THIS YEAR AFRIKA BAMBAATAA CELEBRATES THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF PLANET ROCK, BUT BEFORE TRAVELLING BACK TO THE START, HE SPEAKS TO RIP NICHOLSON ON THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THAT RECORD AND THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE DJ IN A CULTURE HE CREATED.
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA interviewed @ 13:30 on Friday 3rd May, 2013
For Street Press Australia & Rip2Shredz Press
Featured in Drum (May 14, 2013), Inpress (May 8, 2013), Time Off (May 15, 2013)
Words by RIP NICHOLSON
Images courtesy of WaxPoetics
[Full Q & A below]
Hip-hop has been played like a 40-year game of broken telephone. Through misinterpretation, it has fallen to a predisposed term for a rap industry. Like the voice of God himself, the legendary Afrika Bambaataa Kahim Aasim speaks only of the gospel in a tone befitting the mythical status of a founding father. While DJ Kool Herc was amassing his Herculoid sound system at Cedar Park, down south, Aasim was transforming rioting gangs of the Bronx into battling participants of what he and Keith ‘Cowboy’ Wiggans would soon coin as hip hop. The revered and followed DJ was a born leader, but before Aasim was to become a much fabled chunk of music history, he would command a strong authority over the warring streets of South Bronx. He could storm through any neighbourhood to battle another DJ. The myths written of him are staggering and grow through the eons of time. He has been named ‘Master Of Records’, a title awarded for having one of the world’s largest record collections, started at age 4. His name has been incorrectly recorded online numerous times and when asked of a recent birthday, and how old he felt, he replied coyly, “The whole month of April is my birthday,” and, “I’m as young as a newborn flower and I’m as old as the sun, moon and stars.”
By 1975, Aasim had built up his stockpile of records and with the strength and numbers of the Zulu Nation, held down some of the biggest block parties the Boogie Down had ever seen. Next came Grandmaster Flash who would redefine the wheels of steel. Then as call-and-response MCs became recording artists, most DJs fell off. The industry supplanted them for studio music. Aasim explains how he managed to survive the cull after Grandmaster Flash was pushed off ‘The Message’.
“That’s the situation where the devils behind the record business tell the MCs they don’t need the DJ. I was one of the DJs that made sure I stayed involved in any way,” he laughs. “I kept my work on tour with them and kept my name on the record. In a lot of other groups the MCs became the stars and had left the DJs behind.
“There will always be five key records that will be played over and over again to mark the history of hip hop. They are Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks, Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, Grandmaster Flash’s Wheels Of Steel, Melle Mel’s Message and Planet Rock (with The Soulsonic Force),” lists Aasim with authoritative measure, the last of which was released in 1982 and cost $800 for Tommy Boy Records. Here, Aasim’s message was to bridge peace between the Blacks, Latinos and punk rocker gangs, but after producer Arthur Baker gave it a makeover with German act, Kraftwerk, the record sold over 650,000 copies and made a significant splash outside of not only the Bronx, New York but across Europe and the world.
“They need to play the old with the new school for there to be true school.”
“Planet Rock took it to where people who were from out of town and really hadn’t been exposed to the hip hop culture because of the electro-funk sounds and techno-pop style that was happening at the time. That’s what people were really having a good time to. Then this fresh new music started popping up all around the world. People started poppin’ and breakdancing, rapping and graffiti-ing places. That’s why I kept travelling from outside the city and to country to country to try and make sure that’s happening. A lot of people think it just blew up overnight. It didn’t work like that. We really had to push it from town to town and different countries, all across Europe and then back to the United States. We worked hard at playing in small cafes, park jams, little back-end record stores, wherever and whenever until it really caught on.”
Throughout Aasim’s entire recording career, his music reads like a well-stamped, dog-eared passport. From the European house music attached to Planet Rock, the ‘Godfather of Hip Hop and Funk’ has travelled the world in search of the perfect beat. When he left the early constraints of Tommy Boy Records, “I was doing all this crazy music with Celluloid and other labels.
“I take people on a music journey,” emphasises Aasim. “I wasn’t one of these DJs or artists that just sit in the United States and go with the progression of where the radio takes them. I liked to travel and even more so I liked music. So in Spain I recorded with a group, we recorded a song called Feel The Vibe and it was bilingual. In Italy I recorded Street Happyness with [Enzo Avitabile]. Then I met with John Lydon and recorded World Destructionwith Time Zone, and then I moved on to Africa and Greece and recorded with other groups and went by a different name, move on again and create more music with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and with James Brown and just working a bunch of different artists on different labels.”
This November will mark 40 years since the original inception of the Universal Zulu Nation, when they were simply a B-boy and MC team accompanying the Bronx River legend on his early shows. Now it stands as a powerful beacon for the might and dedication Aasim has built up around the globe for hip hop. Two score years on and Aasim explains, of the juggernaut that hip hop is today, what he is most proud. “I’m proud to see a lot of people [that] came up from hard times and especially the ones who give back to their families or do something positive for the community, those artists that have started their own labels and made something entrepreneurial of theyselves. And, anyone who gives back. But,” as Aasim, clearly frustrated, expresses stern distaste toward the powers that have misinterpreted the true term of hip hop, “I’m not proud of these so-called radio stations that claim to be hip hop and R&B.
“There is a huge cultural movement still going strong all around the world today, it’s just the rap media side keep pushing their show more. The way they brainwash you, use mind control by program directors who are not open enough to play music for what it is. They don’t show the break-beating event for the Rock Steady 30th Anniversary. They don’t never show you that! But they’re quick to tell you who’s beefin’ or who does something wrong and claiming that as hip hop. All that negative side gets the limelight and they don’t seem to wanna show anything positive. It’s keepin’ real hip hop down!
“And all so-called radio stations that don’t play a balance of music, they need to play the old with the new school for there to be true school. So, I give respect to the artists that bring some of the elders or the old school legends back with them and then maybe eventually they might be able to go and tour or tour together and let the people see old and new together. That’s hip hop.”
[Full Q & A below]
Q & A with AFRIKA BAMBAATAA
Hello, Brother Bambaataa, thank you for your time. How are you?
Beautiful to be here.
What have I caught you in the middle of tonight?
Playing the festival at these colleges.
That’s a beautiful thing that you’re still active. Is it important for you to remain relevant in recording?
Well I just keep believing in the make-believing and making what works, work and hope that some of these progressive-minded radio stations play all good music and not get caught up on payola.
Happy birthday for the other week. How young does the Almighty Bambaataa feel?
Alright. Well, the whole month of April is my birthday, and I’m as young as a newborn flower and I’m as old as the sun, moon and stars.
I have read that Kool Herc and yourself would throw joint birthday parties. How would they usually go down?
We would just give thanks for giving us this life on Earth and have everybody come and enjoy and party and enjoy the music.
I suppose you don’t need to do much else when it’s a Kool Herc and Bam party! The name Bambaataa, did this come from your uncle, Bambaataa Bunchinji?
There is so much misinformation online about your history. I put a lot of stock in the books I read, especially my bible, ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’ by Jeff Chang. Is this a book you’ve found to be quite accurate?
It’s a very extraordinary book. it comes close. There is so much misinformation out there, especially the internet. The internet is just so crazy. That book is a very good book of structure of hip-hop, ragga, the funk and a lot of different aspects that have made this culture. The way it’s written, it’s very good.
I’ve read so many legendary stories of you. When there was a block party going on somewhere, you used to roll from Bronx River through different gang turfs to Bronxdale or Castle Hill with a following of people behind you. When it was your Bronx River party it was one of only parties where so gangs could congregate without any fights breaking out because the Zulu Nation had it all on lock. Even Kool Herc wouldn’t dare come down without your permission. So many stories on your mythical legend.
We did have our army behind us of many street and culture gangs out there. I had a lot of influence because they had the community on lockdown.
In those moments did you feel like you could use this cultural movement to bring about a peaceful existence for the Spades and other gangs across New York as you did through the Bronx River organisation and then Zulu Nation?
We watched some of the ones that were there before us, organisations that came out to speak to a lot of the gangs to calm activities in the street. So we definitely learned from the bigger groups who were just as powerful, whether it be the Christian groups or The Nation of Islam, or the several local community groups who used to come and try to bring a better life to the people.
You must have had a more authoritative voice being from within the community?
Well, every block had their own gangs and so they had their own leaders or someone who could call the shots at least. We just had to work together.
Was there always a message or motivation further than just making dope music when you would play, even in the early days of Crotona Park and 174th st. rec centre?
Not all of the time, some of the time it was just to shake your butt or take you on a musical journey, like a message we were doing in the early days, matching up people’s words to whatever worked. Mine has always been a musical journey, always. I can take you from a hardcore beat in hip-hop to poetry, rap to a drum ‘n’ bass, electronica to salsa, reggae you know. Whatever you can vibe to, like rock music. Then take you the punk rock and nu-wave era, and to David Bowie and what he was playing with in the 70s. So it’s always been a musical journey and so is playing speeches by Malcolm X, Minister Farrakhan, Black Panthers or other cliches, even funny stuff like Pink Panther. Everything is a journey as long as it’s played around with, experimented.
Congratulations on Planet Rock’s 30 year anniversary. It made significant movement in the early steps of hip hop on record. Did you feel that it gave the world accessibility to this closed or shadowed society of hip hop?
Most definitely. There will always be five key records that will be played over and over again to mark the history of hip-hop. They are Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks’, Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Wheels Of Steel’, Melle Mel’s ‘Message’ and ‘Planet Rock’ they will keep playing those over and over because there are a lot of records that changed the course of hip-hop. ‘Planet Rock’ took it to where people who were from out of town and really hadn’t been exposed to the hip-hop culture because of the electro-funk sounds and techno-pop style that was happening at the time. That’s what people were really having a good time to. Then this fresh new music started popping up all around the world. People started poppin’ and breakdancing, rapping and graffing places. That’s why I made sure I kept travelling from outside the city and to country to country to try and make sure that’s happening. A lot of people think it just blew up overnight. It didn’t work like that. We really had to push it from town to town and different countries. Some of other groups went to Berlin, then played Paris, all across Europe and then back to the United States, we really worked hard at it playing in small cafes, park jams, little back-end record stores, wherever and whenever until it really caught on.
After 1979’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ hip hop had stepped to another level and the recording artist had begun to take the forefront of hip hop’s culture. Did you feel that it left some of the cultural significance behind forever?
Well it definitely took the DJ out at a certain time. I was one of the DJs that made sure I stayed involved in any way, I made sure my MCs didn’t get rid of me. I kept my work on tour with them and kept my name on the record. In a lot of other groups the MCs became the stars and had left the DJs behind. Then the game shifted back to the DJ and now the MC was left behind and the DJ is back again. Especially at festivals and parades and all these techno, electro-house raves and that has brought the DJs back to the forefront.
Same as what Sylvia Robinson (Sugar Hill) had done with ‘The Message’ leaving Flash out of the picture completely. With the music made in the studio with Melle Mel on vocals.
Yes, it was Duke Booty, Melle Mel and the Scorpions. – That’s the situation where the devils behind the record business tell the MCs they don’t need the DJ. That made other groups break away from their DJs. I made sure that wasn’t happening to me. I made sure my name was on everything (laughs). Then eventually rock and pop was gettin’ into what I did. A lot of people liked my vocals, they started playing recording and redoing everything. A lot of people liked the chanting and vocals I was doing over these different songs, especially when I broke away from Tommy Boy (records) I was doing all this crazy music with Celluloid and other labels.
Throughout your recording catalogue you never stayed true to formula, constantly changing and reinventing the way in which you made your records. Even if something worked and got great reception, you would always switch it up again.
It’s like I said, I take people on a music journey. I wasn’t one of these DJs or artists that just sit in the United States and go with the progression of where the radio feel takes them. I liked to travel and even more so i liked music. So in Spain I recorded with a group we recorded a song called ‘Feel The Vibe’ and it was bilingual. In Italy I recorded ‘Streets of Happiness’ with another group. Then I met with John Lydon and recorded ‘World Destruction’ with Time Zone, and then I moved on, to Africa or Greece and recorded with other groups and went by a different name, move on again and create more music with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and with James Brown and just working a bunch of different artists on different labels.
HIP-HOP VS TODAY
The Universal Zulu Nation started almost 40 years ago this year. As a founding father, what of today’s hip hop culture are you most proud of?
I’m proud to see a lot of people done came up from hard times or out of some sort of ghetto and especially the ones who give back to their families or do something positive for the community and those artists that have started their own labels or started businesses and made something entrepreneurial of they-selves, and anyone who gives back. But, I’m not proud that we ain’t got something better for health benefits. I’m not proud of these so-called radio stations that claim to be hip-hop and R&B but they program directors are only playing one style of music making everybody think this is what the people want to hear.
That’s a huge problem giving out a cock-eyed version of music or a cock-eyed version of hip-hop. They just play one category.
One of your infinity lessons stresses that a Zulu must first come to know himself, attain knowledge of self and have a sense of conscious awareness. I’ve found that hip hop has always been a tool to spread positive affirmations to everybody it reaches, giving artists a chance to help build a conscious change. Do you still feel that today’s culture has that in mind?
There is many in the culture still doing that all around the world. It’s just the rap-media side keep pushing their show more. They don’t show the break-beating event for the Rock Steady 30th Anniversary and these events that are going on where thousands of people come out. They don’t never show you that! But they quick to tell you who’s beefin’ or who does something wrong, they’re quick to show that and claiming that this is hip-hop. All that negative side gets the limelight and they don’t seem to wanna show anything positive and keepin’ real hip-hop down. They only wanna show news about certain rappers who might get get in trouble. There’s a lot of crap like that.
And these so-called radio stations that don’t play a balance of music. they need to get back to playing all music on all radio stations. I don’t care what category they say they are. They need to play the old with the new school for their to be true school.
That’s the only way someone growing up now can get a full understanding and comprehension of the culture and of the art itself, rather than just flashing up what’s hot now, what’s selling.
They doing a mis-education. Too many people out there, because they might think Puff Daddy or they think T.I.’s has a new record out and not know that it was sampled or replayed from an old James Brown record, or old whatever, whatever record. So, I give respect to the artists that bring some of the elders or the old school legends back with them and then maybe eventually they might be able to go and tour or tour together and let the people see old and new together. That’s hip-hop.
What did you think of Nas’ record ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ and his point of view on where he saw hip hop heading?
Oh, I can understand why he said that. he was sick of how artists were acting with each other and people sick and tired of all the media just showing one side of it, just cursing and talking gangster. In that way I know why he said hip-hop is dead.
Now, truthfully, the culture for what has always been is never dead.
Same people that were calling that hip-hop were thinking rap records. That’s the mentality of a lot of the hip-hop radio DJs telling you about some knucklehead instead of some the movements that are going on in the culture. But these the ones that are changing the way we look at a whole culture and making it all about rap records.
Across Australia you will see, the cultural movement still in it’s original form. Graffiti crews, b-boy competitions, MC cyphers which are very strong in Australian hip-hop. Why does it seem the original elements are more practised and celebrated outside of America?
Definitely, in many other countries the cultural parts of hip-hop lives but across the United States if you only see the media’s side of coverage then you’re not going to see anything else.
They have a lot to answer for in terms of helping to decay the culture.
It’s definitely the radio stations. The way they brainwash you, use mind control by program directors who are not open enough to play music for what it is. So it’s more and more about these radio DJs and never about the love of the music. That’s why I don’t go in any radio station any more. They can’t wait to get rid of me. Once I’m gone so they can play their hits. If they call themselves a hip-hop station then I wanna know, ‘where’s your Miami bass, where’s your go-go, where’s your electro, your James Brown, where’s all this different styles of techno, the trip-hop, electro-house, where’s your R&B hip-hop or where’s your Latin hip-hop?’ They don’t wanna hear that. I’m asking ‘cause I ain’t heard one breakbeat yet.
I went to a party once in England. I was playing all this break-beat music, people were partying, gettin’ down. This one person comes up to me and asks if I can play a hip-hop record. I said get away from me. If you want me to play you a rap record, then say can you play a rap record. So what’s happening now is there’s a misunderstanding of what hip-hop is.
So you’re coming to Australia, what have you got planned for the live shows?
I’m coming to DJ, I’m coming to play music just like any other DJ that comes to play. I hope people come and we have a good party. Don’t come for me. It’s not Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, or Shango, None of that concert type show. Come out to forget your troubles and have a good time together and party together. We gon’ tear it up and have some fun.
But I’m just going to play anything that’s funky. It’s not all about hip-hop. It’s a musical journey. I play for what the audience wants, seeing if they’re partying to it. It could be hip-hop, funk, soul, whatever. As long as you dance to the music. Sometimes you can get in trouble getting put up in one classification. That’s why i don’t like to be put into category. One record could be hip-hop, next record I could jump to something funky and then bass. I could take you all over the place. It’s about what the audience wants to hear. Do they feel the music on the dancefloor or just wanna listen to the Top 40? That’s not why I’m here.