Perfect Sound Forever

Afrika Bambaataa

The Godfather of Soul and Bam, courtesy of Arrow

Article/Interview, Pt 2 by Jason Gross

All the groups in Bam's circle were also taking on a more interplanetary (out)look. A connection between music that's literally far-out and the bands themselves being far-out (even more literally) isn't hard to imagine. To the Zulus, this isn't any kind of new age bullshit but a real part of their philosophy that continues today.

"My history is what I learned from Black History. I got into social studies and learned about Columbus and the Boston Tea Party and just started to deal with the truth. If you are Christian and read the Bible, you still need to read the Koran. The Muslims need to learn what Hindus and Buddhists are doing. And if you're black, white, yellow or red, you need to know what black, white, yellow and red (people) have given to better civilization on this planet. If there are extraterrestrials out there, on the planet or in the planet, then that needs to come out and speak the truth 'cause when you read your bible more clearly or the Koran, then you see where a lot of these cultures came into being."

Bam also sees today's music as a part of this cosmic tapestry.

"We're on alien technology, becoming galactic humans. Hopefully, I think the hip-hop and electronic music will start traveling to other planets. From watching the Learning Channel and hearing all the scientists, they ARE ready. The technology is there. They have some major stuff already and some of the technology had been seen since the '60's, with Star Trek and the Jetsons."

"We tell people in the Zulu Nation that what you thought was your fantasy will become your reality and what you thought was your reality will become your virtuality. I think the music is gonna be stretching into all types of things, using computers, other instruments. People are going to experimenting 'cause computers take you to a whole different world, a cyber-world along with the regular instruments that you've been (using). You see in it in these movies, STAR WARS and all that with the bar scene with aliens and humans and electronic music. It's going to be deep to see what's going to happen in the next millenium."

Along with his galactic aspirations, Bam also refashioned his music when he started recording for Tommy Boy. While his Winley singles had the sound of prime J.B.'s to it, his newer records were something else entirely. Bam's eclectic tastes in music included not just funk but also seemingly-static electronic music coming from other countries. This was the sound he used to refashion his sound and again change the whole face of dance music itself.

"It came to me from my history of playing different styles of music back in the early '70's. When I decided that I wanted to make this the first electronic black group, I was heavy on the music James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone and Uncle George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic. Then I was also heavy into Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, Gary Newman. Even John Carpenter and Hugo Montenegro when they do the synthesizer-type style. I wanted to do something that combines both of these types of styles together and have that hard-core funk bottom to it."

"So I came across this guy that I met who was trying to find a deal with a record he did called "Vena Carved" by the name of John Robie. I hung out with him a bit and this guy was amazing on the synthesizer. So I said 'Can you play stuff like Kraftwerk?' He said 'I'll tear that shit up!' He would play stuff like that and I was like 'Wo, this guy is BAD.' I had been with Arthur (Baker) who did "Jazzy Sensation" with us and I told him that he had to meet this guy John Robie. So that's when the Soulsonic Force got together with the electro-funk sound. It just took off from there. That got us moving to all other parts of the country and all around the world. All the other different styles came out from electro-funk- the electronica, the Miami Bass, the Latin style."

Once again, Bam changed all the rules by reshaping dance music to soak up other styles that seemed incompatible. Kraftwerk itself was now a part of the dance floor but the rest of the music there would change in this direction as well. "Planet Rock," "Looking For the Perfect Beat" and the politically-charged "Renegades of Funk" weren't so much singles as turning points for the whole style as Bam crafted electronic dance symphonies, full of fluttering drum machines and eerie, sweeping synthesizers.

These singles were also important because they were (though we didn't know it at the time) the beginnings of another movement which would reconfigure modern music. The futuristic sounds that Baker and Robie crafted for Bam were the heart of what the Detroit scene would concoct shortly afterwards. Without the vocals and using a variety of aliases for different projects (like the Zulus), the electronic dance music that we call techno evolved- as it turned out, Bam's music had more of a lasting influence there than in rap itself.

Bam himself can't believe how influential this has become.

"I finally see that now "Planet Rock," the style and the music is the most sampled record in the history of hip-hop and the most copied sound in the world. I come down to New Zealand and they're all "Planet Rock" crazy. Then they got all the Miami Bass, which is electro-funk crazy. Latin hip-hop when they were doing the freestyle, they were "Planet Rock" crazy. In England, you hear the "Planet Rock" grooves in many things. Even in the jungle beats, you slow it down and you hear it. It's just amazing how that record has just kept on going, going, going."

The one thing that's not going is me, trying to scribble notes during Bam's performance. While a whole crowd is wowing to Bam's public presentation of his record collection, I'm the only sorry motherfucker in the house standing around. For almost all of his three hour show, I crouch around any light I can find in the club just so that I can jot some comments down, trying to soak everything in and relate it all to Bam's history as I hear it being played out.

Thanks to his early successes with Tommy Boy, Bam was thrust into the strasophere of rap scene as it was beginning to break even more doors down with the help of Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. The mid and late '80's were a time for numerous, almost unimaginable collaborations, again showing the breadth of Bam's influence and taste. In 1984, along with making an appearance in the rap flick BEAT STREET, the Godfather of Hip-Hop met the Godfather of Soul, James Brown for the "Unity" single with a political message appropriate to both of the artists.

"Peace, Unity, Love and Having Fun!"

The same year, another Zulu project called Time Zone paired Bam with Johnny Lydon/Rotten for the funk-metal apocalypse "World Destruction."

Bam: "Who wants to be a President or King?"
Rotten: "Me!"

Bam was also involved in Little Steven's Sun City project, which paired him up with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Bono and many other titans. Bam himself would put together a Hip-Hip Against Apartheid single with many rap crews in '89 and later organize a huge concert at Wembley Stadium to celebrate Nelson Mandela's release and raise money for the ANC.

On his own albums, Bam gathered many artists themselves to share the studio with him to make a funky fusion of rap and other styles, again helping his music become part of the mainstream. His guests included P-Funk, Boy George, UB40, Sly and Robbie and Bill Laswell as Bam now appropriately christened his group "Family." This spirit of giving up the spotlight to others for the single-minded purpose of the party was in keeping with the way Bam stood back during his show and let the other Zulus command the crowd while on the mike. Bam was still DJ'ing but now using other musicians as his source rather than records.

During the '90's, this has led Bam to become what he calls a "world DJ" (as well as a local one, doing the True School show for New York's Hot 97). Being global has also meant taking the Zulu Nation worldwide- as the Zulus toured and met kindred spirits, they established new chapters across the country and the globe- Toronto, Tokyo, Belgium and Italy are a few of the Zulu sites. Today, Bam still tours most of the year to appreciative crowds all over the planet, ready to absorb local culture anywhere ("I could go to Bulgaria and start grooving and I might make some Bulgarian funk!"). The reason is obvious- it's no different for American jazz musicians who find many more open arms when they travel. "The only thing that I don't like about the U.S. is that you're no bigger than your last hit. In many other places, they respect your hits but they also respect you as a person and what your ideology is."

This is why most of us don't know about recent Bam's recent activities- "Got To Get Up" (with Carpe Diem, '92), "Pupunanny," "Feel the Vibe" (European hits from '94), Westbam's "Agharta" (from '98, about a subterranean world), Time Zone's funktional WITCHES AND WARLOCKS CD ('96) and the recent "Planet Rock" remix EP (preceded by a Soulsonic remake/reunion from '96). Spotty distribution has forced Bam and the Nation to self-release some of their music- talk about not being honored in your own land.

Bam is far from a bitter man though- he looks back at the scene he helped create with pride and joy. "There's a lot of good rap out there. I know the different cycles that rap goes through. Some love the gangster rap or commercial rap and some hate it. It's just good to see that hip-hop has so many fans at different levels. You have your gangsters, your commercial rap like Jazzy Jeff, your funk-based rap style like Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Digital Underground, A Tribe Called Quest and a jazz-sound, a soul-sound, an R&B-sound. Hip-hop to me is really saving all the dance music in the world. You're hearing the beats now in everything- house music, techno, rock, jazz, soca, samba. Rap has come a long way and so has hip-hop culture."

Unfortunately, the last few years also meant a showdown with the New York City government who made the Zulus relocate their South Bronx headquarters (claiming they were part of gang activity). Despite this setback, the Nation soldiers on, carrying out programs and lectures on AIDS awareness, natural healing and other topics. According to Bam, "This is just to give the young people some knowledge and interests."

Once again, adversities do not phase Bam. Just as he still loves the City, he still loves the scene. This is why he's still putting on shows here as he's on a revival mission, just as the Zulus are with their community projects. "I feel that the New York scene needs some life again, especially downtown. I don't feel that there's a world club down there like the Roxy or the Mudd Club back when hip-hop, punk rock and new wave were all coming up together. The only place where I see that hype culture happening now is the raves, where you see all types of music being played."

So the show I witness in the early morning hours is actually a part of his big plan. The Zulus are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary this fall in New York with some blow-out shows, where they're hoping to rope in all of Bam's projects for a Mothership-type extravaganza featuring SoulSonic, Shango and Time Zone. Bam has an active agenda ahead of him as he'll be putting together another Time Zone CD along with Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy and Leftfield collaborations.

For now though, there are about a dozen people left at 4AM as Bam spins his last record- Sly's "Thank You." As the Zulus bid us goodnight, I wanted my chance to say thank you to an artist who had been noted in Life Magazine's "Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" issue. The whole evening was a generous, all-encompassing audio tour. As he packed away his records, I introduced myself as the guy who interviewed him over the phone. He smiled, remembering our talk and wanted to know what I thought of everything. "You wanted an ass-shaking party and you got your wish." He smiled appreciatively. "Peace."

I poured myself into a cab, still mulling over everything. Bam had rocked our planet with his perfect beat and jazz sensations- the reverberations are still being felt and will be for a long time to come. His gift to all of us isn't so much his music as his diverse and adventurous spirit that's left the world of music a better place to live in.

See some of Bambaataa's favorite music

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