Afrika Bambaataa is one of the architects of hip-hop culture as we know it. He was there when DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Dee were throwing the parties that were the foundation stone of hip-hop in New York City in the 1970s. The term hip-hop was coined by Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but in print — where people well outside of the community could find out about the music and the culture — it was as part of an interview with Bambaataa.
Beyond the music, Bambaataa formed the Universal Zulu Nation as a means to recruit youths from gangs into creative pursuits as an attempt to transmogrify an impulse toward expressing frustratoin though violence and self-destruction into something more edifying and vital. As part of those efforts, Bambaataa had a core set of principals that have since been at the heart of a universal hip-hop culture as an alternative to the divisiveness and violence so rampant in the world.
“Violence, I don't care if it's domestic violence, national violence, international violence, leads to despair, sometimes hate,” explains Bambaataa. “In dealing with world politics or world poli-tricks, you've got to bring peace, unity, love and having fun and organize the people not toward a New World Order but a new way of doing things and a life for the people. We've got to get ready for the intergalactic age that is upon us now. A lot of people think it would be a long stretch from watching Star Trek and Lost In Space and all that type of stuff. The head of Virgin Records wanted to make that plane that takes you from New York to Japan in thirty minutes and they say they already got it made and you can get from New York to England in sixty minutes. So they're getting caught up with the Roswell Age.”
By the early '80s, Bambaataa had discovered early electronic pop pioneers like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gary Numan, Dick Hyman, John Carpenter and most notably Kraftwerk, who were making the kind of music that resonated with artists that had already captured his imagination.
“I was looking around to see if there was any other so-called black people doing that type of sound and the only person that had that type of electronic funk sound was Sly & The Family Stone from the Stand! album," he says. "I wanted to do something like that because I was hearing that and the funk box and the talking box. Then I heard Stevie Wonder and I realized there was somewhere to take this. [After] hearing Kraftwerk and what they were doing we mixed the electro with the funk and that's how we got the electrofunk sound.”
By 1982, Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force, with the help of producer Arthur Baker, produced the song “Planet Rock,” a true synthesis of Kraftwerk's adventurous electronic pop, including the sample from “Trans-Europe Express,” funk and hip-hop. It was a watershed event for popular music because it proved that hip-hop could absorb and be transformed by all kinds of music and become something that hadn't existed before. Following the release of that single, Bambaataa and his collaborators wrote other singles that explored the possibilities of that initial experiment resulting in some left-field hit singles like “Looking For the Perfect Beat” and “Renegades of Funk” (later prominently covered by Rage Against the Machine), putting Bambaataa in league with other pioneers of accessible electronic music.
The 1984 film Beat Street, with its screenings in theaters across the country and subsequent broadcast on HBO, introduced Bambaataa to a much wider audience than might otherwise have been possible. The film illustrated various elements of hip-hop music, aesthetics and culture to people who might not have known about any of it until years later. Though not an ideal portrayal, Beat Street holds up much better than Breakin' and is not nearly as corny. Bambaataa and company seemed as fascinatingly alien as Sun Ra.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Since that time, Bambaataa hasn't enjoyed the same type of commercial success as other '90s hip-hop artists, but his list of collaborations over the decades is among the most impressive, including work with John Lydon of Public Image Ltd, James Brown and WestBam. As the founder of electrofunk and electrosoul, Bambaataa has also been instrumental in shaping the aesthetics of certain branches of modern EDM.
Bambaataa's Denver performance on New Year's Eve will be more of a DJ gig for the “Godfather of Hip-hop,” and you can expect there to be plenty of party-appropriate music. But Bambaataa and his all-inclusive eclecticism and musical interests makes a good case for the pervasiveness of hip-hop upon and within modern music.
“Hip-hop is used in other people's style of music to make their music—from breakbeats to jungle, techno and house and the use of patterns throughout a song,” Bambaataa says. “It has traveled all over the world and you find it in Africa, Iceland, Europe, all of the Americas and it's definitely going to intergalactic and it will get with all the other beings on other planets. The funk and the beat and the freedom of saying whatever you feel whether you want to be stupid, silly, or be in politics or you just want to drop consciousness. You have Snoop doing songs with Willie Nelson, and Eminem did a country music-style rap.”
Afrika Bambaataa performs with DJ MU$A on Thursday, December 31, at City Hall. Doors are at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20-25; 21+ event. For more information, visit the City Hall event ticketing site.