Herbie Hancock may be a renowned jazz master, but he also influenced early hip hop and contemporary R&B. Most listeners can point to 1984's "Rockit" as the soundtrack for breakdancers, but his 1970s experiments in fusion led to an important track in the development of funk: 1973's "Chameleon." The corresponding album, Head Hunters, became not only Hancock's most successful album, but one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time.
Along with collaborator and reedits Bernie Maupin, bassist Paul Jackson, drummer Harvey Mason, and percussionist Bill Summers, Hancock wrote material expanding the very concept of jazz. "I always enjoy working with new forms, new idioms. I take them on as a learning experience, a challenge," he told journalist Bob Kenselaar in 1979. in a 2008 interview with NPR, he further explained that "at a certain point, I became a kind of musician that has tunnel vision about jazz. I only listened to jazz and classical music. But then, when I noticed that Miles Davis was listening to everything -- I mean, he had albums of Jimi Hendrix, he had Beatles records, he had Rolling Stones, James Brown -- I started to re-examine this kind of closed attitude that I had." Hancock also cites Brown and Sly Stone as major influences in the creation of Head Hunters, and the album's centerpiece is the 15-minute funky meditation "Chameleon."
The signature song demonstrates Hancock's increasing fascination with electronic keyboards such as the ARP Odyssey synthesizer--the instrument responsible for the song's distinctive bass line. Only in the 15 minute version can one appreciate the various phases of the song. Part one involves pure funk straight out of Brown or Stone's playbook, with the tight horns, scratchy guitar and throbbing bass deriving from heavy R&B. But Hancock's keyboard solo in part two sounds distinctly futuristic, the psychedelic sounds reminiscent of George Clinton's brand of funk from outer space. The last half, however, returns to Hancock's wheelhouse: jazz. Breathtakingly rapid but light keyboard notes compliment Mason's furious drumming, lending an air of sophistication to the jam. Toward the conclusion, "Chameleon" returns to its 1970s soul roots, thus concluding the complex audial journey.
Songs such as "Chameleon" and (almost a decade later) "Rockit" made Hancock a figure of controversy in some jazz circles. So-called "purists" may have viewed his fusion experiments as being overly commercial and straying from his jazz roots. However, Hancock defended his decision to explore various genres. "If you looked at my record collection, you would see everything from Bach and Beethoven to Parliament-Funkadelic and John Coltrane. Those are just the different types of music I like, and I might put on any one of those records at any time," he told Kenselaar. "I don't place the value of so-called 'artistic music' over popular music. Both those options are valuable and available to me."
One testament to "Chameleon's" lasting legacy is through sampling--artists ranging from Beck to Public Enemy to Frank Zappa have borrowed from the track's hook, bass, and other elements. Beck based the groove of "Cellphone's Dead" on "Chameleon," while the Dub Mixx of Public Enemy's "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man" borrows several elements from the track. Through hip hop and R&B, the legacy of "Chameleon" lives on. In the understatement of the century, Hancock later reflected that "I didn't realize at the time, but looking back, I see that it was carving out a new direction."