Afrika Bambaataa and Mark Ronson: Uptown and Downtown Funk Masters

The pair remember two influential generations of hip-hop dance parties ahead of being honoured next month for their contributions to New York City’s club scene.

ON 17 NOVEMBER, the fourth annual Global Spin Awards will be celebrating the great and the good of DJ culture in New York. Special honourees include hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, who will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement award, and superstar producer Mark Ronson, recipient of the Breaking Barriers award for taking “his skill set and talent beyond the turntables and outside the world of DJing”, according to event organiser Shawn Prez.

That’s two giants of the turntables right there – the one a founding father, the other a relative novice; the first, known for making records back in the day that looked to the future, the other a current hitmaker whose music draws on the past. Which would make Bambaataa the Elvis Presley of the DJ fraternity, and Ronson the… Justin Timberlake?

“Yeah, I think you could consider Bambaataa somewhat of the Elvis Presley or Little Richard – one of those people who helped bring the culture into the mainstream,” allows Prez. “And then you have the descendants of their great work, which are the Justin Timberlakes of the world who now benefit from the doors that those guys helped open.

“Listen,” he adds, “Mark Ronson started off as a downtown club DJ – that’s who he is at his nucleus. But he has gone beyond the turntables and become a Grammy award-winning producer who has not only created tracks for Jay Z and Beyoncé, but brought unknowns like Amy Winehouse to notoriety.”

Bambaataa is no stranger to grand accolades himself: he has been hailed variously the Godfather and Amen Ra of hip hop, not to mention creator of the most influential record of the last millennium – 1982’s ‘Planet Rock’, which blazed a trail by fusing the Teutonic beats of Kraftwerk with New York rap and thereby inventing electro-funk, hip hop and much of the music of the late 20th century and beyond. But he’s not convinced by the comparison. “I wouldn’t say I was the Elvis Presley,” chuckles Bambaataa, aka Kevin Donovan, now 58, secretly pleased. “But I can tell you I was the Sly Stone or the George Clinton.”

How about the other two of the crucial three hip hop originals, Kool Herc (who pioneered the breakbeat) and Grandmaster Flash (who took scratching to new levels)? “Herc was the Chuck Berry,” he says, warming to the theme, “and Flash was the Bo Diddley. We were all architects of the culture.”

Ronson, 40, readily acknowledges the debt he owes his forebears. “It’s impossible to call yourself a DJ and not be in some way influenced by them,” he says. “Flash I’d go and see DJ quite a bit when I was starting out in the clubs, in my late teens and early 20s. Herc and Bambaataa I never got to see spin live, but obviously the records they picked up on and turned into breaks and beats like [Incredible Bongo Band’s] Apache, those are the cornerstones, the sonic, of hip-hop. You could take any one of those beats tomorrow, loop up four bars and put any hot rapper on it and it would still sound remarkably fresh. So I’m definitely inspired by what they did.”

Nevertheless, he knows his place: what Bambaataa did – introducing the synthetic proto-electronica of Gary Numan and Yellow Magic Orchestra to black kids in the Bronx, and executing historic juxtapositions in his DJ sets – were radical acts. What Ronson does, notwithstanding his huge popularity, can never have that groundbreaking impact. “I guess I played things like [the White Stripes’] ‘Seven Nation Army’ and shit like that that nobody else was playing,” he says of his own audacious turntablism. “No one was really playing rock records at that time. But it certainly wasn’t as revolutionary as what Bambaataa was doing.”

But then, Bambaataa was forged in the crucible of the hothouse late ’60s and early ’70s. It was the “civil rights” (his words) artists and their “protest-type songs” – largely black musicians (although he also cites John Lennon) including James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin – who provided the impetus to start a movement of likeminded individuals committed to spreading accord in New York’s most dangerous boroughs.

Bambaataa remembers this time, “before the word ‘hip-hop’ was invented”, when he presided over a gang called the Black Spades in an area of the Bronx so violent the locals dubbed it Little Vietnam. According to lore, when he began spinning records at block parties and in parks and school halls, he converted this grim ghetto-scape into a benign community of loved-up funkateers: the Universal Zulu Nation, of which Bambaataa was the acknowledged leader.

“There were gangs running around the streets,” recalls Bambaataa, painting a picture of inner-city desolation that conjures a scene like something out of the movieThe Warriors. “There were still fights, but they got knocked out quick by security.”

Bambaataa’s DJ heyday coincided with a golden age for New York music and culture: it was the dawn of hip-hop, there were labels such as Ze purveying an idiosyncratic brand of “mutant disco”, and new wave acts such as Blondie were offering hybrids of rock and rap. He recalls the moment his DJ sets, as they made the transition to clubs, began attracting a demographic as much composed of white revellers as black.

“Punk rockers started travelling uptown to my parties and that’s when everybody started thinking there was going to be this big racial tension, but there was nothing but love and harmony,” he says. “There were black people learning how to do the punk rock dance and white people learning how to do the hip-hop dance. It was very interesting times. There’d be Debbie Harry or fashion models, Bianca Jagger, just stars being themselves with no bodyguards. This was the new thing. It was becoming a world club that people definitely wanted to be part of because people could be themselves. Adam and the Ants would come dressed as pirates, others would come as vampires…”

When Ronson began DJ’ing “in small hole-in-the-wall clubs” in the early ’90s, he could still feel the reverberations of that period. “The great thing about coming up in New York was, there was this lineage of the city as a melting pot,” he ventures. “In the same way as in the early ’80s it was Bambaataa playing at the Roxy with Blondie coming down and tracks like Rapture being born, I had an art scene of models, thugs, drug dealers, whatever… It’s what gives those scenes their life.”

Later, he’d DJ at bigger spaces, but they’d still have that melting-pot atmosphere whereby “the likes of Biggie and Jay Z would rub shoulders with skateboard kids, famous basketball players from the Knicks, artists and drug dealers – that great mix you get in downtown New York”.

Ronson gradually noticed the city’s clubs losing their grittiness and polymorphous appeal, becoming cleaner and more homogenous. “It started to get a bit boring, with the smoking ban and the VIP bottle service, when the dancefloors got smaller and smaller and the banquette areas got bigger and bigger, and clubs became a little bit more… dick-ish with their door policy. But when I started it felt pretty raw. There were definitely clubs you would play that were more ‘hood’ than others. It was exciting.”

No matter how many No 1 records he has, Ronson still gets an unrivalled thrill whenever he climbs behind his turntables. “It’s nice to have big pop hits and that stuff,” he admits, “but I need to feel that I haven’t totally lost touch with that culture by going out and DJ’ing. Obviously, I can play something crazy like the [2006] Tom Cruise wedding. But it’s more important for me to be playing a Boiler Room set for 200 kids in a basement in Manchester, you know?”

Bambaataa’s memories of his DJing glory years remain vivid. “People would be bugging on the music I was playing and digging the vibrations of the R&B, funk and disco,” he says. Not for nothing does he consider Ronson – his equal when it comes to eclecticism – his descendant.

“Oh definitely,” he agrees. “He’s progressive-minded. Any DJ that uses different styles and isn’t scared of taking it there [is a peer]. Yeah, they call me hip-hop. But I also do funk, I do soul, I do rock – I do all types of music.”

No wonder it’s hard to lose the buzz. Is it like Seinfeld still wanting to do standup?

“I imagine it’s a similar thing,” decides Ronson. “It’s about still having a love for the same form of art that got you there in the first place.”

© Paul LesterThe Guardian, 27 October 2015

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