The closest thing Hip Hop has to a living deity, hyperbole doesn’t really do justice when attempting to describe Afrika Bambaataa’s impact on the genre. An upbringing on the mean streets of the South Bronx found Bam ( born Kevin Donovan ) falling into a life of gang crime, eventually becoming a warlord in the Spades, one of the largest and most feared gangs in the city. This all changed however when he won a trip to Africa and had epiphanies that changed his life forever. Changing his name, he returned from Africa imbued with a determination to end violence in his neighborhood and create a community where once there had only been gangs.
The burgeoning Hip Hop scene in New York played a large role in his plans for change, with Bambaataa joining forces with the likes of DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Dee to put out on parties as a distraction for kids that had been led astray by gang culture. These effort eventually solidified in to the creation of the Zulu Nation, a collective of socially aware rappers, b-boys, graffiti artists and other people involved in Hip Hop culture. Now an international, multi-racial movement, The Zulu Nation has been spreading its message of peace, unity and Hip-Hop around the world for nearly 40 years now, with Afrika Bambaataa remaining its figurehead.
Alongside the Zulu Nation, Bambaataa’s other enduring legacy will be the ubiquitous ‘Planet Rock’. The track was a bolt from the blue in 1982, sampling elements of Kraftwerk and Ennio Morricone and in doing so instantly birthing the genre of electro-funk. Influencing everything from G-Funk to Techno, its arguably one of the most important crossover jams of the 20th century.
Despite being close to his 60th birthday, Afrika Bambaataa continues to travel all around the world promoting the message of his Zulu Nation and educating people about the origins of Hip Hop culture. An important voice in what often seems to be a losing battle between ‘real’ Hip Hop and contemporary excesses, Bambaataa is as close to universally revered as anyone in the game. Before he touches down in the UK to play at Scala for The Doctor’s Orders on 23rd November, he was kind enough to take a moment to talk to us, touching on his appreciation of international music, vinyl and his visions for the future of Hip Hop.
Thanks a lot for talking to us, how are you and where are we talking to you from today?
I’m feeling great and I’m on this great planet so-called ‘Earth’, just enjoying life.
You’re coming to the UK soon. What are some memories you’ve got of coming here and in general what kind of UK music has inspired you in the past?
Well always coming to the UK and meeting a lot of my people and seeing a lot of my great Zulu Nation family members. Getting some of that good indigenous West Indian food and playing all that funky music for all the people of England and digging in the crates and just feeling the good vibrations of people that love different styles of music and always are open to changing to different vibes.
Have you got any favourite spots out here?
Oh so many spots that I been through out time, you know from the early days where they used to have the Electric Circus and Ladbroke Grove. I forgot the club that used to be downtown where Boy George and a couple of the other people used to DJ at. So many different spots that we been at in the UK.
So we’re a couple of weeks away from the 40th anniversary of the Zulu Nation. How do you think the Hip Hop of 2013 is upholding the beliefs that you started all that time ago?
Well you got a lot of people thats definitely into Hip Hop culture, as the whole movement, then you got the other side that just follow rappers. So you know people that follow culture they definitely gon’ be there, just like they be at the Rocksteady Anniversary or the B-Boy/B-Girl DJ battles. Then you got others thats just like ‘what’s your favourite last Rap Record?’
And that’s always been the difference to you, ‘Rap’ and ‘Hip-Hop’, that’s an important distinction to you?
All of it is Hip Hop culture, its just that people have got caught up in to the media and what they have pushed and subscribed to the people as what they call ‘Hip Hop’. So they believe something if they see it in The Source magazine or somebody wrote something on the net without doing thorough research and they think this is what its supposed to be.
With the internet and things playing such a huge role in everyone’s lives its much harder to interact with things on a physical level, so what would you say is the best way for people to interact with Hip Hop nowadays?
Its to get out and experience it when somebody’s doing the whole culture of it. I’m not saying to go and see a Rap show or a certain event. If somebody’s giving an event showing all the elements, then thats the one to go check out and feel the vibration. Definitely its Peace, Unity and Love and having fun.
As well as spreading and promoting the culture, one of the initial aims of the Zulu Nation was to tackle social issues where you lived and raise awareness around the world. What are some of the issues Hip Hop needs to tackle today and how can it go about it?
Well we definitely need to tackle health, or health insurance for all these artists. Not just in Hip Hop but all throughout different musical careers and people of consciousness. Definitely health issues throughout the whole planet. Health care should be free all over the world. That’s one of the main ones.
One of the others is policing yourself. Certain rappers say certain things or cause types of trouble then you might need a type of people that would come in and interact to stop beefs, or problems, or to speak to different groups to calm things down if it goes that route, down so called ‘Gangster Rap’.
So thats always been the opposite of what you’re about. When ‘Gangster Rap’ was coming through in a big way in the 90’s was that a sad time for Hip Hop in your eyes?
I respect all the different flavours of Hip Hop cos we don’t want no censorship or nothing. I’m more mad with the so called radio stations that claim to be Hip Hop and RnB or whatever, but you don’t play all the different flavours of Hip-Hop, so you just a liar and you just dealing with Payola. So we saying if you are a program director and you programming the minds of the masses of the people then we saying play old with the new, new with the old for it to become True School. This is what we call in the Zulu Nation the Balance of Maat, the ancient Egyptian word.
So you’re saying play the old with the new, thats what the radio stations have gotta do, is that what you do in your sets? Obviously everyone knows about your huge record collection and the old music you love, but whats some of the new stuff you like and what new artists are you loving at the minute?
I’m loving this sister named Sa-Roc, who is killing it in Atlanta, Georgia. She has a lot of videos on Youtube.
Talking about your record collection, you gave away 40,000 pieces of vinyl to Cornell University earlier in the year. For someone who has spent their life time accumulating these records was it difficult to give them away? What were some of the most special ones that you had in there? Did you keep any for yourself?
Yeah I still got certain records and stuff that I have. I gave many records away throughout the years, sold maybe 30 or just about that much to Japan and other record collectors throughout time. Its definitely hard giving them away but I looked at the picture of hoping that they would do they job of keeping Vinyl alive for people that might have lost history of what Vinyl is. There’s many youth and people today that don’t even know what Vinyl is cos they all on MP3 or they might’ve been in the CD’s, or some might have been into the DAT’s and all that other technology that came out before..the mini disc. It always keep changing as we become intergalactic human beings and we on that extraterrestrial type of technology since Roswell, there’s always some kinds of different things that’s going to be developing. So this is something to show people who love this culture or love dance music culture or House or Techno and all that, where the vinyl played a big part in all the different music that a lot of people like to dance to.
Definitely. So nowadays when you’re coming out there and playing what can people expect from your sets?
Well it depends. If I’m coming to DJ, I’m like anybody else coming to DJ. Whether it be the Trance DJ, the House DJ. I’m just coming to play the music and its up to the people not to be wallflowers and dance to the music. Sometimes I bring a hype man, sometimes I bring a known rapper that was known back in the day. Its just playing the music for the people and letting them feel the funky grooves or whatever grooves that we gon’ play for them tonight and hope that they go on that musical journey that I love to bring to people. We just wanna see people dancing; forget about your problems, your troubles, what you gotta do the next day, cos after you finish you might have to get back to your work or whatever problems you had, so just enjoy your spirituality and the world for what it is.
This whole journey you’ve been on for the last 40 years has taken you all around the world, is there anywhere you’ve been where its really surprised you how much love you’ve got?
Hmmm its hard to say, cos I know how to switch to each different country’s music. I’m the one who, when I go to a certain country I research what is happening with they style of music and try to add it in my set. That surprises a lot of people, when they hear me playing songs in they language or what I deem to be funky of they different styles of music. Even when I was in Russia, like when I’m playing on my radio station now, I take people on a musical journey of international music and people be buggin’ to hear Soul music coming out of Russia or Croatia or hearing barrio music that sounds like Reggae. I get a lot of response from people around the world listening to my shows.
That’s real cool. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Take it easy.
You too. Peace.
Catch Afrika Bambaataa playing alongside The Alchemist, Black Milk and Tall Black Guy at Scala on Saturday 23rd November. Tickets Available Here.
Words: Christian Murphy