The legacy of legendary DJ/producer Afrika Bambaataa is indisputable. Without him, hip-hop music and activism would not be what it is today.
To honor Bambaataa and expose hip-hop listeners new and old to the records that laid the foundation for the genre, renowned DJs Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow have embarked on the “Renegades of Rhythm” tour. After sorting through the very same vinyl Bambaataa once used to rock Bronx block parties (now archived at Cornell University), the two DJs culled nearly 1,000 of his records. Spinning this vinyl and this vinyl only, they’re hoping to offer attendees a comprehensive aural history of Bambaataa’s impact and influence on hip-hop and music as a whole.
In preparation for the duo’s L.A. show on October 3 at the Hollywood Palladium, we spoke with DJ Shadow about his personal history with Bambaataa’s music, sorting through Bambaataa’s records, and more.
What was your very first experience with Afrika Bambaataa’s music?
I guess I would start with “Planet Rock.” I was ten years old when I heard it on the radio. I was already kind of a big music lover and was into R&B, soul and funk from the early ‘80s. I had heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five a couple of months prior. So with “Planet Rock,” one of the DJs might’ve said, “This is this new style of music they're calling hip-hop.” From that moment I started trying to find out more about the music and the culture, and [I wanted to know] why nobody around me seemed to know anything about it.
Has your appreciation for Bambaataa’s work grown over the years?
I started buying records in 1983, and on every record I would buy, certain DJs would be thanked and certain DJs would be “extra” thanked. [Bambaataa] was always spoken about and thanked with the utmost respect. That made an impression on me early on. I just kind of wondered who this guy was, and [I thought], “Wow, everybody seems to consider him to be the primary ambassador of the culture.” Then, as I got a little bit older and started discovering books like Rap Attack and started seeing him interviewed in magazine articles and things like that, it became pretty clear that he was a formidable presence within the community and also one of the people that was there at the very beginning.
How did you obtain Bambaattaa’s blessing for this tour?
We spoke on the telephone and I just laid out our plans for what we wanted to do and said that we wanted the set to be in honor of him as a DJ, an artist, and also as an ambassador of the culture. Because that’s really what he was, especially in hip-hop’s infancy. He was probably the most well traveled hip-hop figure. He went to Europe, he went to Asia, he went to South America — he went everywhere and tried to always redirect people’s attention to the culture and not himself. So we wanted to reflect that in the set as well. He said, “Sounds good. Just make sure you don’t forget go-go [a funk offshoot popular in D.C.] because go-go was a big deal for me.” So we worked it into the set.
How many of his records did you sort through?
I never knew the actual number, but everybody keeps saying 40,000. That seems about right. It took us a couple of days, ten hours a day, to go through just to pull the things that we knew we wanted or that we were curious about or that we needed to play because we couldn’t tell what it was. There were a lot of white label test pressings. There was a lot of acetate. There were a lot of records and genres that we weren’t as familiar with. We wanted to play some dub, some dancehall, some calypso, some soca and some salsa. So we wanted to pull a lot of that and play through it and try to find the things that we thought worked best.
Were there any “holy grail” records that you and Cut fought over?
I don’t think so. I think it came down to who had the better idea at that part of building the set. For us, it was cool to see a rare record… but we didn’t give those types of records priority over other records. It really came down to what was the best record to play to represent Bambaataa and what he stands for.
Are you two worried about potentially damaging the records?
No. Back in the day, when the records were being played by him and others there wasn’t really a perception at that time of things being rare or things being valuable in the same way that it is now. Vinyl is so hyper-fetishized now, I think to a fault. And we’re doing with the records what we were intended to do with them, which is play them, have people rejoice over them and not worry about having them sealed in a vault somewhere.
How are you going to make this historical set contemporary?
I don’t think that this type of set would’ve been possible back in the day because we’ve had the benefit of 30 to 35 years of watching the significance and the relevance of what he contributed unfold. So we’re taking into consideration not only what was happening in the ‘70s, but also what happened after Bambaataa made his impact and after his records came out. For example, we play a Miami bass song and then we play a drum and bass song. These are two genres that are directly influenced by what he did. So I think that lineage, being able to [combine] the more recent with the genesis of it all, brings everything together and hopefully gives people a more 360 view of not only what it was like, but what it brought about.
The Renegades of Rhythm tour with DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist stops at Hollywood Palladium on Friday, Oct. 3. Tickets available here.