By Jacob Katel
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Describing Hank Shocklee will run you into trouble. Only grandiose analogies such as mystical musical prophet and electro-galactic freedom fighter do him justice. A founding member of legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy, he — along with his brother Keith — created the Bomb Squad, a production team that's greatly influenced modern music.
"It's funny how a lot of today's electronic sounds you can create by just pressing a button," Shocklee says. "Back then, what we was doing was fiddling with knobs, using whatever resources we had, and creating these brand-new sounds never heard before. Those were some exciting times."
It's difficult to believe the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was released two decades ago. Today the album is as 2008 as it was 1988, with its cutting-edge sonic overload of samples, sirens, and outer-planetary noises that would make producers like Timbaland shake their heads in awe.
Nevertheless, Shocklee continues his journey into the future of sound. These days he's often seen on the lecture circuit, schooling audio production students. And unlike those who shun laptop studios and digital plug-ins, Shocklee welcomes them. "I believe in evolution," he says. "The aspect of technology in modern-day life is inevitable, but there is always a human intervention in electronics. I don't want a drum machine to dictate the dance floor, but it's the person behind the drum machine that I look at."
Shocklee has recently embraced a sound that combines the traditions of analog and the limitless options of electronics: dubstep. "The one thing I love about dubstep is that it infuses all genres of music yet still carries that foundation of dub. Dubstep kind of reminds me of early hip-hop, when producers weren't afraid to experiment with different styles of music. Now hip-hop sounds the same regardless of who's on the beat," he explains. "That freedom of expression I found in hip-hop when we was growing up, I catch that same vibe in dubstep today. I think dubstep is the sound of the future."