Dave Tompkins reads from 'How to Wreck a Nice Beach' tonight at Skylight Books
At its most elemental, the vocoder is an instrument of deception. A mode for veiled communication -- slang in binary code. The U.S and Russian militaries used it to compress and encrypt speech to elude enemy interception, but it soon acquired a sci-fi and funk addiction.
Kraftwerk re-conceived it for android enhancement -- to create skinny-tied soundtracks for transcontinental cosmopolitanism. Italy’s Giorgio Moroder sluiced its artificial glow through the shag caterpillar on his upper lip. Rammellzee didn’t need it. His language of thought and theories of linguistic warfare boasted their own encryptions. But he deployed it anyway, with such thrust that it nearly induced vomiting.
Afrika Bambaataa used it to align the planets, the Zulu Nation, uptown and downtown NYC, and even adolescents in North Carolina, who applied to Tommy Boy Records’ Future Beat Alliance, a confederacy covalently bonded through its “propagation of the funk.”
A quarter century later, Dave Tompkins, one of those electro-funk war babies, has written “How to Wreck a Nice Beach,” a megillah of maniacs, militarists and disco mustaches. It is the only book you will read in this lifetime with epigraphs from "The Simpsons" and Poison Clan, ruminations on Vincent Price imitating Oscar Wilde and oblique “Arrested Development” references. It’s unquestionably brilliant, not only one of the best music books of the year, but also one of the best music books ever written.
Originally conceived as an anthology of Tompkins’ collected work from Wax Poetics, the Believer, Urb, Stop Smiling and other publications, it quickly mutated into an eight-year-long odyssey with more than one Homer. Taking his title from a vocoder scrambling of “How to Recognize Speech,” Tompkins excavates a trove of declassified documents from the Russian and American archives, revealing vocoder usage by Churchill, Stalin and Kennedy -- whose garbled transmissions reportedly resembled Donald Duck.
Grilling everyone from the Egyptian Lover to “Pack Jam” giant Michael Jonzun, the North Carolina-bred author reanimates musical and military history with chimerical color and dusted slang, conjuring Thomas Pynchon incinerating Optimos with Ghostface Killah -- with more great first lines than Prodigy of Mobb Deep.
Simultaneously, Tompkins splices his own vocoder crossings from Michael Jordan and Brad Daugherty bumping Tyrone Brunson at the University of North Carolina basketball camp, circa 1983, to boozy encounters with Swiss breakdancers at Rammellzee’s Battle Station. Tastefully restrained, but with its own rollicking cadences, Tompkins emerges as the supreme windtalker, the only one capable of translating the jangled transmissions of the last 80 years. To paraphrase one of its epigraphs, “How to Wreck a Nice Beach” chin-chops and golly-wops.
Tompkins is reading from his tome tonight at Skylight Books, and Stones Throw will host an all-vocoder party later in the evening at the Room in Hollywood, with DJ sets from Tompkins, Peanut Butter Wolf and J Rocc.
Though it's often glossed over in favor of gangsta rap, Los Angeles' early electro-rap days featured heavy amounts of vocoder. What was it about the vocoder that allowed it to stay in vogue for as long as it did? By 1987, Rakim and Boogie Down Productions owned the East Coast, but N.W.A. was still making songs like "Panic Zone."
Dr. Fritz Sennheiser brought it to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and the kids all wanted to be like Prince and Kraftwerk, so they were listening to a ton of that stuff. Afrika Islam was very important in it taking root there. He was the New York ambassador and when he hooked up with Ice T and Rhyme Syndicate, it was a crucial development.
Plus, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were out in Los Angeles and involved in a ton of stuff post-the Time and pre-"Control." Beyond that, there always was an exchange of ideas between Los Angeles and Miami, with L.A. taking influence from Miami bass and Luke coming out to recruit members of 2 Live Crew from the West Coast. Of course, Egyptian Lover and the Dream Team and Wreckin' Cru were always using it heavily. When you get George Clinton to come to your parties, you know you're doing something right.
In the course of your research, what was the most salient link you found between the classified use of the vocoder versus its role in music?
Many of the folks I interviewed were older than the machine itself. Hip-hop has always been repurposing language and technology -- the double crosstalk between these two disparate sectors (military and the Pack Jam Sector) started feeding each other. The vocoder was a double agent of communication in a sense. The Pentagon restricted the vocoder to an elite club of brass jaws. Hip-hop made it available to anyone with ears and good sneakers. Speech compression became a matter of dancing out of one's constriction. That's "Pack Jam." To bite Harry Harrison's L.A. of the future: Make room! Make room!
Did [vocoder inventor] Homer Dudley have any indication of the myriad uses for his machine? And if so, do you think he'd be surprised by the way in which it was implemented?
In one of his artificial speech patents, Homer wrote: "One scarcely realizes how many sounds are of random nature until he starts giving voice to them." He used the vocoder to transform the roar of the surf into speech. (Surf talk?) He enjoyed the absurdities, but I don't think he imagined the future of the freak. Or "Freaks come out at night." Homer was a pretty conservative guy. Then again, he once did a rhyming chant about "Compton" through the vocoder.
Nixon's future science adviser, Ed David, in the early 1960s wrote that the vocoder would bring us closer to the robot. And the robot brought us closer to the freak. (Using the L.A. Uncle Jamm's Army definition here, with respect to Tod Browning.) It's Deformation technology.
Is there a first moment that you can trace your vocoder love back to?
Flat on my back on a bed of gumballs. Sort of. In seventh grade, I guzzled two cans of Busch beer and passed out in the neighbor's yard. Was woken by Seville headlights pulling in later that night. The next day, I was confined to my room, sitting at a red desk with gumball dents on my back, listening to a Jonzun Crew tape, watching a swirl of dead leaves chase each other in the street like children. It was the sound of October decay.
Have you had many experiences using the vocoder, and are you any good with it?
If I end up buying this Vietnam unit that's on eBay, I'd say my experience would be $800 lighter. My instinct is to be incoherent when using it. Drones, aspirants and assonance are more fun than hearing yourself talk. I like the unvoiced rasp, the unpleasant ones. And the thing was invented to improve communication.
Have you ever considered an alternate 1985, in which there was no vocoder?
My record collection would take a hit. We'd miss tracks like Roboterwerke's "Be a Man You Frog." Then again we would've been spared "Mister Roboto." The vocoder has far-reaching affects outside the Cylon's throat. Some cellphone guys strictly refer to the vocoder as "voice coding," literally breaking speech down. That delay you hear on your voice in cellphones was used in the 1950s by a German vocoder advocate (Werner Meyer-Eppler) to drive his colleagues insane. ("They get outside of themselves.") Speech compression is relevant today, through Skype or whatever is talking to you through the Internet. The visible speech research enabled by the vocoder was important in understanding speech pathologies.
Did you ever face any governmental interference in researching the book's more highly classified parts?
The Cold War is relatively young in crypto-years. One guy eyed my recorder suspiciously before responding, as if the machine could not be trusted. I was told I was "dancing in a minefield." I learned I couldn't just breeze into a Yahoo room full of Vietnam engineers asking about the vocoder's "vestigial emanations." The vocoder is a signal corruptor.
In the matter of the Auto-Tune debate: It's corruptor versus corrector.
-- Jeff Weiss
Tracklist available here
Photo: Egyptian Lover mural, La Rutan Barbershop, South Central. Credit: Brian Cross