A conversation with Afrika Bambaataa is the equivalent to receiving a history lesson in hip hop. The man affectionately known as ‘Bam’ is also regarded as the ‘Grandfather of hip hop’. He is best known for the 1982 single ‘Planet Rock’ which influenced a generation of hip hoppers, and continues to influence today having been ranked 21st in VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop in 2008. The song samples Kraftwerk, which resulted in a lengthy legal dispute, and is credited with developing the electro genre, which paved the way for house and trance.
Nowadays, Bam keeps to a lower profile, having collaborating with the Mighty Mocambos and Charlie Funk on various singles over the last year. He is still the head of the Universal Zulu Nation which he set up in the early 70s in the South Bronx and his vision is “just to keep the culture alive and make people enjoy themselves”. The Zulu Nation, which works within the ‘Hip Hop Declaration of Peace’ to promote ‘conscious hip hop’ is about “keeping true to the whole culture, not merely the media dealing with the corporate side of rappers”.
Bam has a number of reservations concerning the “corporate side of rappers” nowadays, and commercialisation in general asking “Why you’re not playing old house music with new house music, why you not playing old rock music with the new rock music?”.
Not known for his rapping skills, having primarily been a DJ and self-appointed ‘master of records’ throughout his career, the influence of the art form is prevalent in his long monologues. Given at high speed, they are hugely entertaining, rhythmic, and above all, impossible to transcribe. His emphasis when discussing house and rock though, and any other music “I don’t care if its hip hop” is to “play the old with the new and the new with the old”. “mix it up all the time, mash it up!”.
As a result of this commercialisation the fifth element of hip hop, ‘hip hop knowledge’ has been relegated to an underground factor, not it’s primary force as it was with Bam’s ‘Planet Rock’, Flash’s ‘the Message’ and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ in the early 80s before the development of gangster rap. “If you gonna call a woman a ‘B’ or use the ‘N’ word when there’s music telling you to ‘Fight the Power’ or organised in consciousness, play it all. If you have 24 hours, 365 days, 366 in a leap year, why you can’t play the old with the new, the new with the old and this way people can know where music came from back then, where it is now and where it goes for the future”.
Musically, Bam feels constricted commercially. Whilst some “stations might throw in a little touch of international flavour of music” the knowledge of hip hop has, once again, been relegated to the underground from where it started in the South Bronx where “from chaos comes something that becomes direct for the people so something came to the people there and now from those people it’s stretched to all the people of the world”. In the first instance, hip hop was an Afro-American form, one to create a voice on the periphery which had previously been absent within the ‘burning Bronx’. This was supplemented by the various break-beats Bam deployed with James Brown who “is hip hop” being a key feature morphing into a collection of styles.
Nowadays, “you get people saying I’m a house DJ, I’m a reggae DJ’ it’s like apartheid.” Nowadays, when the world is once again “dealing with so much chaos”, and with the globalisation of hip hop that was enabled by Bam and his Zulu Nation in the 80s, a similar creation could save the fate of hip hop today. In the words of Bam and the Soul Sonic force ‘everyone, just rock it’.
Afrika Bambaataa played at Cellar on June 6th.