April 10, 2013
Of the mid-’70s Bronx DJs whose innovations laid the sonic foundations for hip-hop, what AFRIKA BAMBAATAA (born c. 1957) brought to the block party — besides the charisma that made him a lieutenant in the violent city-wide street gang the Black Spades — was the biggest, weirdest record collection. If that contribution doesn’t sound impressive, you haven’t heard “Planet Rock” lately. Though MC crew Soulsonic Force, mixer Arthur Baker, and synth-player John Robie also deserve credit, the epochal 1982 electro-funk single’s unprecedented grafting of elements from records by Rick James, B.T. Express, George Clinton epigone Capitan Sky, and forgotten U.K. rockers Babe Ruth onto the robotic framework of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express” came solely from Bambaata’s DJ sets, and his omnidirectional ears. Listing the track’s components barely hints at its power or musicality; similarly, Bambaataa’s origin story — he returned from a high-school trip to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast with a self-bestowed name meaning, he’s said, “benevolent leader” — doesn’t explain the political alchemy by which he transformed his chapter of the Black Spades into the peaceable “Zulu Nation,” a feat the Village Voice once likened to “stopping bullets with two turntables.” Like any good superhuman, the “Master of Records” remains enigmatic despite his renown: As Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop notes, the birth name often given for him (on Wikipedia, say) is incorrect, and the birth-date and year we’ve settled on here are merely the “most likely.”
HIP HOP ON HILOBROW: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM series (25 posts about old-school hip hop) | DJ Kool Herc | Gil Scott-Heron | Slick Rick | Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels | Afrika Bambaataa | Biz Markie | U-God | Slug | Adam Yauch | Ghostface Killah | DJ Run | Flavor Flav | Scott La Rock | GZA | Schoolly D | Aesop Rock | Terminator X | Notorious B.I.G. | Melle Mel | Doug E. Fresh | Kool Keith | Rick Rubin | Rakim | Ol’ Dirty Bastard | Madlib | Talib Kweli | Danger Mouse | Kool Moe Dee | Chuck D | Dizzee Rascal | RZA | Cee-Lo Green | Best Ever Clean Hip Hop
READ MORE about members of the Original Generation X (1954–63).