We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Technology is corrupted far more frequently than it corrupts. Take the vocoder: Homer Dudley conceived the vocal synthesizer in 1928 as an intercontinental bandwidth widener, and Allied forces used it to encrypt communications during World War II. But toward the end the century it was adopted for less pressing matters—providing the bug-out factor on countless rap jams, and putting the Roboto in “Mr. Roboto.” Dave Tompkins traces this history—from cryptology to pop production—in How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a phonetic deformation of the phrase “how to recognize speech.” Culled from 10 years of research and dozens of interviews with sources as disparate as Kraftwerk and Donnie Walhberg, it offers a wide look at society’s strange relationship with voice manipulation. Tompkins blends science fiction and fact by throwing ideas from Vincent Price films and H.P. Lovecraft novels into the mix (and at his subjects); the origins of many of the vocoder’s siblings, like the talk box and the synthetic larynx, used by throat-cancer patients, are just as fantastic. (Strangely, the vocoder’s most visible and recent descendent, Auto-Tune, receives a mere two-page nod in the appendix.) Tompkins’ account is detail-obsessed and charmingly tangential: We learn of Peter Frampton’s Remy Martin-soaked talk-box tube and Detroit techno pioneer Richard Davis’ Vietnam flashbacks. And the conversation touches on perfume and hair activator for far longer than readers will expect. This sort of minutiae has long been Tompkins’ calling card. In publications like Wax Poetics and The Wire, he brought his highly stylized form of hip-hop journalism to a world often inhabited by fawning regurgitations of press releases. While the language of hip-hop has long seeped into the words of its critics, Tompkins goes further than simple slang-signifying. His work echoes the rhythm and structure of the genre’s more adventurous practitioners, spiraling down parentheses at an ultramagnetic speed of thought and mirroring the interconnected wordplay of De La Soul. On the jacket 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 with that estimation. “Born” is an appropriate word, too. Tompkins’ hip-hop and vocoder obsessions date back to his early youth and How to Wreck a Nice Beach is as much an autobiography as it is a historical account. He interjects frighteningly vivid memories of childhood concerts and learning about his brother’s life-ending aneurysm while zoning out to the freakishly vocoded dub of Fantasy Three’s “Biters in the City.” One of the more compelling chapters takes a look at his two-decade relationship with old-school rapper/graffiti artist/renaissance man Rammellzee, whose hobbies include dentistry, garbage diving, and starting wars with letters. This is the driving force behind How To Wreck A Nice Beach: characters. The vocoder is but a narrative adhesive for the eccentricities of its adherents. Just what type of human aspires to sound like a robot, anyway?