Hip Hop Knowledge with Afrika Bambaataa [Interview]
Hip Hop is and has always been a youth phenomenon. From the block parties and Junior High School jams in the 70s to today’s electronic and trap scenes, a sea of teenagers flock to Hip Hop and make it a living and breathing culture. This explains in part why it’s mostly the older heads who stress the importance of its history to understand where we’re going in the future. Montréal’s Under Pressure International Graffiti Convention, heading into its 19th edition, has always made a point to pay respects to the pioneers. In 2006, they invited the legendary DJ Kool Herc to rock the party, and this year’s headliner is none other than the Godfather of Hip Hop, Afrika Bambaataa. In terms of Hip Hop history, those names are of Biblical proportions, having widely contributed to the culture’s genesis and coming of age.
Bambaataa is no stranger to the vast changes the culture has undergone at its beginnings. As a teen in the early seventies, he was left to himself in the nitty gritty streets of South Bronx, NY, becoming a warlord in the Black Spades gang. A trip to Africa changed his perspective and made him realize how important it is to know one’s own history. He later co-opted the gang into Hip Hop and with the help of his crew, the Universal Zulu Nation, he helped spread the culture far and wide. Since then, the Universal Zulu Nation’s focus on knowledge has given a sense of purpose to Hip Hop and continues to strive for a better understanding of our collective cultural history.
The musical and cultural pioneer, quoting Keith “Cowboy” of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, first coined the term Hip Hop during an interview with the Village Voice.
“We didn’t have a name for it when we were starting out, we were just doing it”, he says. “We could have called it the go-off or boing-yoing, the beat bop, but we just started calling it Hip Hop from what our brothers were doing in their raps.”
With the rise of rappers in the music and advertising industry since the 90s, the term has gone to describe many things mostly connected to rapping. Meanwhile, those who initiated the movement haven’t been impressed by the format’s negativity and lack of musical variety, especially in commercial circuits.
In his own words:
“Nowadays, most people think Hip Hop is synonymous with the rapper. So if a rapper did something negative they think this reflects on the whole movement. Then you have the commercial radio stations that only play one aspect of Hip Hop music and not all of its categories that exist. They just play the same 10 records over and over. That’s why so many people are tuning into Internet and satellite stations because there’s so much good music out there.”
The Internet has changed how people consume music, and Bam has adapted to the times, moving his radio shows from Hot 97 to satellite and internet radio stations with a worldwide audience. This is consistent with his universal vision to use Hip Hop to unite all cultures and religions. His first breakthrough single Planet Rock is simply a dedication to this rock that we call Earth.
When he released that song with his group Soul Sonic Force, over 30 years ago, few people could imagine that this culture would later infiltrate the social fabric of literally every country in the world. Now it’s the most sampled record in Hip Hop and is also responsible for creating a cluster of musical genres, from Latin Freestyle to Electro-funk to Miami Bass.
He says: “I didn’t know it was going to have so much impact, to become the most sampled Hip Hop record ever. I’m so amazed at how many ways they broke that record down into different songs and styles.”
The song itself borrows a melody from German electro group Kraftwerk, blending it with funky sounds with a recognizable orchestral stab which later became a Hip Hop cliché. When I asked about the sample used in his work, he was quick to specify that the Kraftwerk melody was never sampled – it was a remake by keyboardist John Robie.
“There was no sample on Planet Rock, everything is played live, he retorts. People forget that early Hip Hop was mostly bands, like the Sugar Hill Gang”.
Bam, as he is often nicknamed, remembers the first days of Hip Hop when most of his record collection consisted of funk, soul and reggae gems. His collection has only grown since, as you can see in this Crate Diggers video segment:
“My record collection was definitely no joke”, he boasts, remembering the DJ battles he had with Grandmaster Caz and many other DJs, who would plug their sound systems into lamp posts at parks in the summer.
“If you had a weaker sound system and someone else had a louder one, it could drown you out. That’s when we started playing hour for hour to make it more respectful. This way the people could choose whoever they wanted to choose. It was all about the music.”
Through his DJing and radio presence, he has persistently nodded to the artists who helped create the roots of Hip Hop, like James Brown, George Clinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Ellis and Pig Meat Markham, whose 1968 soul/comedy song Here Comes The Judge is credited as one of the first recordings with rapping in it.
While some scholars including KRS-One have pointed to the fact that there are secondary elements in Hip Hop, like street fashion and beatboxing, Bambaataa focuses on a fifth element which is often overlooked: knowledge.
“The fifth element is really the first, because without knowledge none of the rest can exist”, he says.
“We need knowledge on the different cultures, religions, nationalities and cities that Hip Hop has touched.”
It was recently announced that he will be Chairman of the Universal Hip Hop Museum, an unprecedented effort to gather all things Hip Hop, no matter the time or country of origin. This museum is set for an inauguration in 2017 in a 60 000 ft. location in Hip Hop’s birthplace, The Bronx.
“The Universal Hip Hop Museum is going to be in the Bronx, New York Republic. We’re also working hard to get a Universal Zulu Nation Cultural Center which will be like a United Nations of the street.”
He stresses the early contribution of DJs who covered different genres, from reggae to soul and funk, and block parties that happened before there was a word to describe the cultural phenomenon.
“We always pay homage to what came before us and that’s why it’s important to have a Hip Hop museum touching on all those elements from past years to link it to the present and where we need to go for the future.”
Though his contribution to Hip Hop can be traced back to the early 70s, Bam remains musically proactive, releasing a few noteworthy singles in the past few years via digital labels. Some of his latest songs include I Can’t Wait for your Love (Itunes link) and Zulu War with German funk band the Mighty Mocombos.
The Under Pressure International Graffiti Convention is an annual gathering that brings together all elements of Hip Hop, and it will be topped by a free live performance by the Godfather of Hip Hop himself at Foufounes Électriques. Visit the Under Pressure website and Facebook page for more information on the Festival, going down on August 9th-10th 2014.
Click on the flyer for more info on the free show this Sunday: