"I think people have learned that Herbie Hancock can be defined as someone that you won't be able to figure out what he's going to do next," says Herbie Hancock. "The sky is the limit as far as I'm concerned."
These are inspirational words from the 14-time GRAMMY-winning icon, whose music has spanned more than 50 years and crisscrossed jazz, R&B, classical, hip-hop, and pop. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Hancock reflects on his career longevity, GRAMMY-winning success, his creative philosophies, and projects that are on the horizon.
In 1963 Hancock received national attention when his song "Watermelon Man" became a Top 10 hit for Mongo Santamaria and he earned a coveted seat playing piano in Miles Davis' jazz quintet. He recorded several albums for Blue Note Records throughout the '60s, including 1965's Maiden Voyage, which was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999. Fittingly, Hancock received his first GRAMMY nomination in 1968 for "Miles In The Sky" for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance — Small Group Or Soloist With Small Group, a collaboration with Davis.
With albums such as 1973's Head Hunters, Hancock began to experiment by marrying jazz with electronic, fusion and funk elements. The landmark album, which has also been inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, marked a career-defining change.
"A big challenge happened to me back in 1973 when I did the Head Hunters album," says Hancock. "I learned a lesson because I really believed in what I was doing, and I had no idea I was creating something brand-new. I decided to take on the challenge of possibly losing the audience that I already had. But I felt really strongly that I needed to do that. It actually worked [because] the record was a huge smash."
In another expansion of his musical boundaries, Hancock collaborated with bassist/producer Bill Laswell on 1983's hip-hop influenced Future Shock. Also featuring turntablist Grand Mixter DXT (then known as Grand Mixer D. ST), the album yielded the smash "Rockit," which earned Hancock his first career GRAMMY for Best R&B Instrumental Performance.
"My first GRAMMY wasn't even in a jazz category, but of course I was really excited," says Hancock. "'Rockit' was the beginning of kind of a new era for the whole hip-hop movement. I was just fortunate [to be] in the right place at the right time with the right people to put that together."
Most recently, in 2010 he collected GRAMMYs for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals and Best Improvised Jazz Solo for The Imagine Project, an album recorded in different locations throughout the world and featuring collaborations with Jeff Beck, John Legend, Dave Matthews, and Oumou Sangaré, among others. But Hancock cites his win for Album Of The Year for 2007's River: The Joni Letters, an homage to Joni Mitchell, as his proudest GRAMMY moment.
"The Album Of The Year that I got in 2008, that was huge to me," says Hancock. "When I got the Album Of The Year, I pushed the Oscar back and put the Album Of The Year GRAMMY in front of that one."
Both River: The Joni Letters and The Imagine Project are the latest examples of Hancock's evolution as an artist and his belief in community. Throughout his explorations, Hancock maintains a healthy inner dialog.
"Basically what I've discovered is that if you continue to have the courage to do what you believe in and have the scope to be open and reinvent yourself," says Hancock.
Inspired by his classical roots, Hancock is currently plotting his latest reinvention: a collaborative project with world-renowned pianist Lang Lang, with whom Hancock teamed to perform a rendition of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" at the 50th GRAMMY Awards in 2008.
"Recently I started picking up the classical music roots that I had when I was a kid … studying Mozart, Bach and Chopin," says Hancock."[Lang Lang] and I are working on a new record together. He wants to do a crossover record where there are some collaborations with pop artists. So we are starting to put that together."
Additionally, Hancock's future course will also include another global collaboration, with this particular project designed to celebrate hip-hop music.
"The other thing I am interested in doing is a global hip-hop/electronic record," continues Hancock. "Hip-hop is all over the planet. … I'm still thinking about this global presentation [and] pushing that envelope."