decades of fun

Herbie Hancock Gets Funky Article

by Super J

Originally published on October 1999


This article discusses some of Herbie Hancock’s contributions to funk music and by no means is intended to be comprehensive. The emphasis of the article is to take a musical tour of Hancock’s works (under his own name) between 1973 and 1980.

The funk band – now that music has such strong roots in the Earth. With all the earthiness there’s always room for flight. The biggest reason I enjoy playing this new kind of funk is the contrast between the wide open improvisations and the funky foundation at the bottom. It gives the music a character that is broad, vast, yet in touch with the people” – Herbie Hancock, V.S.O.P. 1977

Herbert Hancock was born on April 12, 1940 in Chicago. He received classical training in piano and was performing at the age of 9, but was more interested in jazz rather than classical music. At age 21 he jammed alongside Coleman Hawkins and Donald Byrd, forming his first small group with Donald Byrd.


He was offered a contract with Blue Note shortly afterwards. He recorded some cuts in the early sixties, eventually joining Miles Davis’ band and becoming an important sideman.

By 1968 he was experimenting with electronic sounds and started recording under his own name once again. He formed a Sextet and recorded experimental electronic atmospheric jazz. These sessions included percussionist Bill Summers, and Bennie Maupin – both soon-to-be Headhunters.

He found himself listening to the likes of Sly Stone and James Brown, becoming particularly taken in with the tune “Thank you falettin me be mice elf again” by Sly. Herbie was hip to the new sound and wanted to incorporate this energy and groove into his own music. The Headhunter group was born.


He took a different approach to forming a group. Rather than selecting a small group of jazz musicians who could play funk, he chose a group of funk musicians who could play jazz. This included Harvey Mason, Paul Jackson, Bill Summers (from his previous group), Bennie Maupin (also from his previous group) and eventually numerous others. With this group he issued the album “Headhunters”.

“Headhunters” in 1973 busted it wide open

The album went straight to No.1 on the jazz charts and stayed at the top for fifteen weeks. The album was ahead of its time and jazz purists hated it. Herbie was one step ahead again, this time doing funk his way. It remains to this day a top-notch jazz-funk experiment. The musicians are so tight it is breathtaking, and the music is so complex that few live bands today dare to try and reproduce these tunes.

Track listing for Headhunters (1973):
Watermelon Man
Vein Melter

Sly is a tribute to Sly Stone, and is very sophisticated electronic jazz-funk. Chameleon has become a standard for some DJs and has been sampled numerous times. It ranks as one of the most important funk albums ever made.


Since Herbie had just left Warner Bros. where records with the electronic atmospheric jazz group were made, WB released a compilation 2-LP package containing cuts from the albums “Fat Albert’s Rotunda”, “Miwandisihi” and “Crossings”. The compilation was called “Treasure Chest”. The album “Fat Albert…” seems to have been a rather funky LP, one which I haven’t heard myself.

In 1974, Harvey Mason left the band (temporarily) and was replaced by Mike Clark, who had already been jamming before with Paul Jackson. Herbie was commissioned to do a soundtrack for a thriller film starring Charles Bronson called “Deathwish”.

Track listing for Deathwish (1974):
Death Wish (Main Title)
Joanna’s Theme
Do a Thing
Paint her mouth
Rich Country
Suite Revenge: A. Striking Back, B. Riverside, C. The Alley, D. Last Stop, E. 8th Avenue Station
Ochoa Knose
Party People
Fill your hand


The album in many ways was a traditional soundtrack. There were considerable amounts of string instruments used to reproduced film moods in typical ways. But a few of the tracks had a peculiar energy to them, showing evidence of funk creeping in. It by no means ranks as an important funk soundtrack, but contains some interesting musical moments and is worth a listen.

The next studio album for the group would be titled “Thrust”, also issued in 1974.

Track Listing for Thrust (1974):
Palm Grease
Actual Proof


This is not an album to be trifled with. This is a hard-core funk record, and an astounding follow-up album to “Headhunters”. The funk style is not at all like the “funky 45” grits, but rather an aural assault by jazz-trained funk musicians.

Like the previous album, this is some of the most sophisticated funk-jazz ever put to record, making wispy crossover artists think twice before daring to label themselves “jazz-funk”.

Palm Grease, Actual Proof, and Spank-A-Line are top-notch driving jazz-funk cuts. Butterfly is a well-conceived ballad. This type of music is best suited to funk mind-trips and musical analysis rather than the dance-floor. Mind-blowing.

Late in 1974, Herbie would record a live album of this material from this period. His favorite place to play seemed to be in Japan, and he decided to record it. It was released the album (apparently only in Japan) under the name “Flood”.

Track Listing for Flood (1974):
Introduction – Maiden Voyage
Actual Proof
Watermelon Man
Hang up your Hang ups


This album contains extended jams of cuts from the first two albums, Headhunters and Thrust. It also contains a new cut entitled “Hang up your Hang ups” which was to appear in studio form on their following album. The version here is a live one which lasts for some 20 minutes. The bass playing by Paul Jackson on this cut is the most some of the most complex finger-style funk bass playing ever put to record.

It appears from this recording and the previous one that Herbie was becoming quite taken in with the funk and wanted to seek the upper limit for orgasmic funk. His funky pinnacle lies on this record.

After these recordings several other jazz-funk musicians (including Louis Johnson from the Brothers Johnson) sat up and took notice. Harvey Mason had played on Herbie’s “Headhunters” album and wanted to rejoin (whether from listening to Thrust or Flood, or both). Mike Clark was still playing drums on some cuts, and another studio cat James Gadson, contributed on drums. Paul Jackson was still on bass, and was joined by Louis Johnson and Henry Davis on bass. Along with Harvey Mason, Blackbyrd McKnight (later to join P-funk), Stevie Wonder, and a whole menagerie of studio cats wanted a piece of the action.

It is not clear if these musicians sought out Herbie, or if Herbie invited them to play on the album, but Herbie (who was always the experimentalist) wanted some fresh blood on this album. The new album was called Man-Child. Jazz critics howled, feeling that the Blue-Note Herbie was lost forever.

Track Listing for Man-Child (1975):
Hang up your Hangups
Sun Touch
The Traitor
Steppin’ In It


Sun Touch and Bubbles are slow tempo tunes. Although they have steady beats, they are tending towards an atmospheric sound using a funk arrangement. Steppin’ In It is a pure funk-pop groove, sounding like it could have come straight off of a P-funk record (except for the fact that it is instrumental). One can’t help thinking of Bootsy Collins when listening to this track.

Steppin’ In It is also where Stevie Wonder makes a cameo appearance, playing harmonica throughout the track which adds a down-home feel to a rather circus-style funk track. Hang Up your Hangups was already being worked on from before and made its first appearance on the Flood album. It appears here as the studio version, still wickedly funky, and compressed from 20 minutes to 7 minutes. This still stands as Herbie’s finest funk track.

The Traitor was co-written by Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson) and is also a hard-core funk cut, featuring some fine bass-slapping at the end of the tune. The arrangement is pure funk, but could stand up well as a straight-ahead jazz cut if played on acoustic instruments.

Heartbeat, although shorter (about 5 minutes) demonstrates well the tightness which the Headhunters group is famous for. I have actually managed to get a DJ to play this at a party, but found to my dismay that the average pop-music fan found it overwhelming. The beat is super heavy with a growling funk rhythm guitar. Absolutely nasty.

A new guitarist named Wah Wah Watson joined Herbie on this album and his contribution is unmistakable. Wah Wah Watson specialized in sophisticated single-note repeated rhythms combined with complex wah pedal patterns, adding a new level of nastiness to a sophisticated jazz-funk album.



Herbie continued his funk experimentation in 1976 with a new album entitled “Secrets”. Sporting a huge Afro and goatee on the cover, he was hardly recognizable compared to the Blue-Note Herbie ten years earlier. Wah Wah Watson appeared again on this album, contributing his vicious wah-pedal guitar lines. Mike Clark and Harvey Mason didn’t appear on this album (although Harvey Mason was putting out albums under his own name, with Herbie playing on his records to return the favor). James Gadson was the only drummer on this new album with Kenneth Nash added as a new percussionist (Bill Summers was on Prestige recording under his own name) and Blackbyrd McKnight had joined the P-funk crew.

Once again another jazz-funk guitarist was added, none other than Ray Parker Jr., Mr. “Ghostbusters” himself (before he scored his own pop hit). The faithful Bennie Maupin also appeared on the album (and had been on all of Herbie’s albums to date since he joined him in the experimental jazz group). Herbie’s credit on the album reads like a summary of currently available keyboard technology:

Herbie Hancock: Piano, Rhodes Electric Piano, Yamaha Electric Grand Piano, Arp Odyssey, Arp String Ensemble, Hohner D6 JClavinet, Moog Micro-Moog, Oberheim Polyphonic Synthesizer, Echoplex.

And add to that Wah Wah Watson’s credit:
Wah Wah Watson: Guitar, Maestro Universal Synthesizer system, Maestro Sample and hold unit, voice bag.

…and you have a studio full of electronic music equipment. Herbie knew what he was doing though, and it showed on the album. The effects blend into the music, to the point where it is hard to imagine these cuts being played any other way.

Track Listing for Secrets (1976):
Doin’ It
People Music
Cantelope Island
Gentle Thoughts
Swamp Rat
Sansho Shima


“Doin’ It” is a forecast of Herbie’s 1980’s electro-funk. It utilizes some vocals, fat and guttural wah effects and envelope filter effects. Sansho Shima is an interesting track, a wicked-jazz-funk tune with hints of pentatonic scale usage. The title is a Japanese name.

Cantelope Island is reworked to sound a little more like funky reggae (at least it sounds like this was the intention), it doesn’t really succeed as a reggae track, but fits well as a funky jazz piece alongside the other tracks.

There were tiny hints of electro-funk on Man-Child, but “Doin’ It” is pretty full-blown electro funk. Paul Jackson was still the bassist, except on “Doin’ It” where Wah Wah Watson plays bass. The drummer was another studio cat by the name of James Levi.

This was Herbie’s third drummer for the funk group. Harvey Mason, Mike Clark, and James Levi all have surprisingly similar styles, and all 3 were able to play some of the wickedest funk beats known to humankind. The sophistication of the musicianship and the piece structure is awesome. Compared to mainstream funk this material is on another level in terms of musical sophistication.


The real crowning achievement of this album (and Herbie’s other funk albums) is that he can maintain a crack group of musicians, create tunes which are mind-expanding in their musical complexity and dexterity, yet through it all maintains a groove that kicks you right in the gut and keeps you moving. Quite an accomplishment.

Some musicians are tight, but don’t really groove and aren’t that sophisticated. Some musicians can play very sophisticated music, but are not tight or don’t have a groovy sound. Some musicians can play a good hook and groove but the music is simple and sometimes a little sloppy. But Herbie has all three elements: Sophistication, soul and an incredible sense of rhythm.


This article by Super J was originally published on on 10/1/99