Perspective: Hank Shocklee

As a founding member of Public Enemy’s production unit The Bomb Squad, Hank Shocklee was behind some of hip-hop’s most radical sonic developments. Here, he recalls the initial controversy surrounding sampling, and celebrates the limitless future of musical innovation.

I don’t think The Bomb Squad ever had a musical vision. From my perspective, it was more of a thing where I wanted to give each artist an identity. I didn’t want any other group to have the same sound as Public Enemy. So that’s why when you listen to the Ice Cube record, the Slick Rick record or the Kings of Pressure records we did – all those records sound different.

If I had it my way, all of our records would have come out like Fear Of A Black Planet [1990]. But if you understand where things were going at the time, you can’t shock people that much – just doing Yo! Bum Rush The Show [1987] was a departure from the entire rap scene at the time. Those albums were important to me because each one was a progression. Yo!.. was the introduction, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back [1988] was second gear (where Yo!.. should have been but couldn’t, because it was trying to speak to the musical genre of the time). And then Fear… was a departure, because now the sound had become accepted. And once the sound is accepted, now you can take it deeper.

I had an incredible library of music, I’d been collecting records since I was five years old, and I wanted to show that off in my production style. And so we came up with collages, creating them with all kinds of samples. The Bomb Squad was basically coming from a DJ’s perspective, and not from a musician’s perspective, which made us different from a lot of other artists. Musicians are always looking for a sample that’s pretty much in key and in context of what’s already going on. And very rarely do they use samples which convey a message that they want to get across.

There were two schools of thought when sampling started happening. One was from the musician’s perspective – and I’m talking about the “classically” trained musicians. They looked as us as if we weren’t creative, because we were taking bits of stuff from other places. However, there was also a progressive community of musicians who were looking at what were doing as daring. They could see that not only were we using records, but also look into how we were using them: the techniques, the clashing, the dissonance of melody that was happening. And then there was the streets. We were doing something that everybody who was into hip-hop wanted to do, but had thought they didn’t have the resources or the opportunities to be able to do it. So that kind of re-invigorated the hip-hop community.

Our production was done in a pre– production studio that we had out in Hempstead, New York. We just had our drum machine, some turntables and a four track tape machine. We learnt how to get eight to ten tracks out of it by constantly re-sampling. In 1985, before Public Enemy even had a deal, I’d swore in Eric “Vietnam” Sandler to form The Bomb Squad because I had this incredible collection of records and I wanted to create the vibration of sample-based music. Back then, I had to have different people to be responsible for different paths, the equipment just wasn’t there. Today, one person can work as ten people.

The things that you can do today, it’s just out of this world. Now you can pretty much hear sounds that have never, ever been heard before. Let’s look at things from a 1960s standpoint, for example. You could only get so many combinations of sonic flavour. Then when the sampling came in, it offered a new type of timbre to listen to. Now, not only could you listen to the instruments that were being played, but you could hear the instruments being played from a phonograph, that were recorded onto tape, that were run through an equaliser. All different types of flavours. With the computer, you can take that to extremes, and almost to infinity. You’re going to hear a revolution in the future with sound. To me, it hasn’t even begun yet.

The deluxe editions of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet are out now via Def Jam