If Kool Herc is the father of hip hop, Afrika Bambaataa is the Godfather. And he’s going to the mattresses.
A Bronx legend known as an originator of both breakbeat DJing and electro funk, Bambaataa has never been one to let genre stand in the way of a good tune. He believes boundaries have no place in hip hop, as evidenced by the influence of Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan on his signature track, 'Planet Rock'. But he looks around today and sees people fixated on authenticity; on what is 'real' hip hop and what is not.
“Well, those are the people that just don't know,” he says dismissively. “Most people say 'hip hop' today and they just think of rap records. Most don't even recognise the whole cultural movement of hip hop. Most radio stations, when they play hip hop, all they're into is payola and getting money for commercial tracks; they don't care too much about the culture. Most of the people who get in there, they claim they're in it for the 'culture', but they're not. They just want a paycheck. And they're going to dictate to you what rap music is today?
“Then you go to these parties today, and people get mad if you play the breakbeat. They say, 'oh, can I hear some hip hop?' What's wrong with you, man? The breakbeat is hip hop! If you want to hear a rap record, just say you want to hear a rap record! These people have jacked up what hip hop truly is, and was, and made it commercial. That's why you've got apartheid now in hip hop. You've got people who think, 'this is real hip hop'. It's not.
“They don't even know that hip hop is all different categories and styles of music. You can have your R&B, you can have your hip house, you can have your trance, you can have your jungle hop, you can have your Calypso reggaeton style of hip hop... I always give credit to the people who are progressive-minded. People like Missy, Outkast, Busta Rhymes. These are great people who are not scared to play with the different sounds of hip hop and different sounds of music.”
As you can probably tell, Bambaataa's not a big fan of US radio stations. He believes they continue to wield influence, and they don't use it for good. Among other things, he blames them for hip hop's short attention span — whereas classic rock and funk acts can continue to get airplay and tour sizable venues for years, if not decades, after their commercial peak, hip hop isn't so kind to its elders.
“I blame the stations,” he confirms. “Because if you played all that [older hip hop] music along with what's happening now, they still would get respect. Some people want to hear old funk music, some people want to hear old soul music. Those type of people will pack out a Temptations show; I mean, they might not be able to fill stadiums, but those people will pack out a club to see Ohio Players or Dr John. Whereas in hip hop, well, when was your last hip hop record? It could be Busta Rhymes today and Lil Wayne tomorrow.
“They say this is what the people want to hear, but they're liars. That's what somebody told you that you ought to be playing, but you know you could play other things. If you're gonna play a gangsta record with people cussing each other out, why can't you play a Public Enemy record? It's like, if you can play a rock record by a new group, why can't you also play The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. If you play Sean Paul, why can't you play Bob Marley? It's like a game being played on the people.”
Whether there's a mainstream audience for it or not, Bambaataa is doing his part to ensure the history of hip hop is preserved. He's donated his immense record collection to Cornell University, curators of the largest collection of historical hip hop music in North America, and he's also been given a special role to play there. |
“I'm a visiting scholar,” he says of his three-year appointment, “teaching hip hop culture and trading knowledge with the students and the staff, working on the hip hop archive, speaking on certain things that we deal with in the hip hop culture throughout the world. A lot of people have donated to the hip hop archive at Cornell University, and it's amazing to see hip hop sitting right next to the Gettysburg Address, sitting right next to indigenous treaties, sitting right next to books dealing with witchcraft and religion and all types of things. It's amazing.”
For students with a sense of history, it must be a thrill to learn from Afrika Bambaataa. But he'd rather they didn't stand on ceremony.
“I always tell everybody to keep it humble,” he laughs. “You know, I feel strange when they say 'Professor Bambaata' or things like that. Just call me Brother Bam! When we're trading knowledge, when you hear from all these other geniuses, it's just amazing, speaking with them on different subjects and topics. People just get all up in it.”
Like Professor Henry Jones on a treasure hunt, Bambaataa will be stepping away from the podium briefly to tour Australia this month. “I'll be coming with my Serato and my MC and we're going to play our music and we want people to party and dance and act crazy,” he says. “I play the music and it's up to you to make the party happen. So let's party. Let's party on the mothership.”
Afrika Bambaataa celebrates the 30th anniversary of ‘Planet Rock’ at The Hi-Fi Friday May 17.