Open this book

How To Wreck A Nice Beach

The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop

This is the story of how a military device became the robot voice of hip-hop and pop music. Though the vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, was designed to guard phones from eavesdroppers, it expanded beyond its original purpose and has since become widely used as a voice-altering tool for musicians. It has served both the Pentagon and the roller rink, a double agent of pop and espionage.

How to Wreck a Nice Beach—from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase “how to recognize speech”—music journalist Dave Tompkins traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin’s gulags, from the 1939 World’s Fair to Hiroshima, from Manhattan nightclubs to the Muppets.

The result is an amazing chronicle of postwar music and culture, filled with unexpected and surprising encounters. We see the vocoder brush up against FDR, Solzhenitsyn, Stanley Kubrick, Stevie Wonder, JFK, Eisenhower, Neil Young, Kanye West, the Cylons, Walt Disney, Henry Kissinger, and Winston Churchill, who boomed, when vocoderized on V-E Day, “We must go off!” And now the device is a cell phone standard, allowing your voice to sound human.

From T-Mobile to T-Pain, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music’s most provocative innovators.


DAVE TOMPKINS, a former columnist for The Wire, writes frequently on hip-hop and popular music. His work has appeared in VibeThe Village VoiceWax Poetics, and The Believer. Nearly a decade in the making, this is his first book.

How to Wreck a Nice Beach is much more than a labor of love: It’s an intergalactic vision quest fueled by several thousand gallons of high-octane spiritual-intellectual lust. Outside of, say, William Vollmann, it’s hard to think of an author so ravished by his subject… A hallucinatory stew of Rimbaud, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Bootsy Collins.”New York Magazine

“Dave Tompkins is seven steps ahead of science and several leagues outside of time.” —Sasha Frere-Jones, Pop Music Critic, The New Yorker

“The best hip hop writer ever born.” —Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, winner of the American Book Award

“One of the most bugged, brilliant guys I know.” —Oliver Wang, NPR music critic

“With verve and humor, Dave Tompkins tells the remarkable story of the vocoder and its secret WWII offspring, which protected the very words of Roosevelt and Churchill as they flashed across the Atlantic. Nobody has ever related this before, and to have a technological tale related this well is a great gift to science and to history.” —David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and Hitler’s Spies

A “fascinating and entertaining debut.” —Bookforum

“The figures in this story are as compelling as the machine itself…. Seamlessly integrating many stories into a single narrative, Tompkins presents a masterly history of the vocoder…. Fun and informational.” —Library Journal

“Truly impressive… The chapter on the great Roger Troutman, master of the Talk Box, is alone worth the price of the book. [Tompkins]’s an obsessive in the best sense of the word. His writing style is a high-wire act that is very funny and entertaining, especially when he is writing about what seems to be closest to his heart.” —Flagpole

“Tompkins tells the vocoder’s story with great relish, as though he can’t believe how mind-blowingly cool the device is, and it’s impossible to read the book without being caught up in his enthusiasm. This one has cult audience written all over it.” —Booklist

“Detail-obsessed and charmingly tangential… Jeff Chang, a great hip-hop writer in his own right, calls Tompkins ‘the best hip hop writer ever born.’ This hip-hop writer wouldn’t disagree.” —Washington City Paper

“…Achieves what the best music writing does–it opens doors, tears off tarps and digs in the dirt to reveal the stunning variety and potential in popular music.” —The Nation

“[A] virtuoso new book on the gadget… The same fluid, unexpected prose that has long made Tompkins every rap critic’s favorite critic.” —The Village Voice

“[F]ascinating and excellently written… traces the history of the vocoder from its early functions as a spy device to its more contemporary uses in music.” —Time Out New York

“We should be thankful that Tompkins sacrificed a decade to this unique and beautifully wrought book, in tribute to the brief cultural moment when a tool of militarism, secrets and destruction found itself transformed by music-makers into a zap-gun of heroic space-age liberation.” —Mojo

“Tompkins loves making disparate connections, and throughout his history of the voice-distorting machine, he slyly links seemingly unrelated people, places and moments in history like he’s unscrambling his own personal Da Vinci Code.” —The Fader

“In homage to the technology discussed, he scrambles historical data and repackages it into hyper-surreal, sci-fi pulp. From the atomic bomb to the band Zapp, from Gulag Archipelago to Detroit’s ghettos, Tompkins rewires the connections between war, science, and art to give us a glimpse of “evolved” man, an analog crooner seductively and jarringly alien.” —Oxford American

“Don’t skip this book: It’s a mega pill of strange information and mule-choking insights.” —Leo Weekly (Louisville, KY)

Open publication - Free publishing - More hip-hop