Skip to main content

Revisiting Classic Albums: Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters is Heady Jazz for the Masses

the headhunters

The first time I heard Head Hunters in its entirety was in my sophomore year of college as part of a jazz history course. The concept of listening to a record from start to finish, without discussion, and getting credit in the process was intriguing enough. It was well before eight o’clock in the morning and the album still shredded my mind. I’ve been listening to it ever since and, like any good artistic composition, Head Hunters delivers something new with each and every spin.

Released in late 1973, the album was the 12th studio effort from the already established Hancock. The Chicago-born musician has just wrapped up a trio of albums (often called his “Mwandishi” era) that were especially improv-driven. He was looking to reground himself in music, leaving the spacier jazz sounds he’d become famous for in favor of something more grounded; primal even.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

For context, this was the busy musical era of guitar gods and folk smiths. Of R&B powerhouses like Marvin Gaye and funk legends like Stevie Wonder and Sly & the Family Stone. Jazz was becoming even more far out, thanks to new effects and instrumentation as well as a collective mental desire to escape. After all, Nixon was showing obvious signs of villainy and a seemingly endless war in Vietnam waged on.

In San Francisco, Hancock assembled a supremely talented sextet for the album, bringing in several new faces. He elected to largely replace the guitar with the clavinet and plugged in a talented rhythm section. Hancock commands the synth keys throughout, taking the record’s four dynamic songs to places where entire concept albums of ten-plus tracks rarely ever go. The dialogue of his keys is articulate and on-point, from beginning to end. If a stage-owning lead vocalist ever assumed the shape and sound of an electric piano, this would be it.

The opening track, “Chameleon,” sports one of the chewiest bass lines out there. It’s one of many colossal hooks on the record, combining to form a vital theme — that heady jazz can be presented to the masses, dripping with countless entry points. That hook forms the spine of a tremendous, groove-filled song that by the five-minute mark is already outdoing itself with dazzling improv and subtle key changes. Fixed to a funky core riff but farsighted in its sonic meandering, the first half of the track is like an enchanting wild animal on a leash plenty long enough to get a good sprint in.

The second half of the track is lounge gold, with twinkling keys, restless percussion, and rich symphonic elements. The groove is still there, but it’s vaporized. The core groove has goes fluid, wading in smooth jazz, funk, and little hits of classically minded experimental chamber music, only to reappear just before the end of the track to remind you of its utter dominance. 

“Watermelon Man” opens with a jug band-esque line that’s since become legendary. Bandmate Bill Simmers blows into a beer bottle, looking to imitate traditional sounds from Zaire (pygmy music in particular). Pay attention to the density of the rhythm section when it drops, the playfulness of Hancock’s keys, and the many horns that nonchalantly waft in and out of the track. The instrumentation has been likened to the percussive nature of an African drum circle, where each individual plays his own distinct part. And like the opening song, the track is bookended by an incredibly intoxicating groove.

Then, the album audibly exhales. The track “Sly” is dedicated to the man himself, fitting as Hancock goes funky and guitar-like with many of his interjections. A soulful brass section pulses along to drummer Harvey Mason’s lightning-fast hands. At times, it sounds like a funk-rock anthem traveling at hyper speed. Per the album’s theme, there’s innovation in exploratory solos but it’s all grounded to an extremely rhythmic base. The band sounds off, flexing their individual chops via speedy phrases.

The album finishes with “Vein Melter,” a tension-filled number that flirts with both order and disorder. There’s the refined, military-minded drum shuffle, set beside Hancock’s fluttering keys. There’s a cinematic quality to the waves of background sound, often led by a bass clarinet. If there were a Fantasia vignette set in an open-air cafe on some desert plain, this would be the soundtrack. Soon, it simply stops breathing, with a few last beats of percussion to indicate the end. 

Head Hunters would go on to be sampled by everybody from Beck and Madonna to George Michael, Coolio, and more. It’s the first jazz album to go Platinum and it’s recognized by the Library of Congress via the National Recording Registry for its many cultural merits. And it is widely and deservedly hailed as a watermark moment in the innovative realm of jazz fusion, something Hancock practically defined.

Give it a spin and get lost for 42 minutes.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
This is what would happen if an asteroid hit Earth
Watch this scary video simulation of an asteroid's impact on earth
Earth as seen from outer space

You've seen the scenario in movies and TV shows: There's an asteroid headed for the planet, and it's threatening to wipe out all life on the planet. Of all the mysteries of what's out there in space, there's something uniquely terrifying about the prospect of a chunk of rock heading toward us fast enough to smash into Earth. Now you can enjoy a lovingly rendered video showing the destruction that might occur if such an impact were ever to happen.
Watch what would happen if an asteroid collided with Earth
A now-removed viral post on the Absolute Units subreddit shows what would happen to the planet if the largest known asteroid were to collide with the planet. Unsurprisingly, the 338-mile/545-kilometer-wide space rock would totally annihilate every living thing on Earth, destroying vast landscapes and covering the planet in smoke and fire. You can also view the full video (set to Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.”)
Massive destruction
An asteroid hitting Earth is called an impact event. And while these are rare, the effects of one would be massively damaging to all life on the planet—and the asteroid wouldn’t need to be 338 miles across to do so. Even smaller asteroids can cause incredible destruction.

Read more
Do UFC fighters wear cups? A rule that changed UFC forever
Israel Adesanya fighting at UFC 234.

Before he appeared as the character Random Task in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and California inmate #AI7266, Joe Son was just an up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was only a few years old, and making it into the quarterfinals of UFC 4 was a big deal. Son was confident facing off against Keith Hackney. But a recently changed rule was about to end Son's run, contributing to the reformation of the sport and the establishment of all UFC men wearing cups. After the events of the evening, it was definitely for the better.
History of UFC's Cup Rule
When the UFC debuted in 1993, it only had a few rules, one of which was outlawing groin strikes. What would happen if a fighter struck his opponent in the Tractor Supply? It's hard to say, as it never happened. But with pre-internet viral fame of the UFC and its no-holds-barred bad boy image came an even more lax set of rules, and beginning at UFC 2, punches and kicks to the Orange Julius were fair game. It's with this switch that Son and Hackney met head on.

The fight started with the pair exchanging shots, but soon they clenched and Son, the stronger man, cinched a headlock around Hackney's neck, pushing him across the ring. As the two jockeyed for control, they fell to the mat, and Hackney, with his head still trapped in Son's armpit, ended up on top. Son did not want to open himself up to strikes, so he held on, while Hackney made it his priority to escape and take advantage. Thus, the stage was set for the most brutal ground-and-pound ever filmed.

Read more
F1 Bahrain GP live stream: How to watch Formula 1 for free
Formula 1 driver exiting turn.

Formula 1 is back with the first race of the championship underway later today. The Bahrain Grand Prix is sure to be a fantastic start to the 2024 F1 schedule. If you’re keen to check out the F1 Bahrain live stream, you’re in luck. We’ve got everything you need to know about how to watch the Bahrain Grand Prix for free today, along with some insight on what to do if you’re traveling.
How to watch Bahrain Grand Prix for free
If you’re based in Austria or Luxembourg, you can check out the Bahrain Grand Prix for free along with all of the 75th F1 World Championship. That’s thanks to there being free streams through ORF in Austria and RTL Zwee in Luxembourg. If you’re from either country and traveling abroad, you can still access these by using a VPN like NordPN (one of the best VPNs). It’s a good solution for ensuring you can catch the race in your first language rather than being stuck with it in English. It’s entirely safe and legal to do so for residents of the country in question.

If you’re in the US and want to stream it in English, you can sign up for a Fubo free trial. The streaming service is perfect for sports fans with plenty of options including ESPN which is the channel showing the Bahrain Grand Prix. The Fubo free trial lasts seven days so there’s plenty of time to see what else it has to offer with dozens of channels to choose from. Just remember to cancel it before the free trial ends so you don’t pay a cent. Fubo has sports channels like CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, NBA TV, NHL Network, Fox Sports, along with dozens of other TV channels to suit your mood.

Read more