Dave Tompkins’s How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop is one of the most fascinating music books that I’ve read in recent memory. On one level it’s a history of the vocoder from its invention in the 1930s as a data-compression device for telephone systems (a purpose it still serves today in cell phones), through its service in the U.S. military for data encryption, and finally into the strange third act of its existence, when it was adopted by electro and hip-hop artists looking to turn their voices into something more futuristic and robotic.
But more than just discussing the wheres, whens, and whats, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is about the vocoder’s progression from tool of war to signifier of extreme funkitude—an almost spiritual journey—and along the way the device starts to seem like a character in a Pynchon novel, constantly pulling eccentrics into its orbit and leaving them even more eccentric in its wake. The vocoder has a way of breeding obsession, warping the worldviews of people who get deeply involved with it—including the engineers who worked on it for the Pentagon, the supernaturally stoned electro weirdos who used it to issue weather reports from the fifth dimension, and of course Tompkins himself. He’s one of the vocoder’s most devoted acolytes, and his book ought to make a bunch more converts to this particular house of electroacoustic worship.
Tompkins is in town for a couple of days to promote How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Details are after the jump.