In 1984, a preeminent jazz pianist with a degree in electrical engineering makes a synthesizer-driven instrumental electronic funk track with a drum beat that mixes electronic drum pads with the acoustic drums of Cuban santería ceremonies, sample hits that range from Fab Five Freddy to Led Zeppelin, and then invites pioneering New York DJs like DXT and Grandmaster Caz to cut the whole thing up with record scratches.

Herbie with Vocoder

For the accompanying music video, a British fine artist builds movable sculptures out of mannequins and machinery, puts them in a set that looks like a 1970s sitcom house, and future Oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins comes in to film the whole scene. The final product, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” is crazy, bizarre, transfixing, would be at home in any art gallery in the world, and yet is also so catchy and fun that it somehow makes perfect sense that it was a pop hit, Hancock’s first and only Billboard Top 100 single, and earned a Grammy Award along with five MTV VMAs.

And that’s really the thing that makes Herbie Hancock such a genius. He makes music that’s constantly ambitious and technically brilliant but also just weird and fun. Not unlike painters such as Andy Warhol or Ed Ruscha whose prodigious abilities are applied to soup cans and gas stations, Hancock is a classically trained virtuoso who regularly performs with a keytar––and did so at such a level that one of his former keytars was acquired by the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

We can't confirm this but we think there is probably only one Keytar owned by the Smithsonian, and it's telling that it's Herbie's.

Originally from Chicago, Hancock was a child prodigy who performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11. After graduating from Grinnell College in 1960, at the age of 20, with degrees in electrical engineering and music, Hancock returned to Chicago to pursue jazz. After recording several records with Blue Note, he was personally recruited by Miles Davis to be the pianist for Davis’s Second Great Quintet. After leaving Davis in 1968 and Blue Note in 1969, the 1970s saw Hancock expand his own voice, first through writing music for the Fat Albert tv show, and also through developing his own sextet, which is where he began experimenting with electronic instruments and synthesizers.

Young Herbie Hancock - Adsum
A young Hancock was a classically trained child prodigy who performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by the time he was 11.

When compared to the most mainstream celebrated works of his peers like Davis’s Kind of Blue or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Hancock’s “Rockit” maybe isn’t the sort of thing that touches the hearts of new fans and inspires churches. But with all due respect to his fellow luminaries, Hancock’s career isn’t the sort of the thing defined by a particular album or horn riff. While he has produced countless critically acclaimed albums, won Grammys and an Academy Award, and is undeniably one of the greatest jazz musicians in the history of the genre, he is most well known for a wacky video art breakdancing anthem not necessarily because it’s the best piece of music he ever made, but because he was genius enough to try it.