Take it from anyone who knows what time it is: It's simply impossible to consider the worldwide impact of hip-hop music and culture without invoking the name of Afrika Bambaataa. As one of the creators — along with Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash — of the original breakbeat DJ style that took hold of the Bronx in the late 1970s, Bam was known both for his encyclopedic knowledge of records and his willingness to play any style of music, be it rock, funk, disco or punk — any style, as long as it had a break that he could use to move a crowd.
He was also the first to recognize the cultural significance of hip-hop by founding the Zulu Nation, an organization that instilled resistance of the thug life (Bam himself had been a youthful member of the notorious Black Spades street gang) in favor of peace, unity and the pursuit of knowledge through music. This lofty mind-set inspired the artistry of some of the more prominent Zulu brothers and sisters, among them DJ Red Alert, Afrika Islam, Jazzy Jay and DXT (aka Grandmixer DST) and, later on, the Jungle Brothers, a Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Monie Love and De La Soul. Today, the Universal Zulu Nation boasts chapters in dozens of countries and is the driving force behind a long list of community initiatives, including the declaration of the month of November as Hip-Hop History Month.
So it's only fitting that Bam will be celebrating this month on the heels of his latest release with the label that helped launch his career. Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light (Tommy Boy, 2004) reunites Bam with music-industry mogul Tom Silverman, who back in 1982 was instrumental in coordinating the studio sessions that yielded “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force — the first 12-inch single to fuse the then-burgeoning electro sound with the funk-based beats of hip-hop (as well as the first to use the Roland TR-808 drum machine and the Fairlight CMI synth/sampler, as programmed by John Robie). The song became a monster international hit and has since been acknowledged by none other than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the most influential records of all time.
Reminiscing about the circumstances surrounding “Planet Rock,” Bam (born Kevin Donovan) sees the stars in alignment once again now that Dark Matter is on the horizon. “I was always into playing this different sound called techno pop, from Yellow Magic Orchestra to Kraftwerk to Gary Numan,” he explains. “So back then, I decided to come out with this funk type of thing and name it the electro funk. From that came all your Miami bass, your freestyle, your Latin hip-hop — all that different music came from that. With Dark Matter, basically, they wanted another electro-funk album, but I was trying to do it with the newer dance producers, you know, the ones doing the electro funk out here now. So I called on some of my friends, and here it is.”
IT'S A FAMILY AFFAIR
Looking back over Bam's nearly 30-year career as a DJ and producer, it's immediately striking to note that he rarely collaborates with anybody just once. Throughout the '80s, he worked consistently with New York producers Arthur Baker, John Robie and Bill Laswell, as well as the core members of the Sugar Hill house band (bassist Doug Wimbish, guitarist Skip McDonald and drummer Keith LeBlanc — all of whom eventually joined Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound crew in London). In the '90s, the Zulu Nation provided the support network for many of Bam's projects — sometimes with his group Soulsonic Force or under his own Timezone moniker — but in recent years, he has shared the studio with a revolving door of artists, including musician and arranger Steven “Boogie” Brown and Leftfield's Paul Daley, both of whom reappear as producers on Dark Matter.
Daley, in fact, teams up here with Bam and robo-synth pop pioneer Gary Numan for a freaky electro-funk cover of “Metal,” from Numan's 1979 album The Pleasure Principle (Beggars Banquet). “Me and Gary were supposed to get together a while back,” Bam says. “We met in the '80s, and he didn't even know that I was playing his stuff back in the day. I always loved his sound and the way he sang when he did live shows. So I definitely wanted Gary to do ‘Metal’ on this album, and when he said, ‘No problem,’ it just felt great to finally be able to do this with a person I admired so much for so many years. And I figured it would definitely be hot to bring in Paul from Leftfield — you know, all three of us together, funkin' it up again. So when I was over in England, I went into Paul's studio, and then he got Gary in, and after that, we sent tracks back and forth until it was done.”
Among hip-hop producers of today, Bam's approach is unique because he relies more on his vast knowledge of music than any hands-on knob twiddling as a way to communicate the sound that he's after in the studio. This mental connection through sound, as fellow DJ and Zulu Nation brother DXT tells it, is where Bam's accumulated experience as the oft-proclaimed Godfather of Hip-Hop gains him the respect and trust of his contemporaries.
“Bambaataa is the one DJ who can walk into a club where no one is dancing, and once he starts playing music, within four or five records, the floor is packed,” DXT says emphatically. “He's a master of that. We gave him that title ‘Master of Records’ for that reason, because his knowledge of music was beyond everybody's. I mean, Kool Herc opened the door with the essentials as far as hip-hop records were concerned, but Bam took it to another level.”
Just as he has an ear for what works on the dancefloor, the same holds true in the studio. Jon Horvath is a member of the Fort Knox Five, an up-and-coming D.C.-based production team that Bam brought into the fold to help him write four of the key songs on Dark Matter, including the title track (see the sidebar “Space Is the Place: The Origin of ‘Dark Matter’”). Horvath also finds himself awed by the degree to which Bam has literally immersed himself in an endless stream of recorded music.
“When Bam first came into our studio,” Horvath recalls, “he had this big suitcase with him, and we were like, ‘What the hell is in the suitcase?’ He opens it up, and it's all 45s — the craziest shit that you could never even imagine. And he's just popping stuff on and saying, ‘Check this out,’ and they're all songs that we had never heard before. We wouldn't have an opportunity to even know about music like that without Bam. I mean, we're doing all this technical, crazy stuff at the board and on the computer, but at the same time, he's teaching us. He's very heavy like that.”
EMBRACE PAST AND FUTURE
In many ways, Dark Matter heralds Bam's return to the electro-funk style but with musical elements that promise new directions and dimensions. Leadoff track “Got That Vibe,” for example, is a heavily synth-driven Fort Knox Five cut that features live sitar and tabla breaks whereas “Take You Back” showcases more of the group's overall band sound with live drums; congas; wah guitars; and Bam's own insistent chants lending a warm, human swing to the underlying throb of the bass. The rest of the album probes the leading edge of electro and techno, including two cuts produced by Überzone: “Soul Makossa,” an adrenalized remake of the Afro-beat classic by Manu Dibango, and “Meet Me at the Party,” a loping club number that retrofits the vocoder sound perfected by Roger Troutman and Zapp with otherworldly washes of stereo reverb and delay. Nu-school dance heads will also note the junglelike breaks of Sharaz on “Almighty Rah,” which features Bam's son, TC Islam, elevating the rhyme flow he tapped a few years back with DJ Soul Slinger and the now-defunct Liquid Sky label.
Bam himself professes a fascination with the leaps that recording technology has made, which is what draws him to the work of these and other young producers like San Francisco local Simply Jeff (on the funky “Ain't Talk'in No Shhh”) and Baltimore-based Ronald “Dukeyman” Hall (on the James Brown — influenced “Pick Up on This” and the sped-up go-go groove “No Dope Fiends on the Floor”). “I really like all the different beat machines and new sampling technology that's coming out,” Bam says. “And, I mean, Pro Tools has just changed everything. We're on to some alien technology now, because all you need is a laptop to edit and splice your tracks, and you can make a whole album. I think that's gonna get even deeper as we progress on, to [the point that] all the big studios might be out the door soon.”
Bam laughs jovially at the prospect of commercial studios going the way of the dinosaur, but on the DJ side, his optimism about technological advances is a bit more guarded. “I've tried FinalScratch over at Jazzy Jay's house,” he says, referring to his longtime Zulu partner behind the decks. “It's something for the future, because you can save all your records; as long as it doesn't crash your computer, it's good. But I like to carry my vinyl just in case. On the computer, you've got to know where to go and be sharp in knowing what you want to play behind whereas if you already have everything in your crates, you can look at the record itself and decide if it's the right thing to play. So for now, we're still gonna try to keep the vinyl-and-two-turntables thing happening. But I know the futuristic stuff is coming heavy on the scene.”
ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE
As open-minded as ever, Bambaataa continues to push hip-hop into uncharted sonic regions, much as he did back in the late '70s and early '80s, when his audiences could just as easily expect a Led Zeppelin or Blondie break over the latest slice of Sugar Hill funk. “When you're DJing and playing all types of music, you can take your audience to wherever you want to take them,” Bam says. “We're always trying to come with titles or certain songs to make people say, ‘Well, what the hell is he talking about?’ hoping that they hear the music or shake their butt or get down but also to make them think. We want to deal with the fifth element of hip-hop — which is knowledge, culture and overstanding — to get people back out there thinking, reading again and researching, because too many of us have gotten too relaxed.”
Knowledge and enlightenment have always been essential to Bam's overall aesthetic, but it's his ability to convey this message through his art that has won him such a devoted following around the world. And in what he rightly identifies as these uncertain times — a state of affairs he often refers to as the impending “future shock” — music, particularly hip-hop music, represents the healing and all-encompassing force that can break barriers and eradicate differences.
“That's what we try to push right now,” Bam says in earnest. “I've been heavy into checking what's happening in other countries — Hindi remixes and punjabi music, Arabic funk, rai and what you could call global soul. There's different groups around the world trying to keep the cultural part of hip-hop alive, because there's many in secrecy trying to control the rap part of it through corporations so that all you see is the bling-bling. Hip-hop has definitely done more to bust up racism than all the politicians put on earth, and we wouldn't have no culture or even know what the elements were if it wasn't for the Universal Zulu Nation. We're the roots of all this.” And the mission continues — at the speed of light.
SPACE IS THE PLACE: THE ORIGIN OF “DARK MATTER”
“The first time we had Bam in the studio,” says Steve Raskin of the Fort Knox Five, “he told us the album was gonna be called Dark Matter, and he was looking for something we had that fit his concept. We had laid out a very dark electro tune; we really wanted to pay homage to ‘Planet Rock,’ but also to do it in a more modern sense by taking it away from the traditional electro formula and going more to the idea of what ‘Planet Rock’ was really about.
“So we had a concept of [“Dark Matter”], and it was a very dark, menacing tune. But after we had done it, Bam thought it said the right thing but didn't feel right. We went back to the drawing board and pulled out some alternate tracks that we had. And, of course, he ended up gravitating toward the one track that we only had on CD because we had lost the original file in a computer crash. [Laughs.] So we had to go in and basically sample ourselves and work from there. We built up all the music again, and Bam was very into it. The idea was to have a fun, empowering song with a positive message. We worked really closely with him on that.”
FORT KNOX STUDIOS, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Computer, DAW, recording hardware:
Apple Mac dual G4/500MHz: “We're purchasing a dual G5 for the future,” Jon Horvath says. “And we're switching to OS X, which is a scary process because we've been in OS 9 for so long. We're switching our plug-ins to OS X, so if any manufacturers want to hook some brothers up, let us know!”
Digidesign Digi 001, Digi 002 interfaces; Pro Tools 6 software
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Access Virus B synth: “Of the newer synths we have seen, this is the best!” Horvath says. “It really makes unbelievable bass sounds. Most of the synth lines we do are on the vintage keys, but this is the essential rackmount for us.”
Ableton Live 4 software
BIAS Peak 4 editing and mastering software
Bomb Factory Pultec EQ, Fairchild 660 compressor plug-ins
E-mu Proteus 2000, Virtuoso 2000 sound modules
Fender Deluxe Reverb amps, '64 Jaguar guitar, Stratocaster Japanese reissue guitar
Fender Rhodes keyboard: “Another real vintage joint that we use constantly,” Horvath says. “Why sample it when you can play it?”
Hagstrom Bass w/flatwound strings
Hammond B3 organ: “The real deal!” Horvath says.
“This is one of our favorite toys.”
Line 6 Bass Pod, Pod effects units
McDSP FilterBank EQ plug-in: “We depend on them,” Horvath says.
Mosrite '67 hollowbody guitar
Ohm Force Ohmboyz Delay plug-in
Premier '60s drum kit
Rickenbacher 12-string guitar
Roland JP-8000 synth
Sequential Circuits Six-Trak synth
Serato Pitch 'n Time plug-in
Sitars hand-selected from India, with tamboura (2)
Waves TrueVerb plug-in
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Pioneer CDJ-800, CDJ-1000 DJ CD players
Rane Empath, TTM 54 mixers
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Audio-Technica AT4033a mic
Deltalab Effectron effects unit: “Hand-controlled vintage delays — these are the bomb!” Horvath says. “Really great warm-sounding delays.”
Funk Logic AP-302 rack unit
JoMoX AirBase 99 effects unit
Roland SDE-1000 digital delay unit
Shure KSM27, SM57, SM58, Unidyne 556S mics
Genelec 1030As: “You need the right monitors to mix, and these are the best,” Horvath says. “We also have Mackie HR824 monitors for making music. But the Genelecs are strictly for the mixdown.”
Genelec 1092A subwoofer: “Real sound bass for the mix,” Horvath says.
JBL EON15 G2 P.A. system (for live)
LONGEVITY STUDIOS, NEW YORK CITY
Computer, DAW, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G5
Digidesign Digi 002 interface, Pro Tools software
Hafler P3000 Transnova power amplifier
Panasonic SV-3800P-H DAT recorder
Ramsa/Panasonic DA7 MKII digital audio mixer
Tascam DA-38, DA-78 digital recorders, MX-2424 hard-disk recorder
Yamaha CDR1000 burner
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
E-mu Proteus 2000 sound module
Fatar SL-880 MIDI controller
HHB Radius 40 tube voice processor
Roland Super JV-1080 sound module
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC2000XL drum machine/sampler
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
AKG C414B-ULS condenser mic
Alesis Microverb III reverb delay
ART Multiverb LTX effects unit, Pro-VLA-212 vactrol/tube leveling amplifier
dbx 166a compressor/limiter
Lexicon MPX-1 multi-effects unit
Symetrix 501 compressor
TC Electronic M-1 digital effects unit
Alesis Monitor One studio reference monitors Velodyne CR-series subwoofer
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: SOME CRUCIAL SLABS
“Planet Rock” w/Arthur Baker and John Robie (Tommy Boy, 1982)
“Renegades of Funk” w/Arthur Baker and John Robie (Tommy Boy, 1983)
“Unity” w/James Brown, Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald (Tommy Boy, 1984)
“World Destruction” w/John Lydon and Bill Laswell (Celluloid, 1984)
Shango Funk Theology w/Shango, featuring Bernard Fowler, Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn (Celluloid, 1984)
“Funk You” w/Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald (Tommy Boy, 1985)
Planet Rock — The Album (Tommy Boy, 1986)
Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere) (Tommy Boy, 1986)
The Light w/George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bill Laswell (EMI/Capitol, 1988)
1990-2000: The Decade of Darkness (EMI/Capitol, 1991)
Don't Stop…Planet Rock (Tommy Boy, 1992), remix/reissue featuring LFO, 808 State and DJ Magic Mike
“Zulu War Chant” (Profile, 1993)
Warlocks and Witches, Computer Chips, Microchips and You w/Timezone (Profile, 1995)
Lost Generation w/Soulsonic Force and John Robie (Hot Productions, 1996)
Zulu Groove (P-Vine, 1997), Japan-only import
“Afrika Shox” (Columbia/Sony, 1999), single from the Leftfield album Rhythm & Stealth
Hydraulic Funk w/Steven “Boogie” Brown (Sunrise/Strictly Hype, 2000)
Electro Funk Breakdown (DMC Mixer, 2001)
Everyday People: The Breakbeat Party Album w/Steven “Boogie” Brown (Planet Rock, 2004)
Check out www.zulunation.com for more about Afrika Bambaataa's rapidly expanding universe.