Afrika Bambaataa on Early L.A. Hip-Hop

Afrika Bambaataa
Afrika Bambaataa
Credit: Joe Conzo

Not long ago, turntablists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist picked through the 40,000-piece-strong archived vinyl collection of Afrika Bambaataa.

On Friday, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist will show off their findings, along with a full lineup of vinyl enthusiast DJs. They will pay tribute to Bambaataa, who in the '80s helped propel both both hip-hop and electronic dance music to what we know them as today. 

His 1982 song "Planet Rock" (below) was incredibly influential. It helped drive hip-hop in his hometown New York, it propelled the Miami bass scene down South, and it set the template for L.A. rap, which, before Ice-T and NWA, wasn't hard, tough music, but rather featured electro-driven dance floor jams. 

In honor of the event we interviewed both DJ Shadow, which will run later this week, and Bambaataa himself, which you can read below. He spoke to us about early L.A. hip-hop in all its strange glory. 

So DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist got in a car and drove up to Ithaca?


They looked in the crates and picked out what they wanted to use. They said it was hard to pick, and they knew they couldn’t go for hours and hours. I saw [the tour's opening show] at Irving Plaza. It was off the hook, like fire. Everything was a highlight, from the opening act, to the end with DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. It was funky, and everything it was supposed to be. Peace, unity, love and having fun, as [goes] the saying of Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown.

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What's your most treasured piece of vinyl, or the one that was hardest to get?


There’s too many of those, it’s hard. So many different music that I have digged in the crates for. But I’d say one of the most important was the funk, what James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone have given to the music industry. James Brown was the king of soul, I don’t want to say the godfather. Sly and the Family Stone shook the whole industry. Their contributions formed what we know as hip-hop music today. Respect to them and also George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, and others who did poetry and comedy: The Last Poets, Blowfly, the Watts Prophets, Ella Fitzgerald, it goes all the way back Cab Calloway's "Hi-De-Ho."


What do you think your influence has been on West Coast and L.A. music specifically?

It was definitely the electro funk sound that snapped everyone up along the West coast, from NWA to Sir Mix-a-Lot to Egyptian Lover. NWA.'s first record, ”Something 2 Dance 2,” was taken from Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.” 


Around the time “Planet Rock” was released, what did you think of West Coast hip-hop? Was it disrespected?


Not from the Zulu Nation, which stretched to the East coast. [But] some people from the East coast wouldn’t respect nobody at the time, it was all about them. But it started stretching out, and started flourishing in the respective territories.


It was started over there with Afrika Islam, Ice-T, and some brothers and sisters who started building it up. There was a club called Water the Bush, a L.A. club that was starting over there. Also a club called Nation. It brought together punk rockers, new wavers, hip hoppers. You could hear funk reggae, all up in one club. It was like George Clinton said, “One nation under a groove.”

Did you go?

Many times. I seen the same type of feeling as what we were doing, they was carrying it over. It was good vibrations.


Do you feel NWA's music was in line with what you were preaching with the Zulu Nation?


When they first came out they were the values of the Zulu Nation, from Dr. Dre's involvement with the World Class Wreckin' Cru and the early stages of NWA, and they went to a different message from the Zulu Nation with gangsta rap. But they did what they had to do to get their message across in a different way.

We’re not with censorship of no group, they should feel free to say what they want to say. But the radio stations started BSing the people by only playing one category of hip-hop — gangsta rap. They should play the new with the old, which is when it becomes the true school.

You would think that gangsta rap is the only type of hip-hop that people want to hear. That’s what I call mind control, to try to create a certain type of movement in the streets. There was a time when radio stations were progressive minded. I say to stations [now]: Where’s you electrofunk, your Miami bass, your Cameo, your Kraftwerk?

Program directors are controlling the masses, controlling the minds of the community. Hip-hop wasn’t like that. Hip-hop took music from everybody else to make their music, and then a lot of other [genres] took back from hip-hop to make their music. That’s why you have country music with breakbeats.

Same with house stations. We've got to question: What is the program directors for these stations doing for the people? Why are you playing the same music over and over? That’s why so many people are turning to internet and satellite stations.

Last question: What do you think makes vinyl so great?


Vinyl always got a cleaner sound than an mp3 or a CD. But I love all the styles. With mp3s you can have more songs than you can have bringing out crates of vinyl. Airplanes try to charge you crazy prices for bringing crates on a plane. Serato has helped stop the airplane robbery. 

Correction: The original version of this story said that Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow traveled to Ithaca to peruse Bambaataa's vinyl, which was not the case. 

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