Perfect Sound Forever

Afrika Bambaataa

Photo courtesy of the Zulu Nation

Article/interview by Jason Gross (February/June 1999)

Sun Ra and Dr. Funkenstein knew what time it is- intergallactic dance music is a reality. Even if the Arkestra and P-Funk had their terra firma connections, their aspirations were way out in the cosmos. Their own myths and beliefs sprang out from their eclectic creators, transcending what was sweaty groove 'n' grind into a wild, vibrant new strain of music. But this wasn't just music- it was a whole ideology, a new way of thinking and seeing that was so far-flung from normal consciousness that it challenged and dared you while it invited you. These kind of mad visionaries are much too few in number so that when a truly inspired one comes along, nothing is the same afterwards.

In this same plane is one of the creators, innovators of rap, hip-hop, techno and the thousand other minutia of styles that's pegged as dance music today- Zulu Nation chief Afrika Bambaataa Aasim. I line up with a crowd of young white kids, who couldn't been alive when Bam started releasing records in the late '70's, for a show at a small downtown Manhattan club on a chilly February night. A week before this, I'm barely awake at 7AM, on a long-distance call with Bam who's just finished a show in Rio as he now stakes out what he wants from his New York fans. "It's not a show- we're just coming to DJ so we just want people to come and shake that ass!"

At first, it's strange to think that a musical pioneer only wants this for a performance, but then again, maximized gluteal motion should be the ultimate goal of any great dance music, just as Duke Ellington once instructed a TV audience to snap their fingers or bob an earlobe along to his 'jungle' music.

Beyond any journalistic duty, I was there at the club to see a part of history right in front of my eyes, which partly spanned back to the radio airwaves of the '40's and '50's as it turns out. As told in Ben Fong-Torres' THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMING, some of the biggest DJ's would put on show revues like rock and roll pioneer Alan Freed and the insanely inspired Douglas "Jocko" Henderson: "this is your spaceman Jocko, three, two, one: blast-off time!" Jocko's idol "Hot Rod" Hulbert was known for playing everything from gospel to the wild rhythm and blues while rolling out rhymes and hipster jive. Music revues led by wild, interplanetary shamans rapping to a crowd and throwing together every kind of music imaginable was what would one day be Bam's vision for his whole Zulu Nation collective.

The showcase I caught that night started off with a group of trick DJ's showing their skills at their wheels of steel. One of the DJ's reminded the crowd "hip-hop is from the projects- roaches crawling between the records." Just like in Detroit ten years later, the South Bronx in the mid/late '70's was a desolate, dangerous area that managed to cultivate an insanely creative artistic community that spawned Bam. It's not surprising that a political artist would be shaped by the airwaves and the radical upheavals of the '60's.

"As a youth, a strong influence was hearing (James Brown's) "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." The outlook of Sly & the Family was a super-big influence. Sly made records in the sixties that many other groups were absorbing. You had Country Joe McDonald "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die" and certain Beatles song. Sly told you that you could "Stand!" "You Can Make It If You Try." (He) dealt with racism, "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and had a black and white band. A lot of barriers disappeared and were crossed. Hearing all these songs and the things that were going on with Vietnam and the hippies, human rights, Malcolm X, Nation of Islam, the honorable Elijah Muhammed meant a lot to me."

Bam joined a local gang called Black Spades which began at the Bronx River Project in the late '60's. In '74, Bam decided that although he liked the gang's closeness, order and discipline, he wanted to make his own group that would have a more positive effect on the local community. This gave birth to the Organisation, later renamed the Zulu Nation (the great warrior tribe of South Africa) setting up shop in the same Bronx River area via house parties and the community center. "We first made it an out-reach for the Black and Latino communities. Once I knew that music crosses all kinds of barriers, we started traveling with all these groups and the graffiti artists."

Break dancers were a part of this potent mix too. They were out in force at the New York show with the crowd clearing the middle of the dance floor to let these wily body mechanics perform. They spun on their hands, heads and backs and waved their bodies like as if a bolt of energy zapped through them. The Zulus didn't mind that they were stealing the show from them- it was part of the party going on.

After a long list of announcements and pronouncements, Bam hit the stage. Even though he was a large, imposing figure, he appeared relatively subdued, decked out in a dark sweater, cap and medallion. He came there to preside over the party and he was all business, picking out and spinning records without any show of turntable tricks (like his Bronx brother Grandmaster Flash). He wasn't even the center of attention on stage, staying near the back while his Zulu disciples rocked the mike (which Bam didn't touch).

This ground-breaking style of talking-in-rhymes was one of Bam's gifts to the world, helping to sow the seeds of the first wave of rap. The laws of physics concerning matter also apply to music- it cannot be created or destroyed. Not only will it live on throughout all kinds of permutations but it also comes from somewhere and Bam knows this.

"You go back to when the slaves came to these shores, to be-bop and the poetry of Sonya Sanchez, the Last Poets. Then you go into James Brown when he used to do his call-and-response rap, the Revolutionary Rap of Malcolm X, the honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, Barry White's style of rap, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson. Pigmeat Markham did "Here Comes The Judge" which had the rhymes and the funky breakbeat behind it. It's always been there but once we came around, we named the whole hip-hop culture. Even when we're talking to each other, we're rapping to each other. It might not be in synch but we're rapping."

"Clap your hands to the beat!"
"Word up!"
"Ain't it funky now?"

The Zulus are chanting, calling out to their minions at the show, much the same way they did on Bam's first records at the end of the '70's.

"What's the name of this nation?"
"And who's gonna get on down?"

Paul Winley (like Enjoy's Bobby Robinson) started off in music industry working with doo-wop groups. Winley Records started putting out rap singles at the end of the '70's as Enjoy and Sugarhill were starting to get records out on the market. Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" and Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" were making dents into the pop market as the '80's began with Blondie's hit "Rapture" throwing the whole movement into the spotlight. Many rap hopefuls started in less glamorous circumstances, hauling sound systems out into parks, stealing the wiring and speakers from local emergency warning systems, trying out-blast each other until the police arrived.

It was in this environment that Winley released Bam's first records (not counting the mix tapes that were already circulating) with the spare-funk backing of the Harlem Underground Band. What set Bam's crew apart was the whole idea of a musical family. While other rappers threw out puns, insults and boasts, the Zulu Nation presented itself as a self-sustaining force built around its leader. It wasn't just about getting paid but also spreading the Zulu philosophy of pride and brotherhood that Bam had gathered from the Spades, Farrakhan, Muhammed, X and other black leaders who appeared on Bam's mix tapes.

Outside of the back-up band, Bam was responsible for the music and it was here also that he changed the rules. Imagine a mad-scientist car mechanic who decided to take the parts of his favorite classic cars and put them together into a new contraption. This is just what Bam was figuratively doing with his music, taking a cue from Kool DJ Herc (who brought in the Jamaican traditions of toasting and dub music that was transformed into rap and hip-hop). While all music is appropriated someway from the past, Bam did it literally, crafting "Death Mix" and his shows/parties from his favorite stock of records. If radio held the surprise of playing a new record every few minutes then Bam decided to take this a step further and create the post-modern idea of recycling samples of old records to make new ones. Avant notions like the turntable as instrument, the use of loops and cut-and-paste art were now being pushed into the mainstream and more specifically, and inexplicably, into dance tunes. If this all seems pretty normal today, it's only because pioneers like Bam started this whole revolution which took over music.

It wasn't just how it was put together that made this new music so cutting edge. It was also the selection of music itself that tore down a lot of walls that divided musical styles. Bam drew his inspiration from a whole spectrum of popular and obscure music. This kind of open-minded attitude is what would help rap flourish for years, soaking up and melding with other genres.

"Hip-hop has brought more people together than all the politicians in the world. There's so many musics that are using it now that are crossing other barriers now. Hip-hop is taken from other music to make its beats and grooves- now the hip-hop beat and groove is going back to a lot of the music where it came from. It's like a cycle- each one helping each other to keep their music alive."

At the February show, Bam was as all-encompassing as he'd always been, spinning James Brown, Fatboy Slim, Kool and the Gang, Sly Stone, the Bee Gees, P-Funk, Aerosmith, drum and bass, salsa, raggamuffin and jungle seamlessly. It did mean a thing 'cause it all had that swing.

The night was a tour of Bam's roots and his greatest hits. When he played "Planet Rock" and "Looking For the Perfect Beat," the crowd roared in appreciation. After breaking into the downtown club scene couresty of Fab Five Freddy's showcases (at the Mudd Club and the Ritz) and angrily parting ways with Winley, Bam was ready to turn the world of music on its head again with these singles. He set up a whole roster of acts around his music, including his new rap band Soulsonic Force, which had him stepping in front of the mike along with Mr. Biggs, M.C. G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow.

"Soulsonic was doing the electro-funk sound and then we added the hard funk and horns and rhythms of Shango with more live instruments. I try to keep a balance of all the different ideas I have in my head like Uncle George (Clinton) was doing. He had Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy, Brides of Funkenstein. I also try to make different music under different names from the ideas in my mind. Like Uncle George, I have different groups, labels, backgrounds so that some people don't even know that I'll be on some records of other people."

See Part Two of our Bambaataa article

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