the Grammys – The New York Times

Two Turntables and a Keytar: The Night Herbie Hancock Rocked the Grammys – The New York Times


Two Turntables and a Keytar: The Night Herbie Hancock Rocked the Grammys


Herbie Hancock performing “Rockit” at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Sam Emerson, via Viking 

The androids turn out to be breakdancers.

That’s the spoiler recap of Herbie Hancock’s performance at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards, in 1984. He was there to play his crossover hit “Rockit,” an early hip-hop touchstone, ubiquitous in the clubs and on the street. (It won for Best R&B Instrumental that year.) What nobody could have foreseen was that his performance would be a Grammy Moment, to use the Recording Academy parlance, of rare cultural impact — one of the most stealthily influential in the history of the awards.

Mr. Hancock was 43 when he walked onstage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles that evening, a veteran jazz pianist riding his latest popular resurgence. He had titled his most recent album “Future Shock,” and he looked the part, with a keytar slung over a black leather jacket and a reflective silver shirt.

His band featured synth drums, a stacked keyboard rig and a D.J. behind a set of Technics 1200s — Grandmixer D.ST — whose scratching made him the track’s breakout hero. The stage design echoed the frenetic, posthuman surrealism of the song’s music video, which had been in heavy rotation on MTV. Hence those herky-jerky robots, including three pairs of disembodied legs kicking and flailing above the stage.

Herbie Hancock – "Rockit" live at the Grammy Awards Video by IwasBannedfromYtube

Hip-hop was a thriving underground movement in 1984, just beginning to find traction in the mainstream. (The genre will be a larger focus of this year’s awards on Monday; the rapper Kendrick Lamar is the night’s most-nominated artist.) Mr. Hancock tapped into it fortuitously. His previous studio album, “Lite Me Up,” a pop-disco collaboration with Rod Temperton of Heatwave, had been a dud. His most recent hit had come a decade earlier, with his funk-fusion band the Headhunters. He needed to reconnect with a younger audience.

Through his manager, Mr. Hancock met with Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, whose vanguardist rock band Material was a fixture of New York’s downtown scene. Mr. Hancock decided to work with them on the basis of a demo tape — a prototype of “Rockit,” complete with scratching by D.ST. When a finished version of the track was played for executives at Mr. Hancock’s label, Columbia, it met with sputtering disbelief. He was refused a budget for a video.

So Mr. Hancock pursued that route on his own, enlisting Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the English rock duo who had directed videos by the Police and others. His instructions were minimal but canny. “I don’t want it to look like a ‘black guy’ video,” Mr. Hancock recalls telling them, in his autobiography, “Possibilities” (2014 ). Knowing MTV’s damning track record with videos by African-American artists, he put in an implicit request for strategic self-erasure.

The result was those herky-jerky androids, created by the artist-inventor Jim Whiting, which took baths and read the newspaper in a warped parody of a middle-class domestic scene. Mr. Hancock appears only on a small television screen, playing his synthesizer. The video was a phenomenal success, but it didn’t reveal much about the artists who created the song.

Herbie Hancock – "Rockit" Video by HerbieHancockVEVO

By contrast, Mr. Hancock was front and center at the Grammys, which like MTV in that era could fairly be described as an instrument of the monoculture — that elusive ideal of true pop consensus, as opposed to a messy realm of fiefs. That year, the Grammy telecast had 43.8 million viewers, its highest ratings ever, which are unlikely to be surpassed. (Last year’s tally was 25.3 million.)

One reason for the strong numbers was Michael Jackson, whose epochal album “Thriller” won eight awards that year — a record. The success of “Rockit” on that stage validated Mr. Hancock as a player on the pop landscape, precisely at a moment when everyone was watching. And an important part of what they saw was Grandmixer D.ST, who sported a wireless headset and blocky sunglasses, looking like a figure out of a “Star Wars” movie. (One of Lando Calrissian’s hipper associates in Cloud City, perhaps.)

Breakdancing was ascendant in pop culture in 1984 — the movie “Breakin’” would be released that spring — but the art of the D.J., though it had migrated from the Bronx to downtown clubs like the Roxy, was still something new on broadcast television. That made the D.J. an ambassador. For a generation of important younger D.J.s outside New York, like Cut Chemist, DJ QBert and DJ Babu, “Rockit” was a gateway, and the Grammys were a catalyst. In the 2002 documentary “Scratch,” Mix Master Mike recalls the performance as pivotal: “Oh, that’s where that zigga-zigga sound comes from,” he remembers thinking when he saw the D.J. moving the turntable back and forth. “And then I knew, that’s what I’m going to be one day.”

There’s a well-known bias in the Recording Academy toward what one might inadvisably call “real music,” played by skilled musicians on conventional instruments. As recently as 2012, a performance by the electronic producers Deadmau5 and David Guetta had to be awkwardly grafted to appearances by Chris Brown and the Foo Fighters. A 2014 segment for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was set in what looked like a 1970s recording studio, with Nile Rodgers reprising his part on guitar and a cameo by Stevie Wonder.

Herbie Hancock at International Jazz Day 2015 in Paris. Kristy Sparow/Getty Images 

In similar fashion, Mr. Hancock was his own legitimizing force behind “Rockit,” a bolt of reassurance that this music could, in fact, be seen as musical. The Grammy introduction made that point exactly: “Our next performer began with a rich classical background,” John Denver, the host, said, before noting his jazz credentials.

Mr. Hancock would of course become a familiar face at the Grammys, a trusted performer and a repeat winner. (You could do worse, as a conspiracy theorist, than to cite the “real music” rule to explain how he beat Kanye West and Amy Winehouse for Album of the Year in 2008.) In a sense, everything about his success in the field is evident in that “Rockit” performance — his ear for a hook; his disciplined enthusiasm as a bandleader; his willingness to stand at the center of a spectacle without commanding the center of attention.

His only solo occurs during the final eight bars of the tune, and by that point the android-turned-breakdancers have run away with the performance. Mr. Hancock shows no sign of misgivings about those circumstances, either in the moment or in hindsight. As he recalled in his book, “It was one of the greatest nights of my life.”



Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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