Afrika Bambaataa on the Origins of Hip-hop, the Perfect Beat, and His Most Treasured Record

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Afrika Bambaataa
For those who haven't heard of Afrika Bambaataa, the Godfather of hip-hop, his resume looks something like this:

1969-1971: Warlord, Black Spades, Bronx River Houses, Bronx NY.
Responsibilities included: Tagging turf; crossing enemy lines to forge relationships with other gangs, including the Savage Skulls and the Javelins.

1970-present: DJ, worldwide.
Training: Apprenticed with Kool DJ D and Disco King Mario before promoting parties with gang-neutral dress codes.
Achievements include: Naming hip-hop, the genre; identifying the Four Elements (DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing); expanding the reach of hip-hop through the inclusion of rock, soundtracks, and electronic music; recording landmark electro-funk songs "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat" (both in 1982).

1973-present: Founder, Universal Zulu Nation.
Responsibilities include: Drafting a charter that incorporated African beliefs, world religion, and equality; expanding the organization worldwide to break down political barriers through music.
Achievements include: Establishing November as Hip-Hop History month.

The prophet Bambaataa brings his interplanetary musical message to Yoshi's S.F. this Saturday. He recently gave us a hip-hop tutorial by phone.

What kind of set do you play today?
Well I could jump all over the place, all types of music, as long as the audience I'm playing for wants the vibration.

When did you realize the kind of positive effect the music could have on your community?
Well I knew that since baby up, seeing the vibrations that music was doing to people, especially at a time when the United States of America was going through the '60s movement, and trying to come together to break down the barriers of so-called white people on this side and so-called black people on this side. It was pulling their strings together, where they would dance to Motown together, James Brown together, so that's when I started noticing, from a very, very young age, that there's something about music that was a vibrating force to humans anywhere.

In the early '80s, hip-hop started moving from the Bronx to downtown New York, where punk rock was the dominant music. What were your first impressions of the downtown scene when Fab Five Freddy booked you at the Mudd Club?
It was interesting seeing a lot of the people that was into punk rock starting to love the sound of what we was doing. So I started getting a large following of the punk rock crowd, who started following me from the downtown scene, started even coming up to the uptown scene.

You were the first to use a lot of sounds like Morricone, Rolling Stones, Kraftwerk. What led you to those sounds?
Being open to all types of music led me to the sound, adding all types of rhythms and vocals and sounds from other different categories of music to my music--or to my DJ set. Certain fields of music were in cartoons also, especially classical music. We knew about that from watching Bugs Bunny or Road Runner, where they chasing him and they start playing a little Beethoven.

You're credited with bringing the four elements together. When did you identify those and turn them into the backbone of the Zulu Nation philosophy?
Well I'm the one who named the elements, and the one who started telling everybody, "It's time to come together as the Universal Zulu Nation" under the banner in the year of 1973, November 12. We was calling it hip-hop from '73 up, but '74 was when I said, "Yea, everything's this, that. That's what we call it. When media's asking different people what you call it, you say 'hip-hop.'"

How were yours, Kool Herc's, and Grandmaster Flash's parties different? What did you each bring to the turntables?
Everybody had they different of style of music that they played. Flash brought like the quick mix. I brought all the crazy beats and grooves. And Kool Herc was the one that started with the crazy big sound system. So we all played our roles in keeping the culture moving.

How did the breakbeat originate?
The breakbeat originated from DJs playing the certain part of the record -- like the father, Kool Herc -- that would make you just get crazy on the dancefloor. Breakbeat music started with many of the musicians who make the music, where they bring that bridge up that leads you to a frenzy -- and the best artist for that is the god himself, James Brown.

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