Herbie Hancock: “I Should Have Never Done This”
Legendary jazz musician Herbie Hancock has done everything in his career, from his work with Miles Davis in the ‘60s through his growing popularity and influence on hip-hop in the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. In 1969, Hancock composed the soundtrack for Bill Cosby’s animated prime-time television special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert. In 1983, Hancock had a mainstream hit with the Grammy-award-winning instrumental single “Rockit” from the album Future Shock. It was the first jazz hip-hop song and became a worldwide anthem for the breakdancers and for the hip-hop culture of the 1980s. It was also the first mainstream single to feature scratching.
His 2007 tribute album River: The Joni Letters won the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, only the second jazz album ever to win the award. That same year he even assisted in the production of the Kanye West track “RoboCop”, found on West’s 808s & Heartbreak album.
But despite his musical icon status, the composer has had his own share of demons. In this excerpt from his memoir, Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (Viking), Hancock, now 74 years old, shares his first experience with the drug, crack and how it would take him years to overcome.
One night I drove to a friend’s place in Beverly Hills for a birthday party, and as I was parking I saw two women I knew getting into their cars. “Are you leaving?” I asked.
“Yeah,” one of them said. “You might not want to go up there.” Before I could ask what she meant, the car started up and they were gone.
I decided to head in and see what was happening. When I walked into the apartment, I didn’t see my friend and didn’t know most of the people there. They were mostly standing around, talking and drinking, but there was also cocaine on the coffee table. I got myself a drink, and after a while I noticed that people were coming in and out of one of the bedrooms. It seemed like they were trying to hide whatever was going on back there, but when they came out of that room, I could see that they were high.
Somebody finally asked me, “Have you ever smoked cocaine?” “Nooo,” I said. “I’m afraid to do anything like that.” For me, there was a clear line between snorting cocaine and smoking it. Crack cocaine was a relatively new drug, but to my mind it fell on the same side of the line as heroin, which I would never touch. I knew what heroin had done to musicians like Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and John Coltrane in his early years. It wasn’t a drug you could take recreationally; it was a drug that took over your life, and that was my impression of crack, too.
As the party went on, though, I found myself getting more and more curious. What is this thing that people are talking about that’s so bad? Crack was a cocaine derivative, and I didn’t have a problem with cocaine. What was so different about this drug? After a while I couldn’t contain my curiosity. “Hey, I changed my mind,” I said. “I want to try it.”
My friend asked, “Herbie, are you sure you want to do this? It may not be a good idea.” Then someone else standing nearby said, “It’s all right! Let him try it.”
I said, “I want to see.” So I was led down the hallway into the bedroom, where somebody put a pipe in my mouth and lit it. “Draw it in and hold it,” the person told me. I did. And when the high hit me, it was like nothing I’d ever felt. Crack overloads the pleasure center of your brain, hitting you with a wave of every pleasurable sensation you can imagine, physical and emotional, all at once. I closed my eyes and thought, Oh, shit. I should never have done this. This stuff was obviously way too dangerous to mess with.