“Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven't heard anybody yet who has come after him.”
— Miles Davis,Miles: The Autobiography
During the past four decades, Herbie Hancock has taken chances, surpassing virtually every musical boundary and embracing technology as an asset to both music and humanity. He has fused jazz, rock, funk and electronics into some of the most sampled releases of all time. He planted the seeds for trip-hop and acid jazz through his early jazz classics and later fusion experiments, which combined Afrocentric polyrhythms, electronic keyboards, and deep, jazzy grooves.
Hancock's Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998) project united artists as varied as Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell in an interpretation of George Gershwin's musical legacy. Arguably the first synthesis of hip-hop and jazz, 1983's “Rockit” was an experiment in electronic music that kicked and scratched its way into popular consciousness. The driving, funky track from the Platinum-selling Future Shock (Columbia/Legacy, 1983) won Hancock and coproducer Bill Laswell a Grammy (one of Hancock's eight). Recent projects include the Transparent Music label, on which he released 2001's Future 2 Future. The album features collaborations with turntablist Rob Swift, A Guy Called Gerald and Carl Craig.
Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock was ahead of the pack from the beginning, performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the prodigious age of 11. His interest in jazz was matched only by an interest in technology, exemplified by his studies of both music and electrical engineering in college. Discovered by trumpeter Donald Byrd in 1960, Hancock joined the legendary Blue Note Records family, releasing his debut album, Takin' Off, in 1963.
That same year, he was invited to join the Miles Davis Quintet, with whom he recorded albums such as Sorcerer (Columbia/Legacy, 1962), ESP (Columbia/Legacy, 1965) and Nefertiti (Columbia/Legacy, 1967). Although Hancock left the Quintet in 1968, he continued to contribute to Davis' landmark albums, including Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969), the seminal jazz-fusion album that laid the groundwork for contemporary electro-jazz fusion.
Hancock's oeuvre has been sampled by everyone from Slum Village, Global Communication and Jedi Knights to Deee-Lite — who built the hit “Groove Is in the Heart” on a bass line lifted from Hancock's 1967 soundtrack for Antonioni's cult classic Blow-Up (Atlantic, 1966). In 1994, British hip-hop group Us3's “Cantaloop,” which introduced a larger public to acid jazz, featured prominent samples from Hancock's Cantaloupe Island (Blue Note, 1994). Hancock's soundtrack work has also influenced contemporary producers. He won an Academy Award for his score to 'Round Midnight (Columbia, 1986), a film he also appeared in. Other film and television soundtrack credits include Action Jackson (Lorimar, 1988) and Bill Cosby's Fat Albert.
Indeed, Hancock has always been a bit of a professor, hosting PBS's Rock School series and founding the philanthropic arts and technology Rhythm of Life Organization (ROLO) in 1996, which aims to “find ways to help technology improve humanity.” With his limitless musical approach and populist penchant, Hancock has often raised purists' eyebrows in both ire and praise. Even his attire has garnered props in nu-jazzer Kirk Degiorgio's track “The Message in Herbie's Shirts.” Putting Hancock's iconic status and visionary nature aside, the proof remains in the pudding.