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Something To That Effect

Pac Bell, Look Out

By Dave Tompkins at 6:14pm ET

(Egyptian Lover mural at La Rutan Barbershop, South Central L.A. Photo by Brian Cross)

In the 1930s, Bell Lab’s aspiring surfer and resident beekeeper, Homer Dudley, chanted the following through the vocoder:

“Heavenly tech! Heavenly tech! Compton! Compton!”

This was part of a Bell Labs demo “skit,” of which Professor Compton was a character. But we all know Homer Dudley was just foreshadowing the evolution of L.A. hip-hop, from vocoder freaks to G-funk, from DJ Unknown to Compton’s Most Wanted.

Keeping it real in 1939, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Dudley’s artificial speech device was “the Voice True”:

“Anything so wondrous, so stupendous, so complicated and so confusing must find a place in movie-making.”

Reading and slideshow today at Skylight Books on 1818 Vermont St in L.A. Details here.

My interview with the Los Angeles Times here.

Tomorrow, Vincent Calloway (Freakazoid of Midnight Star) and his vocoder will join me for a talk at Josh Kun’s class at USC.

RIP Ricky Bell Labs

Vocoder Compton chant courtesy of MIT Archives.

Thanks James, Tina, JC, Jeff Weiss, Pete, PB Wolf, B+, Sound of Young America, Vincent Calloway

1 Comment »

  1. Great reading last night. In honor of your Hollywood trip, here’s one local’s personal favorite vocoder track:

    Sleeze Boyz – “Robo Cop” (Sheik Records, 1988) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1i_JG5DfMSM

    Though it liberally samples dialogue from the ‘87 sci-fi thriller (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”), don’t count on this being an Official Movie Tie-in. And it’s not just a vocoder song/bootleg theme song, it’s a song-with-a-dance, like “The Twist” or “Chicken Noodle Soup.” Can you do the Robo Cop?

    Kanye West did his own “Robocop” on “808s & Heartbreak,” but I’d say the ’80s version obliterates his sad reboot, as those things usually go. (Vocoder 1, Auto-Tune 0) … Maybe that wasn’t fair; Sleeze Boyz had Dr. Dre on “drum programs.” We want Sleeze-y.

    Comment by Cylon Chaney — September 23, 2010 @ 3:35pm

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