Afrika Bambaataa

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Back in 1973, Kool Herc ushered in the hip-hop era when he started spinning at parties in the community room of the apartment complex where he lived at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx. Herc was the first to isolate and repeat the funky “breaks” on a record — a totally original move that caught the attention of a young resident of the nearby Bronx River Houses named Kevin Donovan, who was already building a reputation not only as a deeply committed record collector and DJ, but also as a galvanizing force in the neighborhood. Donovan soon changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa and founded the fledgling Zulu Nation (now Universal Zulu Nation), a small group of ex-gang members who sought to reverse the tide of youth violence in the Bronx through hip-hop music.

Photo: Mo Daoud

“Herc is the father of hip-hop,” Bam says, “but the Universal Zulu Nation is the birth of hip-hop culture. We had our whole crew of DJs on the South Side, from Kool DJ Dee to Lovebug Starski to DJ Hollywood — all of us came out of the Black Spades [street gang]. I was a big gang member back in the day, but coming out of the mess that went on in the '60s and seeing all the different forms of racism and people hating each other just for foolishness, that's when I moved on to another group called The Organization, and from that came the Zulu Nation and then the Universal Zulu Nation as we started traveling.”

Movement in all its forms — physical, musical, spiritual and even extraterrestrial — has been a recurrent theme for Bam. By 1980, his sets at the T-Connection in the Bronx had become legendary, drawing the curiosity of some of the downtown glitterati, including Debbie Harry, Malcolm McLaren and a would-be record company executive named Tom Silverman, who was looking to start a label called Tommy Boy. Silverman had heard Bam's name being spoken with reverence in the “Breaks Room” at Downstairs Records in midtown Manhattan, and from there he was hooked on hip-hop.

“I first heard Bambaataa spin at the T-Connection,” Silverman recalls in his liner notes to Hip Hop Roots (Tommy Boy, 2005). “Nearly 100 kids were grooving to these funky beats looped by a DJ. [Bam was up in the balcony] working the turntables and surrounded by about 10 other kids — to his left and right were Jazzy Jay and Red Alert, waiting for their turn to mix. Some of the records had the label steamed off so other DJs wouldn't know what Bam was playing, but 25 years later DJs and producers are still relying on the beats that he, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash discovered.”

Bam's crate-digging talents had earned him the title “Master of Records,” and by 1980 he had already cut a couple of sides with Harlem impresario Paul Winley. But the Tommy Boy single “Jazzy Sensation” — produced by Arthur Baker and recorded with the Jazzy Five — sold more than 30,000 copies and put him on the map. In early 1981, at the invitation of Fab 5 Freddy, Bam brought his set downtown to the Mudd Club, and for the first time punk rockers and new-wave freaks were grooving to hip-hop, with lines around the block every time Bam was scheduled to play. Then everything really blew up.

“I decided to come out with this electro-funk thing,” Bam explains. “From that came all your Miami bass, your freestyle, your Latin hip-hop — all that different music. It was up-tempo, so more people could get down to it.” Using Kraftwerk's “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” — both huge club staples — as a jumping-off point, Bam collaborated with Arthur Baker and programmer John Robie to create a psychedelic pastiche of rhymes and chants, tech-funk grooves, Roland TR-808 beats and synth sounds from a Fairlight CMI (one of only three in the United States at the time, housed at Intergalactic Studio in New York). The result was the international hit “Planet Rock” (Tommy Boy, 1982) by Afrika Bambaataa and the SoulSonic Force.

“It just crossed over,” Bam recalls. “It grabbed the punkers, the hip-hoppers and then it even shocked me when I started getting a Chinese audience, a Mexican audience, all around the world. That was one thing that I was always trying to do — bring all the people together through the music.” By then, Bam had a residency at New York's world-famous Roxy and toured the planet with a host of DJs, MCs, breakdancers and graf artists, including Grandmixer DST (now DXT), Rammellzee, Phase 2, Futura 2000 and the Rock Steady Crew. In the ensuing years, he recorded with John Lydon (“World Destruction,” 1984 [produced by Bill Laswell], Virgin), James Brown (“Unity,” 1984, Tommy Boy), George Clinton and Bootsy Collins (The Light, 1988, EMI/Capitol) and dozens more.

To this day, Bam tours constantly and is always keeping up on the latest in music and technology. “I'm a big fan of Serato now,” he says. “I'm traveling with it all over. It helped save my vinyl. We're still playing vinyl, but now we don't have to deal with all these overweight charges that airlines are putting on DJs.”

Bam was recently nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and although he didn't make the cut this time, his eventual induction is a certainty. “When I first heard about it, I said, ‘Oh, that's nice,’” he says, his modesty sincere and unvarnished. “I know with Grandmaster Flash, it took him three times before he got in, so I didn't get all superexcited. I got more excited over Madonna and Donna Summer and the other people they nominated. To be in their presence was good for me, so it's always good for hip-hop music.”

Be sure to visitwww.zulunation.comfor more on Afrika Bambaataa's extensive discography and cosmology.