Hip Hop History: Interview w/ Afrika Bambaataa Hip Hop’s Ambassador


Everyone in Hip Hop owes a bit of gratitude to Hip Hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation. Here’s a guy who came out of New York’s ruthless gang culture and succeeded in creating something positive when there was so much negativity around. He took former gang members put them under one umbrella initially called the Organization and later Zulu Nation. He was the one who attempted to bridge the generation gap between a resistant older Black community and it’s innovative young. He along with DJ Kool Herc was among the first use Hip Hop as a way to provide a positive for the local neighborhood thugs.

Bam was known as the Master of Records because of his huge vinyl collection and his willingness to expand Hip Hop’s musical boundaries. He was the first deejay I ever heard take a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King speech and play it over a Hip Hop break beat. He was creative enough to take the ‘Theme to the Pink Panther‘ and rock it over Hip Hop drum beats. Bam was the first to really take Hip Hop beyond the boundaries of The Bronx and Harlem’s Black and Puerto Rican communities and make it multi-cultural. He was the first to take Hip Hop downtown to New York’s trendy Village district. He was also the first to provide a safe haven for folks outside the community to come up and see what Hip Hop culture was really all about.

Bambaataa was the one who gave birth to the Electro-Funk aspect of Hip Hop when he dropped his uptempo landmark record Planet Rock in 1982. True to his moniker Master of Records, Bambaataa used a sped up riff from the German dance group Kraftwerk and their classic song Trans-Europe Express. He’s the one who attempted to keep the soul of Black music, in particular the funk, from being compromised, diluted and watered down during the Age of Disco. Before folks were really up on George Clinton and The P-Funk era, Bam was a full fledged Funkateer. Before folks really developed a deep appreciation for James Brown whose music became a major backbone for early Hip Hop, Bam was making records with him.

DJ Afrika Bambaataa was the one who spread the word about this new style of music and culture thus making him Hip Hop’s first Ambassador. This is the same Bambaataa-The Grandfather of Hip Hop, who recently came to the San Francisco Bay Area [November 1999] to perform at a club with less then 100 people. It was sad to see the man who did so much for this culture wasn’t given the respect from one major radio or video outlet that now makes a living peddling Hip Hop culture. They didn’t bother to seek him out and grant him an interview. No one bothered to build directly from his experience, expertise and wisdom. This is the same Bambaataa who laid down much of the blue print for Hip Hop but now when his name is mentioned to today’s Hip Hopper he/she will arrogantly dismiss Bam and accomplishments and say ‘He’s Old School’.

Over the years I have interviewed Bambaataa numerous times. This particular day was telling because it Bam was on his way to a peace summit of sorts. He was doing his part to quell a growing feud between East and West Coast rappers. At the time of this interview [September ’96] things were kind of hectic because Hip Hop had just lost 2Pac to senseless violence.

Davey D: How did you get involved with Hip-Hop?

A. Bambaataa I am one of the founders of Hip-Hop along with my brothers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Kool Herc came to the shores of America from the island of Jamaica in 1969. He started jamming these slamming types of b-beats that we call break beats. I knew that as a DJ from 1970 on up that I would eventually come with this sound. I brought out all these other break beats that you hear so much on a lot of these records. It was for this reason I am called the Master of Records.

Davey D: A lot of people don’t realize your reputation. Back in the days you use to shock everybody because you had so many records and so many beats from different sources of music. You definitely earned that title. When we talk about Hip-Hop how would you define it? Is it just one type of music? Is it a way that you present it? Or is it a conglomeration of a lot of different things?

A. Bambaataa People have to understand what you mean when you talk about Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop means the whole culture of the movement. When you talk about rap you have to understand that rap is part of the Hip-Hop culture. That means the emceeing is part of the Hip-Hop culture. The Deejaying is part of the Hip-Hop culture. The dressing, the languages are all part of the Hip Hop culture. So is the break dancing, the b-boys and b-girls. How you act, walk, look and talk is all part of Hip Hop culture. And the music is colorless. Hip Hop music is made from Black, brown, yellow, red and white. It’s from whatever music that gives that grunt, that funk, that groove, that beat. That’s all part of Hip Hop.

Davey D: So is music on the west coast considered Hip Hop? I ask that cause you have a lot of people who keep insisting that artist like Too Short or E-40 is not real Hip Hop. Is that a false definition?

A. Bambaataa Yes, that’s a false definition. Too Short, E-40 and all the brothers and sisters that’s making Hip Hop and coming from the funk side part of it is all Hip Hop. The electro-funk, which is that ‘Planet Rock’ sound which is led to the Miami Bass sound, is also Hip Hop. The GoGo sound that you hear from Washington DC is also Hip Hop. The New Jack Swing that Teddy Riley and all them started is R&B and Hip Hop mixed together. So Hip Hop has progressed into different sounds and different avenues. Also people have got to recognize from Hip Hop music came the birth of House music and Freestyle dance music that is listened to by a lot of Puerto Ricans.

Davey D: Now can you repeat that again. I keep telling people all the time that Latin Freestyle and Hi Energy music is part of Hip Hop. I keep telling people that a lot of the early freestyle producers were original Hip Hoppers. I keep telling them how the Puerto Ricans took the fast uptempo break beats from songs like ‘Apache‘ and developed freestyle.

A. Bambaataa Actually freestyle really comes from ‘Planet Rock‘. If you listen to all the freestyle records you’ll hear that they are based on ‘Planet Rock’. All the Miami Bass records are based upon Planet Rock. So freestyle came from Electro Funk, which as you know came from Hip Hop.

Davey D: How has Hip Hop changed over the years? What do you like about it? What do you think is hurting it? What do you think we need to do to take things to the next level?

A. Bambaataa The thing that’s good about Hip Hop is that it has experimented with a lot of different sounds and music. There’s a lot of people over time who have brought out all these funky records that everybody has started jumping on like a catch phrase… When Planet Rock came out, then you had all of the electro funk records. When you had Doug E Fresh doing songs with Slick Rick like ‘La Di Da Di‘, you had all the people going in that direction. When Eric B and Rakim came out with ‘I Know You Got Soul‘ and all the way up to Run DMC all the way to Wu-Tang…All these people gave little changes that effected Hip Hop music. The thing about Hip Hop today and music in general is that the people who created it meaning Blacks and Latinos do not control it no more. A lot of them have made companies and sold it out to the money devils. Now we act like we have freedom of expression within Hip Hop but there’s actually censorship in Hip Hop.

Davey D: What exactly do you mean by that?

A. Bambaataa Well, a lot of people within government and big business are nervous of Hip Hop and Hip Hop artists, because they speak their minds. They talk about what they see and what they feel and what they know. They reflect what’s around them. That means if you see drugs in your area, your gonna come straight with it. If you see something is going wrong within politics and the world today, then some Hip Hop artist is gonna come along and get straight with it. If they think that there’s a lot of racism going on then there’s another Hip Hop artist who’s gonna come out and speak their mind. A lot of people fear this. So they (big business types) go together in their secret meetings like Warner Brothers and they came down on people like Ice T or Sista Souljah. They came down on the Zulu Nation. They came down on Public Enemy. They came down on NWA and The Geto Boys. All these Hip Hop artists were bold and demanded freedom of expression. But now you see censorship going on.

Ice T made a record called ‘Cop Killer‘ which was really a heavy metal record done by a Black heavy metal band so they came after it because it was Ice T and said it was rap.

Davey D: How are you seeing this censorship coming about?

A. Bambaataa You have to look at the fact that Hip Hop is under attack. It’s not just Hip Hop but Black people, Latino people and all people are under attack for different things. We’re attacked within Hip Hop music. We’re attack within our minds by what they put on television to accommodate you and ‘supe you up’ [tell you lies]. We’re attacked within our bodies and health. They attack our natural food source so that it’s hard for people who want to get into holistic herbs or natural healing. Since the pharmaceuticals don’t make any money and they control the doctors. If the doctors don’t make any money then all hell breaks loose. In communities like LA and New York they are using a lot of the youth for a test sight. By that I mean, they are flooding the communities with drugs. We are under attack in all fields of our life.

Davey D: Today there’s a meeting taking place at the Mosque in NY and I know you’re going to be playing a significant role in this Hip Hop Day of Atonement, Can you explain to everyone what this is all about and what you hope to accomplish?

A. Bambaataa Well basically The Hip Hop Day Of Atonement at Mosque 7 in New York City is basically bringing a lot of the Hip Hop artist together to talk about this East/ West coast mess and to talk about our brother 2Pac Shakur. We want to give him a memorial.

We also want to try and slow down all this foolishness that’s going on between the East and West. We gotta understand that Hip Hop is now universal. Hip Hop is not East coast or West coast. Hip Hop is in the North of America and in the South of America as well as all around the world. It’s in different countries from Europe to Africa to the West Indies to the Pacific Islands. It’s now a universal thing. It’s what you put in your lyrics that makes it a Black or white thing. Or it can speak to all people on the planet. That’s what this day of atonement is about-to bring our people together.

We want you to sit down and leave your egos at home and let’s get an understanding as to where all this is foolishness coming from. There are others who are putting things out there or throwing a stick and hiding their hand and keeping things built up in the media. They’re keeping friction going between people from the East and the West. One thing we all got in common is your color, which is Black and Latino, which is our family.

Davey D: Can you speak on the relationship between Hip Hop and violence?

afrika-bambatta-pointA. Bambaataa Well, the continuation with violence is America itself. They tell you you’re not supposed to have guns or you’re not supposed to have knives, yet they still show guns and all sorts of weapons in all these movies. They allow us to have guns and weapons in our videos. They allow us to disrespect our Black woman. A lot of these things would be considered criminal if it were to be carried out in the streets. That’s like when they tell you after you buy your VHS and you rent movies they tell you not to copy the movies. But here they come with a scrambler that allows you to make illegal copies. Life in the American system is just crazy and ‘wild out’. There are certain things that they say you can’t do, there are all these secret people behind the scenes who make things available for you to do. That’s why you have so much crime and violence.

Black people didn’t come up with the first drive by shooting. A lot of this was taught from watching the movies from the 1920s when they had so called ‘real’ gangsters like Al Capone. All this is played in your subconscious mind. There are people who think less of themselves and don’t know their real self and they tend to fall victim these traps that are being put on television or in a lot of these movies.

Davey D: Any last words…Where do you see Hip Hop going in the next couple of years?

A. Bambaataa If we do not sit down, meaning our people as a whole and unite and form a Hip Hop united front or police our own self and organize, I can definitely see Hip Hop becoming destroyed and a lot of frictions getting bigger. I can see a lot of people going out and hurting each other. Sooner or later we need to wake up and know what’s going on. We need to do what brother Malcolm X, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Minister Farrakhan and many others had suggested–read books. You better know what’s going on with this New World Order cause there’s something serious going down and believe me all of y’all that’s out there with all this foolishness. They got a lot of big concentration camps (prisons) just waiting for you. So get ready for the new age and the next Millennium. In the year 2000. The New World Order.

c 1996

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