One-Man Army of Huge Ideas
Hip-hop icon Afrika Bambaataa raises consciousness—and roofs
Marooned at a seaside villa on the left-hand side of Guatemala, I spent the hours during which Afrika Bambaataa didn't call me thinking about the state of cultural affairs the interview symbolized. Or would have symbolized: A sunburned WASP in rural Central America discussing community activism with one of the most significant black leaders in the contemporary U.S., the instigator of the Universal Zulu Nation.
The modern world so rarely delivers on its promises. I bragged in e-mails to friends: This is meaningful! Well, to some of them: Unknown to most, Bambaataa served as a one-man army of huge ideas and stampeding import. Not only did the man help to invent hip-hop on the streets of New York in the '70s, but he also harnessed its exponential power to foster positive change in black communities. The kind of industriousness that Bambaataa demonstrated now fuels perfume lines and sneaker collaborations, not social justice.
Electrified, I stationed myself by the phone, a hailstorm of prescient questions (What of Obama? What of the gun arrests? What of radical fatherlessness?) hissing on my tongue. Slowly, though, my energies faded with my cell-phone battery.
After a collected five hours of waiting in vain over two evenings, I accepted that Bambaataa wouldn't be calling. Granted, driving through East Coast snowstorms and taping radio shows aren't wise times to phone up a reporter. Still, in the moment, my hopeful attitudes about the state of art and the nation and their snaking influences on each other crumbled alongside my interview prospects. So instead I watched Kanye West's Grammy performance over and over on YouTube.
My discouragement was feeble compared to that inherent in Afrika Bambaataa. While rock & roll icons drip in Best Of compilations and sitcom appearances and dry out their many-limbed addictions on Santa Barbara ranches, hip-hop originals receive a fraction of the reverence and royalties of their other-genred contemporaries. Why? Because what happens in music culture is often a sore reflection of what the country values. And the country is racist—classist and sexist, too, but mainly, willingly racist.
An aging black man who leads the Zulu Nation—an international spiritual and philosophical movement, created from the ashes of a Bronx street gang called the Black Spades, inspired by Bambaataa's long-established facilitation of positive change in threatened black communities—does not necessarily lead to American Icon status. Bambaataa's tendencies toward George Clinton-ish costuming and disinterest in self-promotion or flashy comebacks have further buried his legend beyond the shallow eyes of the North American pop audience.
Bambaataa was inducted into the dubious Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and hip-hop heads who know their history are thoroughly acquainted with his work, but isolated honors and rap nerds do little to fully regard Bambaataa's contribution to popular culture.
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Bambaataa's biggest hit was 1982's "Planet Rock," a seminal track—recorded with SoulSonic Force—that sampled a Kraftwerk jam (sound familiar, Kanye and Daft Punk? It does, doesn't it?), but his endless musical imprint includes battles, DJ sets, rap collectives and collaborations, and a wide-open approach to what music and its production could be. Bambaataa makes and plays all manner of sounds, having come to think of hip-hop music as not just rap, but inclusive of Miami bass, funk, soul, electro and whatever else suited the aims of good-sounding consciousness-raising.
His current habit of deejaying is within a continuum he created: With the basics laid down over a handful of early years by Bambaataa; pals such as Grandmaster Flash and Kool DJ Herc; and a fleet of B-Boys, B-Girls, graffiti artists, DJs and MCs, hip-hop culture flourished in New York, across the U.S., and abroad.
However, the ongoing fallout of endemic racism has easily trumped smaller moments of Bambaataa-brokered street peace, the positivity discourse and the crossed genre lines. Hip-hop's malevolent urges have responded, acutely and sometimes uncomfortably, to the hand that black Americans have been dealt. Had Bambaataa's vision fully materialized, the best rappers would spit about multinationals not to glorify their products, but to dismantle their hold over a getting-dumber, buying-into-it nation. Whether another spirit guide like Bambaataa will or can emerge to respond to the sick state of America's racial affairs is anyone's guess. And Bambaataa's opinion? It remains a mystery—to me, anyway.
Afrika Bambaataa performs with Free the Robots, Mr. White, No MSG, Devyn C, From Elsewhere, DJ Legit and GMO at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $15. 21+.