Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, talks about his work and achievements ahead of his DJ set in Dubai.
Hail to the chief
"Last millennium many have called me the godfather of hip-hop," rumbles Afrika Bambaataa through a sea of electronic hiss, "and this millennium I've been honoured to be named the Amon Ra of Universal Hip-Hop Culture." "That's a lot to live up to," I squeak. "Yeah," he says. Then there's a booming sound, which may be him laughing, or expanding his answer, or possibly coughing. Is it worth attempting another question? The noise isn't, so far as I'm aware, an intentional production effect: just a bad line to New York. But Bambaataa made his name intoning cosmic slogans in alien, industrial soundscapes, and it seems fitting, if slightly unnerving, that he should conduct our interview in similarly titanic style.
Afrika Bambaataa, born Kevin Donovan 50 years ago in New York's south Bronx, is one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, not only as a musical genre but as a way of life. In fact, primarily as a way of life - but more on that later. His groundbreaking early single, 1982's Planet Rock, ushered African American music into the expanses of pure electronica. As the Furious Five's Melle Mel once put it: "When Bambaataa made Planet Rock it hurt all the other rapper. It hurt us because it tipped everything into a different dimension."
The record combined a couple of glacial samples from the German synthesizer pioneers Kraftwerk with breakbeats and rabble-rousing chants ("Rock rock to the planet rock, don't stop", "Can y'all get funky"). It was, as the saying goes, like nothing anyone had ever heard before. Planet Rock inspired a wave of electro-funk acts and offered the nascent world of rap a range of fresh sonic possibilities to set alongside the warm, organic disco loops that the Sugarhill Gang had popularised a few years earlier.
Still, for all its brutal modernity, Planet Rock was party music and party music remains Bambaataa's speciality. He has recently been recording with the populist house producer Roger Sanchez. On July 20, he'll be DJ-ing at the Madinat Jumeirah, where, he assures me, he just wants people to "come dance to the music, to party, let your inner self go, have a good time, don't think about work for the moment".
Yet, true to its title, Planet Rock did indeed sound like a party on another world. It seemed to make good on the intergalactic rhetoric of funk pioneers like Parliament, with their endless, strangely wistful talk of "returning to the mother ship". With Bambaataa there was no messing around: you just put the record on and beamed up. His subsequent Eighties singles, Looking for the Perfect Beat and Renegades of Funk, as well as World Destruction, a collaboration with the former Sex Pistol John Lydon, pressed ever deeper into the new dimension. Bambaataa was, in a sense unusual in pop music, going places.
The music was only part of the story, however. "When most people say 'hip-hop' they don't know what they're talking about," Bambaataa tells me. "When they think about hip-hop they think about rap groups or rappers. They don't think about all the other elements or the people that's involved in making the culture, or the movement." He isn't exaggerating when he calls it a movement, either. Bambaataa took full advantage of the pulpit his music career afforded to preach a version of the "conscious" black activism that flourished throughout the 1970s. In his teens he had been a leader of the Black Spades, a street gang involved in the Bronx's violent turf wars. Two factors led him to alter his course, taking the gang with him.
The first was a trip to Africa, which he won in an essay-writing contest. It inspired him to change his name in honour of the Zulu chief Bhambatha, an early 20th-century rebel against South Africa's anti-black economic policies. It also convinced him ("most definitely", he says) of the importance of strong communities, and of the power of street culture to bring about social cohesion. The second factor was the rise in popularity of block parties and the early manifestations of what would come to be called hip-hop. Bambaataa is credited with naming this sub-culture. He also set out its "four pillars" - rapping, DJ-ing, graffiti and B-boying or B-girling (that is, breakdancing). He became convinced that a social movement founded on these pillars could oppose the violence on the streets. As his former collaborator Jazzy J once put it, block parties saw youths "doing something constructive" instead of "beating each other upside the head like they used to do in the old days".
Now, of course, hip-hop has a more ambiguous reputation thanks to its association with violence and the drug trade. Rappers such as Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne garner publicity by releasing - sometimes even recording - albums from their jail cells. When questioned on this bleak side to his legacy, however, Bambaataa is unmoved. He is still convinced of hip-hop's power to bring about social uplift. "Shame on the media that only keeps talking about the rappers or what certain rappers do," he says, "trying to cause all this blame on hip-hop as a culture." He prefers to emphasise "the true people who teach the culture of African music".
"You've got people who've made a super effect all over the planet," he says. "I never seen no media talking about the Universal Nature of Hip-Hop anniversary, or the Rock Steady Crew [an international breakdancing troupe] anniversary, or the B-Boys/B-Girls summit that they have in other countries. If you haven't seen me, you have to go to YouTube to hopefully find something about that. And when rappers do one little negative thing they're all over the papers now."
That aggrieved tone is understandable in view of the trouble Bambaataa took to shape the development of the movement. Under his direction, Black Spades changed their name to the Universal Zulu Nation. Bambaataa adopted a flamboyant new persona, part African king, part George Clinton-style funky shaman, and became a spokesman for the group's strange blend of inclusivist rhetoric and hip-hop fundamentalism.
In one of many formulations of the group's creed, it is claimed that the Universal Zulu Nation stands for "Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding, Freedom, Justice, Equality, Peace, Unity, Love, Respect, Work, Fun, Overcoming the Negative to the Positive, Economics, Mathematics, Science, Life, Truth, Facts, and Faith". The official website also provides sidebar links on "UFOlogy" and the paranormal. There is, in short, something for everyone. That is probably by design. The Universal Zulu Nation, an international organisation with chapters all over the world, is open to all races and religions. There is even a small one based in the UAE: Zulu Nation Middle East. Its Facebook page lists more than 1,200 members. With its ancient Egyptian paraphernalia and references to Amon Ra, the Zulu Nation has the air of a secret society lifted straight from the pages of a Dan Brown novel. Bambaataa describes his own role as that of "ambassador", adding that "the world council keeps it running". When I ask him who is on the world council, he laughs and says "That's for the people that know." But the whole thing seems more sweet than sinister, advancing a well-meaning, if occasionally slightly nutty, agenda of peace, interfaith understanding and environmental conservation.
"That's something that's universal, that all humans seriously, seriously need to start thinking about," Bambaataa announces. "Throwing love back in the atmosphere and doing our part." His voice takes on a prophetic resonance. "When the goddess gets mad, when Mother Earth gets mad, she don't care what race, nationality, religion you come from. She says: 'I just want 100,000 people in five minutes and I'm going to get it.'" Still, his proposed plan for mollifying nature has its unorthodox aspects. "We just want for everybody to get with the solar power," he says. "Get with the green movement and stop disrespecting the planet. Like, little things like cutting Christmas trees for Christmas."
Bambaataa's real mission for the Zulu Nation is essentially to proselytise on behalf of hip-hop culture. It might he said that he goes about it in a surprising fashion. "Shame on these radio stations," he exclaims towards the end of our interview. "They should not just be hip-hop. They should be every music that's out there - country and western, soul, rock, jazz, calypso, reggae, metal, house, techno. There should be old artists playing with new artists. If you're gonna have an artist that's talking about killing, and disrespecting women, then we need some songs playing talking about love, peace, enjoying yourself and having some fun." Then again, if his breakthrough to Planet Rock came about by combining disparate elements, it makes perfect sense that he should keep mixing things up.
Afrika Bambaata will be DJ-ing at The Rooftop, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, tomorrow night. Tickets are Dh150. Call 050 725 8277 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.