Back to Afrika

Afrika Bambaataa was one of the founding fathers of hip hop, both as music and as social movement. After a trip to Africa radicalized him, the soon to be former gang warlord changed his name and started using the recruitment skills that made the Young Spades the biggest gang in New York to form the Universal Zulu Nation as a hip hop alternative to gang life.

A major draw was Bambaataa’s pioneering DJ skills. He was not the first hip hop DJ — pretty much everyone agrees that was DJ Kool Herc — but no one’s record collection was as large or as eclectic as Bambaataa’s. He described a typical set to David Toop:

The Bronx wasn’t really into radio music no more. It was an anti-disco movement. Like you had a lot of new wavers and other people coming out and saying, ‘Disco sucks.’ Well, the same thing with hip hoop, ‘cos they was against the disco that was being played on the radio. Everybody wanted the funky style that Kool Herc was playing. Myself, I was always a record collector and when I heard this DJ, I said, ‘Oh, I got records like that.’ I started digging in my collection.

When I came on the scene after him I built in other types of records and I started getting a name for master of records. I started playing all forms of music. Myself, I used to play the weirdest stuff at a party. Everybody just thought I was crazy. When everybody was going crazy I would throw a commercial on to cool them out — I’d throw on The Pink Panther theme for everybody who thought they was cool like the Pink Panther, and then I would play ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by The Rolling Stones and just keep that beat going. I’d play something from metal rock records like Grand Funk Railroad. ‘Inside Looking Out’ is just the bass and drumming . . . rrrrrmmmmmmm . . . and everybody starts freaking out.

I used to like to catch the people who’d say, ‘I don’t like rock. I don’t like Latin.’ I’d throw on Mick Jagger — you’d see the blacks and the Spanish just throwing down, dancing crazy. I’d say, ‘I thought you said you didn’t like rock.’ They’d say, ‘Get out of here.’ I’d say, ‘Well, you just danced to The Rolling Stones.’ ‘You’re kidding!’

I’d throw on ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ — just that drum part. One, two, three, BAM — and they’d be screaming and partying.I’d throw on The Monkees, ‘Mary Mary’ — just the beat part where they’d go, ‘Mary, Mary, where are you going?’ — and they’d start going crazy. I’d say, ‘You just danced to The Monkees.’ ‘They’d say, ‘I didn’t dance to no Monkees.’ I’d like to catch people who categorize records.”*

After reading many descriptions like this, I was actually a bit disappointed when I finally heard a rare recording of one of his sets:

Impressive, yes, but it only hints at the musical diversity described in his interviews.

That legendary record collection was recently donated to The Cornell Hip Hop Collection where Bambaataa is a visiting scholar. But before the collection is entombed in the dusty stacks like the lost ark at the end of Raiders, it is hitting the road one more time with turntablists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist on their Renegades of Rhythm tour.

I saw the tour’s stop in Silver Spring, MD. And I must say it was quite impressive, far closer to the sets I had read about, with two DJs spinning and scratching multiple records on six turntables at once. The night was roughly divided into three sections, each introduced by a few words from DJ Shadow. The first featured records played by the first hip hop DJs, mostly breaks from disco and Latin boogaloo. The second focused on early hip hop recordings and the classic samples that were their building blocks, the kind of samples you immediately recognize, but often have no clue where they originated, like “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band . . .

. . . “U.F.O” by ESG . . .

. . . Kraftwerk’s “Tran Europe Express” . . .

. . . a whole lot of James Brown, especially “Funky Drummer,” . . .

. . . and since they were playing the DMV, they made sure to drop some go-go.

Alas, no Monkees.

The third set focused on music recorded by  Bamabaataa himself, along with the rappers Soul Sonic Force, like this mini-set Cut Chemist has compiled of previously unreleased acetates they recorded for Bambaataa to mix into his sets, . . .

. . . along with many other electro-funk songs influenced by Bambaataa’s recordings.

It was oddly fitting that the show featured two white guys spinning the legendary black DJ’s record collection. It reflected the viral spread of hip hop from a local music rooted in the South Bronx to a worldwide phenomenon that now sells mostly to Whites (by raw sales, if not by market saturation).

This was also reflected in the audience, which was predominantly graying and balding white men — for once, I was at or below the median age in a club. The audience looked a whole lot like the crowd you would expect at a record convention. The irony was that as much as record collector geeks might covet some of the records being played, like The Adventures of Captain Sky, they, uh, we would never touch discs in the rough condition of these copies with their scratched surfaces and frayed and taped jackets. But for crate diving DJs, the surface noise is a sign of authenticity.

Perhaps part of the reason for the older crowd is that most younger hip hop fans are all about the latest beats and loops and have little interest in old school samples (except as raw material for new beats). Digital manipulation now refers to dragging computer files, not scratching a record back and forth under a needle. As impressive as these DJs’ skill were, turntablism now seems kind of quaint, often emphasizing technique over end result, not unlike shredding guitar solos:

But damn, the concert was a lot of fun. Even had this old white guy who usually stands in the back moving his body, though I wouldn’t really call it dancing.


* Toop, D.  (1984).  The rap attack: African jive to New York hip-hop. Boston: South End Press, pp. 65-66.

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