Afrika Bambaataa is not only a prominent social activist and pioneering hip hop DJ/producer often referred to as the ‘godfather of hip hop culture,’ but is also credited with laying the foundation for electro funk, a genre whose roots are grounded in the early ‘80s while its branches extend all the way into contemporary dance music. Even modern day mainstream hits like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” owe a large part to Bambaataa’s early genre-blending experimentations.
Yet, it all started underground, when a young Bambaataa began fusing the futuristic electronic sounds of visionary groups like Kraftwerk and the Yellow Magic Orchestra with the funky, syncopated rhythms of James Brown et al. Bambaataa explains, “[Early electronic music] caught me, especially in computer games, which I used to play in the early days like crazy. I felt the funk of what they was tryin’ to do, even though they music might not have been funk. I thought if I took them sounds, and [was] one the first people to use this sound, and add the funk of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and George Clinton on top of it, what would we come up with? So we came up with that sound called electro funk.”
The year was 1982 when Bambaataa dropped his massively influential crossover hit “Planet Rock.” The track blended 808 breakbeats and synthesizer leads with the funk-inspired MCing of the Soul Sonic Force. “Planet Rock” peaked at number four on the Soul Chart and number 48 on the Hot 100, but it is its legacy and foreshadowing of the dance music and hip hop movement to follow that is most impressive. In Bambaataa’s words, “It all started with the ‘Planet Rock,’ but the funk came through all different categories, whether it be techno, electro, the dub, the deep, and all that. You see a lot of the new-style electronic taken from hip hop – breaks and beats added to the music to make it more funky.” Regardless of its origins, it is difficult to overstate the influence of “Planet Rock”; no summary of hip hop or electronic music is complete without a reference to the track.
Since then, Bambaataa has had many other genre-defining releases, and today he is as active as ever, steadily putting out original work and collaborations between extensive world tours and seminars at Cornell University, to which he donated his collection of 40,000 records. “Cornell has been wonderful, going up there and teaching with the students, learning from the students and having dialogue with the audience. The hip staff up there have been doing a tremendous job archiving hip hop culture.”
Although many people associate Afrika Bambaataa with old school hip hop, he’s given up DJing with vinyl, as it’s simply too inconvenient to travel around the world with a box full of records. Still, you can expect a funky set. “I play anything that make you dance, that take you on a musical journey. Whether it’s old, new, or in between, as long as it keeps people dancing, that’s all I worry about.”
Afrika Bambaataa touches down at LED Bar in Vancouver on February 27th.
By Peter Scheiber
Photo (top): Che Kothari