It was “Rockit” first. I’d heard of Herbie Hancock, but never listened to his music before I saw the 1983 video for his electro-pop animatronic mannequin bomb. Mostly a visual introduction, MTV was a certain kind of boring and repetitive, so both Hancock’s melodies and the visuals stood out from the pack for this little punker. I was like, “Oh! This is Herbie?”
My trip through teenaged music consumption was wide and weird, leaning toward new wave and punk, but my elders were weirder than I and pushed me toward Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and more Herbie music and stories than I knew what to do with.
And when the time came, it was Hancock’s Head Hunters album that offered another entry point to Herbie’s discography. My brother and I, and some skate friends of ours, all worked at a record store, which gave us cheap if not free access to all kinds of music all the time, so we took full advantage.
On Head Hunters we witnessed the funk, the jazz, the rock, and their serious fusion, but one of the songs on the album,“Watermelon Man,” was from earlier in his musical career and by the time it was released again on Head Hunters it was already a standard—recorded and played by dozens of jazz greats. But when rearranged by Herbie for his own reasons and directions, they held new weight. And it made you look back, look around, and say, “This is Herbie.”
I don’t know. I mean, really… I don’t know. But it was great and I was sure it was great, even if I was getting to it 15 years late. Also, I was NOT supposed to be listening to Herbie. I was supposed to listen to new music. Hard music. Tough music. Or music that would somehow get me ass. I never figured out that last one, and I WAS listening to all the age appropriate stuff, but the attraction of doing what I wasn’t supposed to be doing always worked. Still works. So it was disco and funk, all its off-shoots and all its origins for this nerd. But since then, it’s been liner notes: who played with whom, who produced what for whom, and kinda keeping an eye out for all of it.
I don’t wanna say it was justification of my love when Herbie started showing up in skate videos, but it was nice to see the union of my lives, I mean loves. Keep doing that, skate video makers. It’s an addition that can only enhance what you’re doing. And we all love what you’re doing. Warms my weird little heart.
And in keeping with that weirdness, here’s my heartfelt recommendation to any of you who’ve read this far: Listen to any and all Herbie Hancock you can get your ears on. Not only will you be hearing one of the greatest piano prodigies ever, but a seminal American composer, player, and band leader. And if you listen to Herbie, you’ll also be listening to dozens upon dozens of other American greats in their respective primes: Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Eric Dolphy, Buster Williams, Bennie Maupin, Paul Jackson, Mike Clark, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Bill Laswell (and the list grows), and more played with Herbie.
My actual recommendation, my narrow and compressed cherry pick of Herbie’s work, is anything between 1969 and 1976. If you see it, grab it. If your friend has it, play it. If you can dig it, I suggest digging deep. It’s the best!
For me, and I’m assuming a few others, this Herbie era represents a time when the old fans hated him and the new fans loved him; a time of transition from then to now, and a time of exploration and change. Actually, that sentiment is something that was said all through Hancock’s career. In the '70s at the end of his post-bop inventions, before his fusion work, and ever since. Herbie time seems to be all the times when people are forced to say, “This is Herbie?” and then just take it all in. —Kevin Wilkins