Vocoders' Futuristic Past
by Chuck Eddy | March 6, 2014
The Vocoder, contrary to appearances, was not originally used by rappers who needed to imitate cyborgs so 1980s kids could breakdance on city sidewalks. It was not even invented so Kraftwerk could have fun auf der 1970s Autobahn. It was developed decades earlier—starting in 1928 by a Bell Labs speech engineer, who got a patent in 1939—and employed as an encryption device by the Pentagon to ensure big cheeses like Roosevelt and Churchill could talk to each other without Hitler and Mussolini listening in.
How it got from there, through the Cold War, and into hands of musicians like Giorgio Moroder, Afrika Bambaattaa, Herbie Hancock, Detroit techno progenitor Juan Atkins of Cybotron—and whichever member of Styx sang “Mr. Roboto”—is a long story. If you’re interested, you should immediately consult Dave Tompkins’ 2010 book How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks: especially if you want to see amazing declassified photos of Signal Corps officers getting funky on two 16-inch turntables in 1944. (Like the Greatest Talk Box Hits mix recently published here, this playlist is hugely inspired by Tompkins’ book. In fact, several selections come from its supplementary discography appendix, “How To Recognize a Peachtree Freak.”)
Quite a wide scope is represented—from Canadian electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack’s planet-rocking 1982 “Party Machine,” to performance-art icon Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”; from electro-funkers Midnight Star, Andre Cymone and the Dazz Band, to electro-rappers Egyptian Lover, Mantronix and the Jonzun Crew. Italodisco, freestyle, Miami Bass, hyphy, and Stevie Wonder (serenading his houseplants)—they’re all here. And don’t forget classic rockers ELO, Alan Parsons Project, Phil Collins and Phil Lynott. All of these artists heard the future—we only live in it.