Bambaataa has always been a leader and an organizer. Initially he created networks and friendships in the South Bronx with the Black Spades organization. Afrocentric and strategic, Bambaataa the street revolutionary evolved into something never before seen. In the late seventies he began to re-articulate the discipline and structures of the street organization to be a hip hop army.
It isn’t as trite as putting down guns to pick up instruments – Africa Bambaataa’s vision of the Universal Zulu Nation was a forward reaching collective who not provided a means for poor youth to look out for each other, but also to nurture community talent with the honest aspiration to create a new world.
The result: Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation has helped to develop the skills of an incredible number of hip hop’s elite, not to mention helping to articulate the hip hop arts as we know it. Here is a short list of some of his collaborators: Cowboy (Grandmaster Flash’s famed emcee), Afrika Islam (Ice-T’s DJ/producer among many others), turntable innovator Jazzy Jay, hip radio DJ Red Alert, emcee Mr. Biggs, DJ Zambu, and Busy Bee. Oh yeah, don’t forget the legions of graffiti writers, and dancers who found their place in the universe with a nod of encouragement from the head of Africa Bambaataa.
Of course, each one of the young folks Bam shared stage time with that developed into a superstar stayed true to the Universal Zulu Nation – ‘each one teach one’ ideology – they, in turn, mentored new generations of hip hop stars.
Bambaataa is a radical DJ who is famous for his diverse palette of records. The record, the beat, is at the forefront of a Universal Zulu party, surgically cut, but researched by Bambaataa to be something startling. Equally likely to use a nursery rhyme, a classic rock track, or a punk anthem to rock a crowd – the only think you can be sure of at a Bam party is that you’ll be surprised by what he’ll play and you will move your rear end.
At outdoor jams in the housing projects of the South Bronx and soundsystem battles in New York high schools, Bambattaa’s soundsystem, and his Zulu collaborators, built traditions that last to this day. In the crucible of gritty competition, Bambaataa’s black power, mytho-poetic collaborations, bizarre record selections, and great sound made him a champion, not to mention a legend.
It can’t have hurt that wherever he plugged in, hundreds of Universal Zulu Nation folks rolled with him. His academy produced legions of breakdancers who specialized in popping or power moves on the floor, every one trained Bruce Lee hard to defeat any challengers. The people who carried Bam’s crates were often legendary DJs in their own rights, waiting for their chance to show off their skills. Graffiti writers, the street propagandists of the highest order, schooled youngsters on letter styles. You better believe emcees practice before they grabbed the microphone at Bam’s party.
The next phase of Africa Bambaataa’s career was his stint as a DJ at a series of downtown New York clubs that helped to expand the audience of hip hop. At clubs like the Roxy, Bambaataa and his DJs, played funk anthems, backwards records and of course cut everything down to the absolute best parts of the records – the breaks – showing artists like the Beastie Boys, the Clash, and Luscious Jackson, who were in the audience, the blueprint to sell millions.
More takeover than crossover, financially advantaged audiences flocked to buy graffiti art, learn to breakdance, and hear this ‘new’ sound at the clubs. Zulu showcases were tantalizing experiences, ushering in collaborations between painters, dancers, and of course, the thumping DJ.
Around this time Bambaataa, a notorious record fiend, discovered the techno electronic drum sounds of Kraftwerk, and their introduction to his set encouraged him to put together his own electric band. The result was ‘Planet Rock,’ the hip hop classic by Africa Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force. “Planet Rock” exploded with the then-unheard, up-tempo, electro-hip hop sound. In a single stroke, Bambaataa forced open the popular conceptions of hip hop and introduced his sound to the largest audience it had ever known.
Not many artists are at the inception and popularization of a social movement. Bambaataa can legitimately claim to have created whole segments of the art form known as hip hop, and also to have spread the music with his courageous approach to music. If you add the Universal Zulu Nation, and all the innovation that came from Africa Bambaataa’s musical progeny, then you truly are talking about one person changing the world in their lifetime.
And he isn’t done yet. Bambaataa has bypassed much of the fame and consumption of commercial hip hop for living a life of musical revolution. An engine of creation, he helps to spark imagination and shatter conventions around the world as a global Zulu ambassador. His Humboldt visit is a rare chance to be in contact with the living heart of this music.
Joining Bambaataa will be the founder of the Northstar chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation, DJ/organizer Madplanet from Sacramento. DJ Red will showcase the Humboldt turntable skills, and the Humboldt Rockers will present the finest in breakdancing.
If you’ve every enjoyed hip hop culture in music, dance, screen, language, fashion, or in any other way, you owe Africa Bambaataa hearty thanks. Come to Mazottis and pay your dues to this hip hop legend, and of course get your mind blown by a thirty plus year turntable veteran.
- Maxwell Schnurer, Times Standard February 21, 2008