Mega Q&A: Author Dave Tompkins on His New Book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop

Mega Q&A: Author Dave Tompkins on His New Book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop

A few weeks ago, the music writer Dave Tompkins took a podium in one of NYU's many windowless annexes to promote his upcoming book, How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop. Behind him was a still from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms frozen on the projector screen. In front of him, he displayed a record called You're a Peachtree Freak on Peachtree Street. A typical aside: "You hear a lot of that from crypto-engineers from World War II." A typical setup: "Hey, this is my brother's '69 Camaro." [laughter] "No. This is important."

The talk turned out like the book: scattered and exhilarating nonfiction that feels like a Pynchon novel of almost-conspiracies; piles of information that make less sense the deeper you crawl into them. Electro tracks about Japanese raccoons with huge testicles, leaders of the free world complaining that vocoders made their voice sound too high, young black men who wore powdered wigs and wrote ominous songs about Pac-Man--these things could be made up, but it's comforting to know that they're not, and that the world was willing to accommodate them.

Tompkins, who has written for Vibe, Wire, Stop Smiling, Ego Trip, Wax Poetics, and loads of other publications, has been researching the vocoder and its use--both in hip-hop and the military--for over a decade. How to Wreck a Nice Beach, out April 6 on Stop Smiling/Melville House, almost reads like a mini-anthology of his work (which is actually what he'd set out to compile before getting lost in the vocoder). His writing style is restless--it's like he can't let a sentence go without playing with it. (Vocoder godfather Homer Dudley "invented the vocoder when he realized his mouth was a radio station while flat on his back in a Manhattan hospital bed, eyes on the ceiling, a goldfish as his witness.") But his jokes are good, and most importantly, his love for the material is evident. He puns because he loves. He hugs the facts with both arms. A few weeks after the talk, we talked.

Were there people who you weren't able to contact for this?

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Giorgio Moroder and Stevie Wonder were two big ones. Giorgio Moroder because, well, he was the big Italodisco vocoder guy. I had some Moroder-inspired dreams, probably from neurotically being like damn, why won't Moroder email me back? There's also some good studio footage of him doing "Baby Blue." You know, it's all filtered through his moustache. [Pauses, thinks.] On the military side, there was this guy Dave Coulter who'd passed away. His partner, Frank, was amazing, but it would've been interesting to talk to Dave about meeting Bob Moog. The head of the A/V department at the Bavarian insane asylum that played whispering vocoder water drops for patients while they slept. Them, Solzhenitsyn, Roger Troutman, and the guy who intercepted those Allied transmissions who thought they were bee frequencies and sent them back into the ionosphere as a jamming frequency.

Oh, you know the main one? Bruce Haack. 'Cause he--the record that came out before Electric Lucifer used this thing called a Farad, which sounded like a vocoder but technically wasn't one. And that was out before A Clockwork Orange. I mean, "Party Machine," that track he did with Russell Simmons.

What?

Yeah. Russell Simmons came to him and according to legend, saw Haack's skull collection and suggested they record in Russell's studio.

[brief story about Russell Simmons and Bruce Haack meeting, and their collaboration, "Party Machine."]

Some of the stuff in this book has appeared in different venues going back a while--Stop Smiling, Wax Poetics, places like that. Had you just been working on vocoder-related stories for a while and then decided to put them together?

Well, it was supposed to be a chapter for a larger book of essays, but the vocoder thing took on a life of its own. It kind of gave me a focus, even though it might not seem that way when you're reading it.

I mean, some of these interviews were done as long as ten or twelve years ago.

Yeah. The first time I spoke with Michael Jonzun was in '99, and that story was in Vibe when Pete Relic was still the editor there. When Jonzun called me up, the first voice I heard was him on the vocoder over the phone. Bell Labs could afford to have a full archive staff at that point, and the archive staff had sent me some information about the vocoder's invention and origins. That's when I thought, this thing's been around.

There's an essay that Ralph Miller had written in here [passes over a book called A History of Science & Engineering in the Bell System] about SIGSALY [an early vocoder-like machine], and he's one of the first people who'd talked about its military use.

The SIGSALY WW II vocoder system with turntables. This is the Manila terminal, photographed in 1945.
The SIGSALY WW II vocoder system with turntables. This is the Manila terminal, photographed in 1945.
Courtesy National Archives

So you didn't know about the military use until you spoke with Michael Jonzun?

No, that was actually after I moved up here and went to New Jersey and met with Manfred Schroeder. I drove out there during a blizzard and played him the Jonzun Crew record, and he was talking about how FDR, Churchill, and Truman had used the vocoder.

Was the non hip-hop history of interest to you before you started researching?

Well, I think growing up listening to hip-hop in North Carolina--I mean, I couldn't see Wild Style or anything. I had no access to information about how these sounds were made, other than Shazada Records and Les Norman, the sadly late Night-Time Master Blaster at WPEG. And then you learn about sampling and you track down who the artists are and who produced it, and it kind of creates this research-obsessive, collector-obsessive mind that spills over into other things, and applying this sort of--these correlations between terms and events and things from the past. In tracking all these things down, it kind of creates a conspiracy mindset--you think, all these things have to be related. I think that helps generate ideas and sends you down a lot of different paths. Rap records--the first search engine!

I thought about conspiracies while you were reading the book--there's this feeling of all these facts that keep piling up, and there's a sense that they'll come together, but they don't. There's a lot of resonance and coincidence, but nothing linear.

Yeah, there was no way to follow a trajectory.

Did it bother you to not find some kind of missing link?

Ralph Miller [Bell Labs crypto-engineer, age 103] was the link, when he said "Crosstalk can sneak between the pulse," the morning after the US invaded Iraq. And I was really happy to find a wooden replica of SIGSALY sitting in a former cocktail lounge in Fort Meade, Maryland. It was like, oh, okay.

So much happened at the very end. Certain things about the TICOM interrogations [where Allied intelligence officers interrogated German speech encoders] were declassified this past June. Also, getting access to Homer Dudley's notebooks--that was really late. It took forever to get to Florian Schneider. What was the question? Oh yeah. The point. The point was to get to tell some childhood stories.

Well, there's a lot of that, but there's a lot of other narratives, too. But I'm wondering, when you say something was declassified, how did you find out? I mean, I'm assuming there's not a mailing list for stuff like that.

Well, David Kahn (The Code Breakers) was a great resource. He's really generous about sharing information, and so much goes through him. I really wanted to find the godfather of the German vocoder because Germany had such an impact on the whole narrative--I mean, Kraftwerk. So the TICOM stuff was like, oh, there's an actual laboratory. A lot of folks who are still alive on the Axis side are reluctant to talk about anything to do with the war. So cryptology historians from both sides were very helpful.

So you just tracked these people down?

Yeah. There's actually a lot on the web now. Some people are more forthcoming than others--the NSA criteria for clearance seems to be ever-shifting, as the octopus expands. For a while, the SIGSALY (WW II vocoder system) was so restricted that many of the officers wouldn't even discuss it at reunions. Some weren't aware it had been declassified. (Patents had been released in 1976).

You write about how mysterious all this vocoder-based music sounded to you when you first heard it. Has demystifying it changed the way you hear it?

I think it makes it even weirder and even more mysterious. At first, I just applied it to whatever was around--reading a ton of science fiction and watching movies. It's a pretty simple machine, and a lot of people say it's cheesy and misused. But the songs I grew up with still sound mysterious to me. It's almost like I'm hearing them with new ears, because I imagine what someone like you, or someone from some other generation would think when they heard them for the first time. I had to keep some naiveté in that respect. Demystifying it helped on the technical side--just understanding how the hell the thing worked. But most of the people I interviewed still were in that space with it.

The magic space?

Yeah. I might've said this already, but I wanted to hear about how mysterious it was to them back then, and what it triggered in them. I felt like at some point during each interview--way too soon, in some cases--I asked "Did you ever encounter someone with an electro-larynx? Or singing into an electric fan? Or maybe your grandfather's sore throat--something that would make a monotoid, monotone thing that would alter the voice and serve as a trigger. Like the guy at the door on Halloween who says [in a post-tracheotomy rasp] WHAT DO YOU WANT?

Someone like Rammellzee is such a vocoder polymath in a way--having all these theories, how it's such a core part of him and his personality, and the fact that he really put himself in physical harm to use it [as mentioned in the book, R. once barfed while reaching too deep with his voice while vocoding]. You won't get that from a lot of old-school guys; that deep appreciation for getting a certain effect, with total disregard for one's innards.

 

So you don't feel like there was that kind of dedication from certain people?

Well, I think Jonzun still definitely has one lying around and thinks about it quite a bit, but I doubt the guys from the Fearless Four--well, they killed it with "F-4000" and moved on. I think a lot of people left that sort of sound behind, especially after RUN-DMC, as rap went on with sampling, and rapping got a lot better--or, not necessarily that it got better, but it evolved.

Yeah, it seems like you were writing about hip-hop at a point right before the bulk of it became more terrestrial and concerned with realism--there were fewer people envisioning other worlds.

Well, yeah, and you didn't want your voice altered--I mean, your voice was a huge part of who you were, how you were recognized, and how you were going to get out there. And also, with sampling, you could just sample the funk from the records--it's a lot easier to sample than, say, playing it all out with keyboards. The keyboard sounds got tinny and cheaper. If you listen to a lot of mid- to late-'80s hip-hop, they're trying to play it out on keyboards and the sounds don't resonate nearly as much.

When you talked to people about the vocoder, were there guys who actually talked about the voice in an abstract way--about feeling divorced from the voice as a personal instrument?

Well, Rammellzee in particular. It's almost unfair to... I mean, he's created so many different characters to occupy and inhabit as a part of his whole cosmology. For someone like Bam[baataa], it was just funky. He was really into science fiction as well--a huge fan of Dark Shadows. I think what you're getting at is the way the voice could be dispossessed from itself, in a way--in a way it's escapism, but it's through technology that was right there in the studio.

Why does having the technology accessible run contrary to escapism?

Well, it's real insofar as it's in the studio and you could say we could do a chorus with this and it'll sound just like "Planet Rock," because that's what the kids are listening to. But in the instance of Spyder D--he used a vocoder to disguise his voice so he could record with different labels. I think that went on a lot in Miami in particular. You could record with different voices and under different aliases to dodge contracts, because the contracts were so cheap. These folks were just happy to be making records and getting on the radio. So when Spyder D was blocked from this label called Telstar--Telstar Cassettes--he wanted to record for a disco label called West End under the alias B+, his tour bus driver's name, so he masked his identity with a vocoder. They were threatening to send speech analyzers to do a Soviet voiceprint, like in The First Circle [the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel where he compares a vocoder to a reconstituted beach].

So in part this is a story about hip-hop guys using the vocoder for what it was originally intended: as a way to conceal a voice when transmitting classified information.

Well, the military wanted it to sound as human as possible, but the way it appeals to us is as a sound that's almost unintelligible.

Have you ever used a vocoder?

Yeah. If I had one sitting right here, the book would've taken a couple more years. The instinct is to just talk like a robot, but you're supposed to, well--it's like what Malcolm Clarke from the BBC [a producer responsible for a vocoder-assisted broadcast of Ray Bradbury's "August 4th, 2026"] says--you're supposed to enunciate as much as possible, because in the future, people will still be talking clearly. People will still be making sense. When you're just fooling around with it, it's more fun to drone and less fun to talk and be clear--just make textures and layers, and listen to your nostrils go up into your eyeballs.

I've only used the little Korg keyboard that has an attachable microphone.

Have you ever used a talkbox? [A device where you talk and sing while there's a vibrating tube in your mouth, basically turning your mouth into a resonating box. Think the weird wah-wah sound in "Living on a Prayer" or the melody in Frampton's "Show Me the Way." Frampton, incidentally, soaked his talkbox tube in Rémy Martin.]

No.

That's bananas. That's something I'd like to do more of. I had a friend who tried to get me to use his, and I was like, man, I know the hygienic repercussions involved here. Yeah. Your skull is definitely vibrating out of your head. It's definitely more physical-sounding than the vocoder, and more of a physical experience, because it's so hard to make clear speech. All you want to do is sit there and go waaaao waaaao. Just let your formant resonances go, as opposed to sitting down and trying to write a song with it, which is one of the things that's so amazing about Roger Troutman's stuff, and DXT too. I don't think this part made the book, but when DXT was doing his impersonation of someone using a talkbox, he looked like he was doing a silent film--his mouth was just [big, blocky mouth motions]. He was talking about how you have to train your mouth to enunciate, especially for stop consonants [a consonant you make by stopping airflow, like P, K, or M].

Yeah, I always wonder if people who use the talkbox a lot are just damaged when they take the tube out--like, if they just can't talk properly anymore.

Well, it's kind of funny--it's like what P from Chromeo talked about. If you break down how much time in his life is spent with that tube in his mouth, it's a pretty significant amount. He said you become used to it--you become used to over-enunciating. It's like in Bell Labs--I was talking to this Bell Labs scientist about Speak & Spell, and he said, "Back then, I don't think a lot of the people in the acoustics lab would know intelligible speech if they heard it," because they're so used to hearing things garbled by the vocoder, which they said ran your voice through a maze. But as Schroeder said, "People will go to any length and width to be unintelligible."

It's funny, when interviewing these guys, the song was usually the last thing I asked about--I just wanted to hear weird stories from growing up.

Were you into hip-hop before you started reading sci-fi, or was it concurrent?

Science fiction came first. Reading kind of puts a voice in your head anyway, and it stays in your head even after you're done with the book. It made sense when I heard the vocoder--like, oh yeah, that's the voice from "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." The story was so terrifying to me as a kid--I mean, Harlan Ellison really knew how to title a story. "Alive and Well on a Friendless Voyage," or "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin."

I always thought sci-fi was corny growing up. I remember seeing those books and thinking, I'd rather dwell here. One of the things I liked about reading your book, though, is that it reminded me that there were great ideas being introduced through science fiction.

Yeah. Lovecraft's stuff was so unspeakably squishy to read when you're young. There are really crazy sentences in there. I remember my brother had his copy of The Necronomicon inside a black briefcase with the issue of Penthouse where Kris Kristofferson's with this Cher look-alike in various positions. So I remember sneaking under my brother's bed, and there's the Penthouse and there's the Necronomicon, and there's Lovecraft's "Tale of the Cthulhu Mythos" and thinking, alright, when's mom coming home?

And I thought that was Cher all along, I believe, until I realized she just had the Cher hair.

Oh, you had something to tell me about the 1980 U.S. Open.

Well, the Voder and vocoder were exhibited at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, where the US Open took place. I watched and sort of transcribed the entire broadcast of the Borg/McEnroe final in 1980, which was the year [vocoder inventor] Homer Dudley died. When I learned about the vocoder's "whisper condition" or unvoiced hiss energy, I thought of it terms of cracking open a compressed can of Wilson 3's, and the unvoiced hiss circuit of the crowd. That's what my niece's classroom sounded like when they said, "This stuff is really fresh." [The book ends with Tompkins playing Telephone with his niece's class.] The book was supposed to begin "Word is Bjorn," then, ultimately transmuted to the Borg. The vocoder was invented by Fila!

And why didn't it begin that way?

It was too crazy. I used to take this catgut-string Bjorn Borg racket and use it as a guitar for "Rocky Mountain Way," and I'd wear my mom's trapezoid anti-warp press and stick my face in the grid during Joe Walsh's talk box solo tracing my mouth along the B-stencil. [In the book, Tompkins writes about how Michael Jonzun almost died in a van crash while listening to "Rocky Mountain Way."] I couldn't get from pressurized whisper to me doing the talk-box tennis to Michael Jonzun hearing "Rocky Mountain Way" in a van.

One last thing. Why are there WWII bombs in your living room?

We photographed them with the vocoder for an early demo version of the cover. They were swimming like fishes swimming above the machine. I have a friend on Yates-Mill Pond Road in North Carolina, and they were his granddad's--he was a pilot in World War II. We were carrying them up the stairs, gingerly, and my friend said, "Did you hear about the guy who found a Civil War cannonball in his yard in Raleigh?" Apparently some guy dug up a cannonball in his yard and it blew him up.

I didn't realize cannonballs blew up.

Me neither--I thought they just knocked the wind out of you. Anyway, the bombs spent the summer with me. I smuggled them in a cab, wrapped in sheets. We took them to the Lucky Magazine studio. Models, vocoders and bombs. They didn't touch their food.


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