How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks

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Hell, he practically invented ambient and Eno pushes the boundaries of what music and albums can be with each release. Brian Eno's Another Green World is just one masterpiece among many, but it's a very important one that is a snapshot of the music Eno was creating in and hinted at what lay ahead. My interview with Geeta kicks off a new segment I'm calling Electronic Lit. I hope you'll pick up a copy of Geeta's book. In fact, I have a copy that I'm going to give away to a lucky winner.

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Book Reviews. When most people think of the vocoder, they think of the robot voice on the Kraftwerk records…. You write about how mysterious all this vocoder-based music sounded to you when you first heard it. Has demystifying it changed the way you hear it?


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I think it makes it even weirder and even more mysterious. At first, I just applied it to whatever was around—reading a ton of science fiction and watching movies. But the songs I grew up with still sound mysterious to me. Demystifying it helped on the technical side—just understanding how the hell the thing worked. But most of the people I interviewed still were in that space with it. Or singing into an electric fan? I think a lot of people left that sort of sound behind, especially after RUN-DMC, as rap went on with sampling, and rapping got a lot better—or, not necessarily that it got better, but it evolved.

Yeah, it seems like you were writing about hip-hop at a point right before the bulk of it became more terrestrial and concerned with realism—there were fewer people envisioning other worlds.


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The keyboard sounds got tinny and cheaper. When you talked to people about the vocoder, were there guys who actually talked about the voice in an abstract way—about feeling divorced from the voice as a personal instrument? Well, Rammellzee in particular.

How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks

For someone like Bam[baataa], it was just funky. He was really into science fiction as well—a huge fan of Dark Shadows. But in the instance of Spyder D—he used a vocoder to disguise his voice so he could record with different labels. I think that went on a lot in Miami in particular.

I Read a Book: How to Wreck A Nice Beach

You could record with different voices and under different aliases to dodge contracts, because the contracts were so cheap. These folks were just happy to be making records and getting on the radio. They were threatening to send speech analyzers to do a Soviet voiceprint, like in The First Circle [the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel where he compares a vocoder to a reconstituted beach]. So in part this is a story about hip-hop guys using the vocoder for what it was originally intended: as a way to conceal a voice when transmitting classified information.

People will still be making sense. Have you ever used a talkbox?

Dave Tompkins and Vocoder Fun

I had a friend who tried to get me to use his, and I was like, man, I know the hygienic repercussions involved here. Your skull is definitely vibrating out of your head. All you want to do is sit there and go waaaao waaaao. He was talking about how you have to train your mouth to enunciate, especially for stop consonants [a consonant you make by stopping airflow, like P, K, or M]. He said you become used to it—you become used to over-enunciating.

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Science fiction came first. I always thought sci-fi was corny growing up.

One of the things I liked about reading your book, though, is that it reminded me that there were great ideas being introduced through science fiction.