The name is fraught with all of the ominous imagery mere mention suggests; headhunters are those groups of individuals who took the heads of their victims during tribal warfare — mummified heads became the macabre curb appeal of choice for warriors with a jones for warning potential invaders. With a name like The Headhunters, the outrage with which some responded upon the release of their self-titled debut is almost ironic; it is hard to believe an edgy and adventurous body of work is really the last thing anyone expected. The music is atypical, unpretentious, untamed, and indicative of how little the devil may have cared about what anyone else thought at the time. This was a group defined by a body of work with a much more carnal feeling than what people had come to expect from anyone on or near the laundry list of jazz heavyweights during the early 70′s, even as everyone tolerated Miles Davis’ unapologetic departure from the cool into electrocuted cacophony. Post post-Bop and surely beleaguered by the predictability of popular aesthetic, it was high time someone stopped giving a damn. Piano prodigy and musical progeny of Miles’ defining and deviating eras, Herbie Hancock made the emphatic decision to take the baton beginning with his move from acoustic to electric piano during his time with Davis.
As R&B moved from classic Motown into all-out sex drenched gutbucket funk at the behest of the Blaxploitation era and rock was officially past Elvis and treading much more brash waters, it made sense that the tradition of borrowing responsible for jazz would be the tradition that allowed the genre to fuse with these emerging movements to create the soul stirring dynamics that form the unmistakably addictive pillars of fusion. The groundbreaking group fronted by Herbie Hancock created music for themselves first and foremost; the music that pervades in open jams and sheds that last into the wee hours of the morning but never usually makes it past those four walls, is exactly what Hancock took it upon himself to record and release. Their self-titled debut is a collection of compositions that play like the dominant sounds had been scratching at the door of their collective conscious for years, eager to be unleashed. The decision to throw caution to the wind may have been an easy one for veteran musicians with an expectant fan base, ravenous critics, and record labels hungry for more of the same; musicians tend to outgrow their moments of critical acclaim much faster than their fans do. Everyone has their breaking point, and maybe this was it for the men behind the music. It is much easier to imagine, then, what’s in a name like The Headhunters; a group undoubtedly interested in drastically changing the face of things. Their debut album sleeve fronted by a god with horns and golden hands — a nasty neon portent of change for peers and purists alike; enter at your own risk understanding that your expectations can and will be eaten alive. These are The Headhunters.
A pragmatist who spent his earliest years more dedicated to the study of science than syncopation, Herbie Hancock’s electronic immersion was likely the byproduct of his ear and technical interests colliding — a phenomenon that may not have been as easily achieved at the start of his career as it was by the mid-seventies, with the popularity of synthesizers, psychotropics, soul power, and eastern religion. Fat Albert Rotunda (1969) and Mwandishi (1971), Hancock’s most important attempts to combine the soul brother aesthetic and rock rebellions of the time, were unmistakable harbingers of The Headhunters’ arrival. Hancock’s vision was heavily influenced by the catalogs of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown – a rhythm driven sound built in complete deference to the bass and drum. The resulting compositions are ripe with a corpulent warmth and infectious grooves that stand in stark contrast to much of the jazz that had been lauded up to that point; music that lent itself to smoking squares and taking shots, but did less to speak to the younger cats who were unafraid to talk back to the man or lean when they walked. The rise and fall of popular styles within the genre can even be documented according to the advent and eventual assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; jazz and gospel were for picket signs and peaceful resistance what funk and soul became for those more interested in pushing flashy cars and picking up guns. By their second release, Thrust, the band had taken the rhythms that defined funk and melded them with the frenetic unpredictability and improvisational timing characteristic of jazz drumming. This was combined with heavy use of synthesizers and found sounds to create something peers on both sides of the aisle had not necessarily dared to execute to any degree of success before.
The political atmosphere at the time was less about being polite and more about attaining power — a philosophy the music began to mirror. More outspoken and much less concerned with scoring smoky clubs, this was music for the streets — a perfectly ironic circumstance considering how much their sound has gone on to inform hip-hop over the years. Though the roster changed dramatically over several releases, their most significant work was staffed primarily by Bill Summers on percussion, Paul Jackson on bass, Bennie Maupin on woodwinds, Harvey Mason on drums, and Hancock on keys. The group later swapped a few original members for drummer Mike Clark, and guitarists Wah Wah Watson, and DeWayne McKnight. It takes little more than a scan of their catalog to locate the most ubiquitous tracks and ultimately understand the exceptionally deep impact The Headhunters made in a very small amount of time; “Watermelon Man,” “Chameleon,” “God Made Me Funky,” “Actual Proof,” “Butterfly,” and the less popular clinic of a bass performance known as “Vein Melter,” are but a few — each piece a sonic crumb covering the trail Hancock forged, simultaneously mowing down and moving away from the tall orders of the purists who have historically preferred to be spoon-fed from the fount of the status quo. This effort made way for many of his peers to follow suit, some to great degrees of success and others to outright mediocrity. The largest win, however, was in having encouraged people to test the waters and their own limitations to begin with. Not everyone wanted to be Herbie Hancock, but many wanted to be the next best thing.
This was their chance to play out without the threat of being put out. Shepherded for years by Miles Davis, Hancock’s impact on his mentor’s sound was suddenly very noticeable during this period, particularly with the arrival of On The Corner and later Water Babies, albums with which Hancock was also involved. The era ultimately produced a bottomless pit of sample ready material for soul starved producers and artists hungry for the feeling of music before machines came in and bands went out. What accompanied the groundswell and controversial acclaim of The Headhunters’ emergence was a Pandora’s box of genius that is still venerated and sought after in much of today’s popular music; contributors to that movement included George Duke, Quincy Jones, Lonnie Liston Smith, Catalyst, Harry Whitaker, Grover Washington Jr., James “Mtume” Foreman, Weldon Irvine, Roy Ayers, Rufus, and Weather Report.
Without The Headhunters’ exodus from the confines of tradition into a trend of exploration, it is likely that Herbie Hancock – even for all of his prior moments of brilliance — would ever have ascended to the impossibly distant strata in which he currently exists; the accidental godfather of modern soul music who also happens to be a jazz giant. The Headhunters’ first release went on to become one of the first ever gold records in jazz – a masterpiece moving effortlessly from modal to the cool of a mack. Their music remains as relevant today as it was when it was released, but the pot has been sweetened over time as the group’s first releases have become essential albums in a pantheon of American musical classics – the heads of their detractors squarely mounted on stakes, they have clearly had the last laugh. The example of creative deviance established by their willingness to take risks, is one of the driving factors behind modern innovation, as artists rely less upon the threat of losing major label financing or media support and more upon whimsy and genre-breaking experimentation to inform their creative decisions in an uncertain climate – a trend bolstered by the collaborative potential and constant contact provided by social media platforms. Abandonment of popular opinion and established procedure is the easiest way to facilitate innovation; something that only occurs once people understand that being a musician was never about existing inside of a box – a tradition of rebellion upon which The Headhunters staked their careers and quietly perfected one song at a time.
Words by Karas Lamb