The Vocoder's Cyborg Flights in Electronic Music and Hip-Hop

The first time the legendary jazz bandleader Herbie Hancock streaked his voice across one of his albums, he threaded it through a vocoder first. Hancock's 1978 album Sunlight prominently features the Sennheiser Vocoder VSM201, a newly manufactured device that thinned and buffed his voice to a futuristic shine on the album's disco-inflected A-side. On songs like "I Thought It Was You" and "Come Running To Me," Hancock's heavily processed voice pitches higher than its natural range, its guttural qualities swapped out for an airy computerized whine. It's a voice that matches its partly synthesized, partly acoustic instrumentation, a tone caught between worlds—not quite human and not quite machine, but a third, cyborgian presence.

First developed in the early 20th century and used during World War II to encrypt telephone conversations between world leaders, the vocoder sneaked its way into popular music in the early '70s by way of the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's 1971 science fiction movie, A Clockwork Orange. (The generic term "vocoder," a portmanteau of "voice" and "encoder," has since been applied to many different vocal-manipulation devices.) Wendy Carlos, whose 1968 album, Switched-On Bach, was largely responsible for popularizing the Moog synthesizer, signed on to write and perform a score fitting the movie's dystopian ambiance. The film's protagonist loves Beethoven, and Carlos and her primary collaborator Rachel Elkind had already begun work on a synth adaptation of the Ninth Symphony with its famous choral setting "Ode to Joy."

Hancock introduces the vocoder to a live audience in this 1979 performance of "I Thought It Was You."

They had tried before, with little success, to get the Moog to "sing," but found it could not convincingly enunciate consonants. Rather than conjure up a voice fully from inside the machine, Carlos opted to filter Elkind's singing voice through a vocoder, a technology she had first encountered at the Bell Labs Pavilion during the New York World's Fair of 1964–65. The result fit the sound of the Moog perfectly: This cyborg voice retained enough human qualities to be decipherable, even as it was plated over with pristine computer tones. Early listeners were skeptical of the new sound. "The first reactions were unanimous: Everyone hated it!" Carlos wrote on her website decades later. "A playing synth was bad enough, but a 'singing' synth? Too much, turn it off!"

Not long after Carlos and Elkind first applied the vocoder to music, it began reverberating across national borders, from the United States to Germany and Japan and back again. With each iteration, it accumulated new meaning and potential. In the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, the vocoder's cyborg presence deepened the movie's considerations of what it might mean to "program" a person against his will—to empty him of self-determination and turn him into something more like a computer. Across the Atlantic in Düsseldorf a few years later, the groundbreaking electronic band Kraftwerk began deploying the vocoder in their own explorations of personhood and technology.

Not long after Carlos and Elkind first applied the vocoder to music, it began reverberating across national borders, from the United States to Germany and Japan and back again. With each iteration, it accumulated new meaning and potential. In the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, the vocoder's cyborg presence deepened the movie's considerations of what it might mean to "program" a person against his will—to empty him of self-determination and turn him into something more like a computer. Across the Atlantic in Düsseldorf a few years later, the groundbreaking electronic band Kraftwerk began deploying the vocoder in their own explorations of personhood and technology.

On albums like 1977's Trans-Europe Express, 1978's The Man-Machine, and 1981's Computer World, Kraftwerk sought to locate the role of the human in an increasingly surveilled and automated modern world. They declared themselves robots, speak-singing in dry, modulated tones over impossibly tight drum machine beats and synthesized arpeggios. Singing into machines, they professed their love for computers, serenading not the person on the other end of the line but the cold, impartial screens of the connective devices themselves. Though Kraftwerk's music was future-oriented (and certainly prescient), they rarely incubated a sense of cynicism or dystopia in their work. Their melodies slant upwards, more innocent than all-knowing; they sound helpless and in awe of technology rather than terrified of it.

The open ambivalence toward technology that Kraftwerk maintained throughout their seminal work in the '70s and early '80s made their music and its techniques easy to reinterpret. Their use of the vocoder radiated into Herbie Hancock's work (he used the Sennheiser on 1979's Feets Don't Fail Me Now as well as Sunlight), populated Italo-disco producer Giorgio Moroder's 1977 album, From Here to Eternity, and found its way into the albums of the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra. Beginning in the early '80s, the vocoder would begin to make a natural home in the new, Bronx-based genre of hip-hop—a form of music that, like Kraftwerk, challenged conventional narratives about the relationships between human beings and novel technology.

If a genre can be said to originate from a single moment in time, then hip-hop's starting point is well-documented. It sprang from a high school party at the end of the summer of 1973, hosted by a teenage DJ Kool Herc and his sister, Cindy Campbell. Herc spun records for his friends on his parents' soundsystem in the rec room of their apartment building, opting for songs with long instrumental breakdowns that inspired the crowd to dance. His friend, Coke La Rock, started shouting out the names of his friends over these vocal-free segments, a musical style derived from Jamaican toasting that would later become rap. Word of the music at the party spread through the Bronx, and as Herc got hired at more and more gigs, he began extending the drum breakdowns of the soul and funk records he played, spinning two copies of the same record simultaneously and resetting the needle so that the break went on indefinitely. He dubbed this technique "the merry-go-round."

In this way, from its beginning, hip-hop consciously reinscribed the potential meaning of the consumer technology on which it depended. A turntable, as a product, came pre-loaded with a specific model of music consumption: It was meant to play a record from beginning to end, to serve as a delivery device for prerecorded music. It was never intended to be an instrument in itself, just an intermediary between record company and listener. Hip-hop, along with its Manhattan cousin disco, positioned the listener as an artist in her own right—someone who could take consumer products designed for passive consumption and flip them around into active, dynamic tools.

In an interview with Mark Dery for his 1993 book, Flame Wars, science-fiction author Samuel R. Delany noted the challenge that hip-hop posed to the technological tools in its arsenal. "To look at any of these black cultural youth movements as an easy and happy development blossoming uncritically from the overwhelmingly white world of high-tech production that, yes, makes that culture possible is, I suspect, thoroughly to misread the fiercely oppositional nature of this art: scratch and sampling begin, in particular, as a specific miss-use and conscientious desecration of the artifacts of technology and the entertainment media," he said.

Jonzun Crew play "Pack Jam" on German TV, 1983.

The vocoder, another technology misapplied toward musical purposes, fit neatly into this schema, and by 1982 had found its place in hip-hop.

The subgenre known as electro-boogie bloomed that year, when the Boston-based rap group Jonzun Crew, the Bronx DJ and rapper Afrika Bambaataa, and the Bronx hip-hop group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five all released pivotal vocoder-based singles. Jonzun Crew's "Pack Man (Look Out For The OVC)" drew references to Sun Ra's jazz Afrofuturism into a hip-hop context ("OVC" stands for "Outerspace Visual Communicator," a video synthesizer played by its creator, Bill Sebastian, at Sun Ra concerts in the late '70s). Amid detuned arpeggios, sparse percussion, and minor key motifs in the style of Kraftwerk, a deeply corroded voice rasps, chants, and laughs. The song's title can be made out, and the name of the Outerspace Visual Communicator, and little else. The song plays like a garbled transmission from a distant planet; its central voice, engulfed in immeasurable space, holds a certain authority, as if it were calling out from a world more advanced than our own, and unintelligible in its advancement.

"Jonzun Crew broke out of their own constraining present with instruments that gestured toward a post-human landscape, a place where the line between human and machine blurred away."

Jonzun Crew's 1983 debut album, Lost in Space, introduced more concrete pop elements to the group's futuristic sound, all while highlighting the vocoder as a primary tool. It once again pointed to Sun Ra as an ancestor with the song "Space is the Place," a reinterpretation of the Afrofuturist visionary's iconic 1973 track. If Sun Ra deployed the tools of jazz toward an expansive, utopian future, Jonzun Crew broke out of their own constraining present with instruments that gestured toward a post-human landscape, a place where the line between human and machine blurred away. The group readily transformed themselves into cyborgs with the vocoder, but their work's finer details retained a sense of human embodiment.

Toward the end of "Space is the Place," Jonzun Crew stage a call-and-response coda, a technique with deep roots in Black gospel. "You must follow me," speaks one voice, and a chorus of voices answers: "We will follow you." "You must follow me to space," clarifies the first voice, and as the vocals fade out, the sound of heavy breathing replaces them. By its nature, the vocoder irons out non-utterances like breathing. The song concludes not with the sound of robots blasting off into the heavens, but with the sound of a panicked, disoriented human being taking stock of an alien environment.

The year 1982 also saw the release of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "Scorpio," an electro single from the album The Message that similarly deployed the vocoder toward thinning and granulating the human voice to the point of near-unrecognizability. That same year, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force's landmark single "Planet Rock" interpolated two Kraftwerk songs—"Trans Europe Express," from which it gets its beat and synth motif, and "Numbers," from which it takes a vocoder sample—toward its own vision of post-industrial humankind. Bambaataa also processed his own voice on the track, using a vocoder and a Lexicon PCM42 digital delay to lend his raps a gleaming metallic edge. While "Pack Man" and "Scorpio" both carried an air of future menace in their refusal to yield the voice and their insistence on an enigmatic cyborgian presence, "Planet Rock" focused more on how technology could bolster, rather than disappear, the human. Bambaataa's calls and responses sound more as though he's speaking to a real, live crowd, rather than a congregation of robots. His sparing use of voice processing technologies line the song with futuristic potentials without drowning it in them. Technology is the starting point, but people are the end goal.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - "Scorpio"

In Flame Wars, Mark Dery asks hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose how the use of consumer technology squares with the Black musical tradition. "Can one be funky and mechanical?" he queries. "No question; that's what hip-hop is!" she replies. "If we understand the machine as a product of human creativity whose parameters are always suggesting what's beyond them, then we can read hip-hop as the response of urban people of color to the postindustrial landscape... What Afrika Bambaataa and hip-hoppers like him saw in Kraftwerk’s use of the robot was an understanding of themselves as already having been robots. Adopting ‘the robot’ reflected a response to an existing condition: namely, that they were labor for capitalism, that they had very little value as people in this society. By taking on the robotic stance, one is ‘playing with the robot.’ It’s like wearing body armor that identifies you as an alien: if it’s always on anyway, in some symbolic sense, perhaps you could master the wearing of this guise in order to use it against your interpolation."


Vocoders on Reverb

The idea of anticapitalist body armor appeared not just in electro-boogie's sound but also its costumes. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force wore flowing lame robes in the Afrofuturist tradition of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic for the "Planet Rock" video, while Jonzun Crew donned motorcycle helmets and sparkling military jackets for "Pack Jam." These outfits obscured the performers without fully roboticizing them, much as the vocoder did to their voices. If, in the 1980s, white society was content to file Black people away as cheap labor with no further value, Black artists responded by transforming themselves into cyborgs. Shut out from the full sphere of the human, but not content to be machines, either, they employed the vocoder as a mutating tool, an escape hatch from an impossible dichotomy. Bambaataa, Flash, and Jonzun Crew fashioned themselves a third entity, and found a way out.

In the 21st century, following the success of Cher's 1998 single, "Believe," the pitch-correcting software Auto-Tune has largely replaced vocoder as the voice processing method du jour, used to great effect by artists like T-Pain and Charli XCX. One notable holdout from the '90s is Daft Punk, the French duo who siphoned techniques from house and electro-boogie to massive popularity and acclaim. Their robot voices derive from Black American uses of vocoder, in addition to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and like many European mimics they have greatly outsold their influences. Singles like "Technologic" and "Harder Better Faster Stronger" loop vocoded phrases that vaguely gesture toward their capitalist environments through breezy, easily digestible pop structures, largely defanging the modes of resistance that have coursed through much of the vocoder's history.

In the 21st century, following the success of Cher's 1998 single, "Believe," the pitch-correcting software Auto-Tune has largely replaced vocoder as the voice processing method du jour, used to great effect by artists like T-Pain and Charli XCX. One notable holdout from the '90s is Daft Punk, the French duo who siphoned techniques from house and electro-boogie to massive popularity and acclaim. Their robot voices derive from Black American uses of vocoder, in addition to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and like many European mimics they have greatly outsold their influences. Singles like "Technologic" and "Harder Better Faster Stronger" loop vocoded phrases that vaguely gesture toward their capitalist environments through breezy, easily digestible pop structures, largely defanging the modes of resistance that have coursed through much of the vocoder's history.

The chirpy, French-accented vocals of "Harder Better Faster Stronger" were rerouted into hip-hop in 2007, when Kanye West sampled the song on his single "Stronger." If Daft Punk's original track cheerily gargled words that could have been taken from a manual on worker optimization, West's take funneled the same phrases into a biting tale of survival at any cost. The song's video borrows posthuman imagery from the 1988 anime Akira, casting West as Tetsuo, a biologically engineered teenager who has broken out of his captors' control. He replaces the original's busy house beat with a darker and more pummeling drum pattern that lets its hi-hat linger, and raps seethingly over Daft Punk's vocoder. The phrase he loops the most from "Harder Better Faster Stronger" is the one that dips into a startlingly low register on the last two words: "Our work is never over." Taken into West's hands, the phrase bleeds menace. It's no longer merely a description of capitalism and the place of the human being within it, a source of eternal labor. Instead, it rings defiantly, the cyborg voice clanging against a cyborg beat, seeking escape and beginning the long, hard task of building the world to come.


About the author: Sasha Geffen is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, out now from the University of Texas Press. Their writing also appears in Rolling Stone, Artforum, The Nation, Pitchfork, and elsewhere. They live in Colorado.

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