For those unfamiliar with the vocoder, a shorthand description of the instrument could simply be “the robot voice.” That might come off as dismissive to an artist like Casey Benjamin, who has emerged as a modern master of the vocoder through his work with the Robert Glasper Experiment, if not for the fact that this robotic element attracted him to the instrument in the first place. “When I was 7 or 8, I really thought that I was a cyborg,” Benjamin recalls with a laugh. “I was obsessed with RoboCop, and you could not tell me different. So in part I guess it’s a nostalgic childhood thing, but I think it’s beautiful to have a robot being romantic.”
The vocoder seems to be enjoying a renaissance these days, especially at the crossroads between jazz, R&B and hip-hop. Benjamin’s work can be heard not only on the Experiment’s Blue Note releases, including the band’s latest, ArtScience, but also on the new album by A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. In-demand producer and musician Terrace Martin uses it as a key part of his toolbox, on his own acclaimed recent album, Velvet Portraits, and on projects he’s produced including Kendrick Lamar’s landmark To Pimp a Butterfly.