Afrika Bambaataa - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Part of the glory of Hip Hop’s ascension into prominence has been its ability to instill something positive into a world fraught with malevolence. Hip Hop brought a sense of entrepreneurship, art and innovation to the inner city, which houses a largely under-privileged population. A one-time gang leader, Afrika Bambaataa would steer his self-destructive life around and ultimately become one of the most influential and legendary figures in Hip Hop. One if the pioneers of DJing and producing, Afrikaa Bambaataa’s contributions to Hip Hop would be heavily responsible for Hip Hop’s development throughout the 80’s. And, through his organization and activism within the community Bambaataa would also help solidify Hip Hop as a culture, not merely a musical genre and expand its reach to other genres such as funk, techno and electro as well.
The son of West-Indian immigrants, Kevin Donovon was born in the rough-and-tumble South Bronx. As was common in the gritty inner city, Donovan would involve himself with a street-gang dubbed The Savage Seven (later called The Black Spades after the group’s numbers rose significantly). Donovan would become the leader of the gang and while this blemish on his past may not be one he is proud of, it would indeed foreshadow Donovan’s leadership abilities with which he’d assist the ascension of the fledgling genre of Hip Hop.
Donovan’s gang-affiliation would put him at-odds with other rival gangs. However, his life as a gang-member was about to change. Donovan took a trip to Africa where he was taught about the head of the Zulu tribe, Chief Bhambatha. Bhambatha is well known for leading a 1906-armed rebellion against a tax increase that was further debilitating for the Zulu tribe in the early twentieth century. The idea of organizing his community would have a deep impact on Donovan. The young Bronx-resident returned to New York and abandoned his life as a gang-leader and urged unity between the individuals in gangs.
At this time, two other influential DJs, DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Dee, were organizing massively popular Hip Hop parties. Donovan was inspired by their organization and began to organize and DJ his own parties, as a way to unify his community and try and sway the troubled youth who were in gangs towards a more progressive direction. Donovan held the belief that Hip Hop was rooted in people’s desire to unite and indulge in revelry As a homage to his trip to Africa, Donovan would take the name Afrika Bambaataa(reworking the name of the legendary Zulu Chief).
Bambaataa’s parties were a success. Many former gang-members credit the producer for inspiring them to depart from their degenerative lives in street-gangs. Bambaataa began to form several Hip Hop crews. The first of which was the Jazzy 5 and later Soulsonic Force. Technologically, Soulsonic force would prove to be one of Bambaataa’s most influential projects, as he would sample Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” from electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk’s album Trans-Europe Express (EMI-1977) for Soulsonic Force’s song “Planet Rock.” The bizarre sample was odd but would also help distinguish Soulsonic Force in the bustling Hip Hop hotbed of the Bronx and “Planet Rock” has since becoming not only one of Hip Hop’s most beloved tracks but also one of the greatest songs of the dance music genre. Afrika Bambaataa’s creative amalgamations would help expand the creative reaches of what a pair of turntables could accomplish and hence, the art of turntablism was born. Soulsonic Force would continue to infuse their music with techno and other electronic genres, further expanding Hip Hop’s reach.
As his popularity rose, Afrika Bambaata formed what he called The Universal Zulu Nation, which was an extension of his community activism and organization. The Zulu Nation was a group of socially conscious rappers, DJs, graffiti artists and break-dancers. The various members of the Universal Zulu Nation were regularly performing at Bambaataa-organized block parties, where Afrika Bambaata was continuing to hone his skills as a DJ. It was also about this time that Bambaataa, who’s often called the godfather of Hip Hop, worked alongside the godfather of soul, James Brown on the single “Unity.” A remarkably significant recording considering that a plethora of Hip Hop artists have sampled James Brown, but very few, if any, have actually recorded with the late great soul singer.
Though he’d released several popular 12” singles, most notably, Planet Rock (Tommy Boy-1982) Bambaataa had built a name for himself before he’d even yielded an album. A further testament to how incredible this dynamic is, is that by 1982, Afrika Bambaata’s innovative DJ events were drawing massive crowds. The Bronx-born DJ finally put out his first recording with a live recording of his performance at a Bronx high school with Death Mix (Paul Winley Records-1983).
Bambaataa continued his activism, contributing to the anti-apartheid compilation Sun City (EMI-1985) and launching on what would be the first Hip Hop tour, alongside not only Hip Hop musicians but graffiti artists and dancers as well, with hopes of promoting Hip Hop culture as a whole.
Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force then released Planet Rock: The Album, which was basically a compilation of past singles from the accomplished DJ and his posse of forward thinking artists, including “Renegades of Funk”, “Looking For the Perfect Beat” and of course, “Planet Rock.” The collection of Afrika Bambaataa’s singles was popular and would receive positive reviews.
The legendary DJ followed his first album of studio recordings with Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere) (Tommy Boy-1986) before releasing The Light (1988-Capitol Records), which he recorded under the name Afrika Bambaataa and The Family (probably a homage to Sly and The Family Stone—one of the first racially integrated groups to acquire mainstream prominence). The Light heard Afrika Bambaataa collaborate with the likes of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Boy George and reggae group UB40. Mirroring the album’s eclectic group of contributors, his subject matter also tackled content such as racial discrimination, while still finding time to utilize technology to its fullest to innovate his sound.
As much as the Godfather of Hip Hop was interested in innovating music, he was equally concerned with his activism. Consistently outspoken against the apartheid in South Africa, Bambaata joined the group Hip Hop Artists Against Apartheid. Afrika Bambaataa opened the nineties by performing at London’s Wembley Stadium in honor of the end of Nelson Mandela’s nearly three-decade long imprisonment. The event brought Hip Hop artists together from the U.S. and was certainly in line with Bambaataa’s mission of unifying separate peoples. Because of the influence his words and music had on the situation in South Africa, Time Magazine would name Africa Bambaataa one of the most important people of the twentieth century.
The now-legendary DJ, kept busy and yielded several albums such as the versatile Warlocks And Witches, Computer Chips, Microchips And You (Profile-1996) as well as several releases that were released exclusively in Europe.
Afrika Bambaataa would later release Dark Matter Moving At The Speed Of Light (Tommy Boy-2004), which was Bambaataa returning to his electro roots as evidence by tracks like “B More Shake” and “Dark Matter.” The album also heard Bambaataa collaborated with New-Wave musician Gary Numan, an artist whose early work had greatly influenced a young emerging Afrika Bambaataa.
Never settling to merely preach and disappear, Afrika Bambaataa has never ceased to practice what he preaches. Just as he brought together warring street-gangs, he brought together different genres of music, all the while pleading for justice in South Africa. Bambaataa should be recognized not only for his innovations of Hip Hop but also so his efficient and consistent activism.