Herbie Hancock: How I Overcame My Language Barrier With Rap
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Pianist Herbie Hancock performs in Las Vegas City in May. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images
Aug. 7, 2016 2:09 p.m. ET
Herbie Hancock ’s got a brand-new band.
These words alone should lure fans spanning three generations to the Prospect Park Bandshell on Aug. 11.
Headlining a benefit concert for the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, Mr. Hancock will unveil a quintet that includes keyboardist and saxophonist Terrace Martin, best known as Kendrick Lamar’s producer and chief collaborator for “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which won five Grammy awards this year.
Mr. Hancock, who has 14 Grammy statues of his own, has enlisted Mr. Martin to produce and play on his follow-up to 2010’s “Imagine,” a double Grammy winner.
At 76 years old, Mr. Hancock is an elder statesman in more than metaphoric terms: On April 29, he and President Barack Obama shared a stage on the South Lawn at the White House to mark International Jazz Day, an event he helped create.
Mr. Hancock guards the details of his new project like a state secret. Yet, there have been leaks.
In March, Mr. Martin’s revelation that “Kendrick is on the album, Snoop is on the album” started buzz on the internet. Fans wondered online about the participation of producer/rapper Flying Lotus and bassist Thundercat. Mr. Hancock has appeared on their albums, and he thinks they represent a new movement.
“They’re gaining a new underground audience who identifies what they hear as hip and new, and who may not even know that it’s really jazz,” Mr. Hancock said.
Mr. Martin’s generation builds on challenging harmonic and rhythmic languages that Mr. Hancock helped establish. To work with these musicians, Mr. Hancock confronted a language barrier of his own.
He spoke with The Wall Street Journal about this challenge and his new project’s promise.
WSJ: You’ve said that you ask yourself what each new album can accomplish. What can this one do?
HH: It continues my idea for “Imagine,” of people getting together globally to tackle some of our problems.
What problem are you tackling here?
It stems from an observation about myself. Flying Lotus told me that I needed to check out Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” So I listened, but I got stopped by the language. I heard the N-word, which of course is very common in rap and hip-hop. It’s not that I didn’t expect that, but I hadn’t analyzed my own reaction. I realized that if I’m going to listen to this record, I can’t have that stop me. I had judged it first, which is something I’m not prone to doing. Here I was being judgmental out of ignorance, and due to a generation gap.
How did you get past that?
I asked myself, “Whose problem is it?” It’s not Kendrick’s problem. It’s not the genre’s problem. It’s my problem. I’m the one to fix that. As soon as I owned up to getting in my own way, I opened up. I appreciated it as a great record. I could understand its meaning. I even turned Chick Corea on to it.
Since then, I’ve understood more about how this younger generation is keenly aware of anything fake or not from the heart, how they need to remove the nice ways we clothe difficult truths. I understood why the language was the way it was. Behind closed doors, black people talk to black people that way.
Have these sessions yielded musical awakenings, too?
Of course. I decided be a fly on the wall to see how these guys work. Often, they get together, play and record what they’re playing, pretty much on the fly, which is more organic than what I usually do.
Doesn’t that sound like the way Miles Davis worked with you a half-century ago?
Well, yes. Miles was the beginning of all that. And Terrace and these guys love to hear me tell stories about Miles and Wayne [Shorter] and I. They see the connection. Except there was a big gap before it really caught on in this modern age.
What will the new album sound like?
I don’t know yet. We’re just starting to organize all the ideas we’ve laid down, to get to level two. In Brooklyn, what you’ll hear will be strictly instrumental, no singing or rapping. It will be a work in progress, bare bones, but also an entry point into a new dimension for me.
It there a title?
This baby isn’t born yet, so I won’t name it.