TECHNO IS FAR FROM NEW. After forebears like Stockhausen and Kraftwerk (who synthesized, in several senses, the psychedelic era's sonic radicalism), Herbie Hancock and Bill Laswell were among the earliest big names to start messing with it almost two decades ago. On February 8, 1998, Hancock's 1980s techno landmarks, Future Shock, Sound System, and Perfect Machine, were reissued—just in time—or so the corporate thinkers at this major label, facing the precipitous sales drop decimating their industry at the onset of the 21st century, must have hoped—to catch the lastest heaving waves of house, techno, and electronica. Hence the following meditation on Hancock's long and prolific career as an eclectic and catalytic sonic explorer.
IT WAS 1951, AND THE 11-YEAR-OLD piano prodigy was onstage with the Chicago Symphony, performing a Mozart concerto for his debut.
That would have been unusual enough. But in addition, to make things more intriguing, the youngster was black, in an era when virtually all American symphony orchestras were lily-white and, unthinkingly or not, were determined to stay that way.
Welcome to the life of Herbie Hancock. Musically speaking, it seems to have started far far away from the sound we call funk—especially since funk, when Hancock was a boy, was a backyard word polite folks listening to Mozart certainly didn't utter: it meant the pungent smell of sex.
Hancock's talent hasn't been limited to his gifted fingers, though there have been few greater or more versatile keyboard players, whether on grand piano or Macintosh computer, in the annals of American music. No, he is also a cultural synthesizer, a reimaginer, a visionary artist whose ears have been able to pluck fascinating sounds, the sounds needed or useful as grist to his creative mill, regardless of their pedigree. He is one of those artists who is continually reintegrating the changing culture around him, and in the process helping to change it. Funky, after all, was not a word young Herbie Hancock would have used to describe nice