Leader of the Zulu Nation. Godfather of hip-hop. Overlord of funk. Black youth guru. Creator of the most influential record of the Eighties. All this and more, AFRIKA BAMBAATAA is now recording with Johnny Rotten. What’s it all about then, Afrika? Lynden Barber corners the great man in the urban wastelands of Luton.
MID-WAY down the hotel corridor appears evidence of a new form of chemical warfare. Nasal passages begin to breakdance, the back of the throat feels dry. Pre-show ritual for Shango and the Soul Sonic Force is a fresh round of spray-paint to the boots. It smells like a garage forecourt around here.
This door’s open; it’s Bam’s room. Which Afrika Bambaataa are we to meet? Sullen, majestic gang leader? Hip-hop overlord? Black Moses in a psychedelic shack? Dispenser of wisdom, the wise old sage? Renegade of funk in a camped-up comic strip? Benevolent team-leader of a community action group?
Sitting quietly on his bed in a room shared with a fellow member of Shango is the man at the centre of so many overlapping images that he has already entered the annals of myth. After watching him riding through the streets of New York in a limo during the exemplary Arena documentary on hip-hop for BBC 2, many viewers thought he must do that all the time – kind of like the black underworld leader played by Isaac Hayes in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, one of those heavy muthas you have to wait for permission to speak to and contradict at the risk of a severed limb. Hell, as if Bam would do a thing like that. Probably can’t even scrape together the price of a cab fare into Manhattan half the time.
Entering conversation, Afrika Bambaataa emerges as meek as a lamb fed on lentils. It takes a long stare at those enormous arms and legs – each wide enough for three of mine – to act as a reminder of his former status as the leader of a gang called the Black Spades in an area of the Bronx so violent it was dubbed by the locals Little Vietnam. Bam is more muscular than he is fat, impressively so, his imposing presence a constant reminder that the serenity of his speech is not to be mistaken for a sign of weakness. I’m diplomatic enough not to ask, but I wouldn’t mind betting that he’s – how you say? – busted a few asses in his time. As a gang leader in the Bronx you’d have to do that just to survive. Wouldn’t you?
Now what about the club The Roxy that Bam used to spin the discs at? Looked mighty impressive in Beat Street but, put it this way, would you walk down that alleyway outside at one in the morning by yourself? In the tour bus earlier the English driver had shown off a fearful dagger with a six-inch blade, souvenir of an Iron Maiden concert. “Ahhh, that’s nuttin’ compared to what they used to have down the Rarxy,” snarled a member of the touring party. I shivered at the thought.
Then there’s the absent Pow Wow and McGlobe, two of the Soul Sonic fraternity who didn’t quite make it over to Britain due to some bail problems that cropped up a few weeks back. Some charges relating to an armed robbery that occurred in 1981. They’re out of jail, but not allowed to leave the US.
“Somebody with a wicked mind came and coaxed these two guys from the group to do something wrong and they kept it to themselves and it just caught up to them,” explains Bam. “But they’re not running nowhere or trying to hide out, they’re dealing through the system.
“They done a lot since ‘Planet Rock’ and changed their ways, helping out youth, and we learned to forgive them like the Bible and the Koran says.”
The legend, according to both Arena and Beat Street, is that the gangs of the South Bronx have now put down their knives and shooters and “fight” each other in breaking competitions instead. Let’s ask the man who knows…
“They still have gangs in New York. But the gangs, years ago, was the majority, and people who were not in gangs were a minority. Now there’s more people that’s in crews, that’s out of gangs than there are into violence and attacking in the street and just doing crime. It has cut down a lot.
“I’m not saying they’ve stopped violence completely, it would be a lie to say that, cos every now and then you might have a little crew, while breakdancing they might fight each other. But there won’t be any heavy ‘I’ll kill you, shoot you’ type of crazy stuff. Whereas the gang thing was you go to war and beat each other up and shoot this and stab that.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Afrika Bambaataa is an immensely genuine man. Now it’s true there are many genuine people in the music business. People who want to genuinely make lots of money, people who are genuinely concerned with the size of their ego. But Afrika Bambaataa is most unusual in his wish to spread some good into people’s lives, and not just by dispensing bonhomie through the medium of music. As self-styled leader of the Zulu Nation – a kind of cross between hip-hop gangs and self-help groups with the emphasis on social and cultural pride – he occupies a position unlike any other in popular music. This gentle but determined man carries an influence that stretches beyond the usual boundaries of pop to affect the lives of some of the people who live in his neighbourhood. Simon Frith, one of Britain’s more perspicacious popular music critics, was probably correct when he doubted some of the wilder claims made on behalf of the hip-hop movement. Nevertheless the Arena film of a Zulu Nation open-air meeting made remarkable viewing. People clearly respected Bam.
THE ZULU NATION began after one of Bam’s friends was shot by the police. At first just concerned with breakdancing, it gradually became more involved with imparting messages about social responsibility.
In the environment of New York slum tenements where it was born, the Zulu Nation probably makes perfect sense. What seems more suspect is the way this movement aspires to international status, its terms of reference so wide as to be virtually meaningless.
“Place to place is different, whoever’s running it, from state to state or country to country. People in England have to run their Zulu Nation the way they live in England.
“In France we have a guy called Sidney who has all the Zulu Nation there, he’s on TV, he’s on radio. Over here you have a lot of people involved with it, the Zulu Rockers from London, the Supreme Rockers from Birmingham, others like Tim Westwood who’s been involved with getting people together and stuff like that.
“It’s basically how you live in your area and survive, based on the economics and organisation and politics of your streets and community, you know, doing things with each other; that’s basically what it’s all about. Instead of when someone steps on your toe and you wanna fight first, you think before you react.”
Doing things… Well that sounds pretty vague, but what is undeniable is that hip-hop – with an emphasis on Electro’s microchipped funk pulse and breaking’s gymnastics – has given rise to the only significant youth movement to have occurred this decade. New romantics? Pass the polythene bag, chum. I know it is de rigeur to put on a blasé yawn at the very mention of breaking – weren’t you there in New York when it all started years ago, darling? – but I still find it remarkable that this dancing, with its need for mind-boggling reserves of physical energy and highly specialised skill at even the most rudimentary levels, should have found its way onto the pavements of the world. A friend has just reported seeing breakdancing in Singapore. Okay, pause for the obligatory clichéd remark about spinning on your nose. Now you do it, buster.
The response of most of the traditional white music press has been spectacular in its utter irrelevance. Like, has it even noticed that anything’s happened? The truth is that most of the 25-30 year olds who write for the music rags have become so jaded and unenthusiastic about everything except their own private, esoteric obsessions that it would take a Bambaataa mega-mix played under the bed at midnight to shake them out of their torpors.
BUT HERE WE are back in 1984, Bam’s been telling me of what’s going on in Hawaii, Turkey, France, Japan, Australia, the West Indies and Spain. Bambaataa has a lot of faith in the social benefits that the spread of this movement could bring. “To me it’s doing more to bring the youth all around the world together than the politics and stuff.
“I think they’re nervous of seeing youth in these countries grabbing hold of this, getting together, following the style of hip-hop, they think it’s gonna bring problems, it’s messing up the youth mind. They said the same when rock came out, or when heavy metal came out, ‘Are they devil worshippers?’ and all that.”
There are elements of old hippy philosophy in many of Bam’s ideas. He’s sincere in what he believes, though personally I don’t feel the slogan “Peace, Unity, Love And Having Fun” (from Bam’s successful collaboration with James Brown, ‘Unity’) will get us very far. It’s a bit late for all that.
But, hey, what’s this, from the grand old father of soul to the grand old father of punk in one single leap? Leaving aside the GREAT ‘Frantic Situation’ (the track from Beat Street that’s just been released as a 12-inch on Tommy Boy), the next Bam record is to be another collaboration, this time with one J. Rotten. It’ll be called ‘World Destruction’ and issued under the Time Zone banner. As opposed to Bam’s work with Soul Sonic Force, produced by Arthur Baker for Tommy Boy. Confused? You will be.
Bam also works with bods such as Amad Henderson and Bernard Fowler for producer Bill Laswell. This one is called Shango, the label is Celluloid. Celluloid is also the label for Time Zone, which is more for “experimental” type projects. The line-up for the British tour is officially Afrika Bambaataa with Shango and Soul Sonic Force (snappy, it could catch on!), except there’s actually only one member of Soul Sonic present, Mr Biggs. Now, down to business…
What the hell is Bambaataa doing recording with John Rotten?
“I always used to talk about Sex Pistols and stuff like that,” says Bam, in that curiously even tone of voice, monotonous in the way that words emerge at such regular intervals and pitch remains such a constant. “One of my memories was seeing at the movies Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. We used to act crazy like John and Sid, so we always used to talk this and that about Sex Pistols. And I also liked a lot of PiL records and stuff. And I saw his movie, I liked that a lot.”
The introduction was made by Laswell, who seems to have recorded everybody worth recording in the space of the last 12 months. Naturally I’m curious to find out how Rotten and Bam got on. Did they have much in common?
“Not really, we didn’t talk on nothing but making music and getting loose. People say he’s crazy and all this stuff, but he was as respectful as I was respectful to him. He got loose in the studio.”
I’ve heard an “extremely rough mix” of this song, and though too soon to make a critical judgement, it can be revealed that funk does not play a large part in its scheme. “It’s about myself and John Lydon, it’s a kind of wild tune! It’s basically metal rock and new wave.”
Did Bam ever in his wildest dreams imagine he’d get to make a record with James Brown?
“Not really, I know we’d always meet and stuff. I felt the time was as good as any once he was in New York doing a show, we went to ask him about what we was tryin’ to do about some unity in the world, getting people to come together and hopin’ to try to stop the nuclear war problem, because nuclear war is something the whole world should be worried about.”
Why does he think Brown agreed to work with him when he could have teamed up with any number of more established artists?
“I guess it was that someone would say ‘James, if you come here, we’ll get you a hit, James we’ll offer you all this money to do this’, and he didn’t want to hear that. I guess he was looking for somebody that was talking something that was in his direction, about bringing people together, love. I’d always be looking for the youth and the young adults, especially through hip-hop, where people would be trying to mislead the youth and use them. So I guess he liked that.”
What kind of people were doing the misleading?
“A lot of record companies. Not giving the right royalties and having problems with publishing. The same thing they did to the groups in the Fifties and early Sixties. The same thing with radio stations, they’re negative on certain music, that’s the same around the world.”
When Bam was doing the deejaying down the Roxy he used to like to mix things up a bit, introduce Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra into the brew. “Kraftwerk was very funky, even though they might not even know about it, and they always had a Black/Hispanic following. I’ve been into them since ‘Trans-Europe Express’.
“Europe was a lot into synthesiser music, but it wasn’t strict funk. I said ‘What if I could take a break off that, blend boundaries of funk and like a new wave beat or something?’ And I was just looking to just please people that was into hip-hop and people into new wave, but then it just took off.”
The record he’s talking of is of course ‘Planet Rock’, recorded with Baker and keyboardist John Robie. At the peak of its success it was selling 650,000 copies a week – astounding for an independent label.
“I was very surprised at that, especially when I heard about the 30-35 different versions. And they’re still coming out. Still, you know, I like it. I play ’em all.”
‘Planet Rock’ is probably the single most influential record of the Eighties, not only spawning an entire new genre of electronic funk but indirectly leading to a revolution in the way mainstream soul is conceived, recorded and mixed. But for the most perfect, blissful realisation of hi-tec, skull shattering ultra-funk to have been achieved so far we must turn to its successor.
‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’ remains a Colossus of a record, a streamlined racing model that makes its progenitor sound obsolete. Its impetus is so persuasive that every single note sounds as if it has been triggered by a tiny charge of dynamite. Let’s make this clear – put this on the deck, Jack, and WIPE-OUT is on the agenda (and I’m not talking about old surf instrumentals). ‘Perfect Beat’ is the ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and ‘New Rose’ of Electro all rolled into one.
THERE ARE A few holes in the punk/hip-hop analogy (mainly the latter’s capricious attitude towards politicking) but to a degree it holds water. Does Bam agree?
“They were both around at the same time, you can say. I guess when punk rock came out they was tired of what was happening on the radio and wanted to play something different, the same with hip-hop. They was tired of disco and what was happening on the radio and they wanted funk – so they made a new type of funk called hip-hop, which was rapping.
“Disco was good when it first came out, for the first two years, whatever, when the Hustle dance was out. But a lot of older people in America tried to make the Hustle like it was the dance for five years and stuff, whereas in the Black and Hispanic communities different dances kept coming out every couple of months, and disco was like dead. People got tired of that, it was time for some new style dancing, dances to do to a new type of music, we was tired of this Boom Boom Boom! They was tryin’ to low key the funk music, a lot of funk groups wasn’t being played, they was like underground, so that’s where we turned our direction, to hard core funk and stuff.”
What does Bambaataa think of the way the influence of Electro has become so widespread; it’s almost impossible to turn on the radio without hearing echoes of it sooner or later? Have people been ripping it off?
“Not really, it’s still exciting, it’s just that some people are tired of Electro and some aren’t. There’s a war going on between musicians. Some people want the real raw sound like they used to have, some people want something that will duplicate the sounds they had just as well as the old days. I feel it’s interesting, and it’s going to keep going on, and there’s gonna be change, I feel there’s gonna be real instruments and Electro mixed together. Myself, I’m even doing that now.
“Electronic music is hot. its the music of the future and people need to stop knocking it, cos everywhere’s space age this, video that, video movies getting into outer space, who’s gonna get to another planet to blow the earth up. Star Wars… Everyone’s getting into this space age, so they might as well deal with it, cos it’s gonna be there. I think it’s still just catching on.”
Bam doesn’t disapprove of the recent wave of “breaksploitation” movies – “I won’t downrate them being commercial as long as they’re keeping more people getting jobs, as long as they’re not using the people in it” – surprisingly plumping for the LA slimline Breakdance over Beat Street (“I’m not so happy about the way they presented it, making people believe it was all about hip-hop, but it was a movie that was okay, it showed the Bronx decent”). Maybe that’s because he briefly appeared in the latter. It’s easy to get sensitive in such a situation. The best? “I feel the Arena one right now is still the strongest one to tell you truly what hip-hop’s about.” Watch for that one on the billboards.
Before he has to leave to play the night’s show at the curious Luton Pink Elephant (no, really!) Bam has some words of advice on the need for musical open-mindedness. “At the Roxy we have new wave people, punk rockers, reggae people, all nationalities, hip-hoppers, all together. When we play punk records you see hip-hop people tryin’ to do the dance that punk-rockers was doin’, when we play funk records you see new wavers doin’ the dance that hip-hoppers was doin’. People was interchanging, and that’s what people need to start doing here.
“A lot of people want to get identities here, there’s too much fad stuff. This week it’ll be Country & Western, the next week hip-hop, the next week something that ain’t either of ’em. That’s what’s messing up a lot of things, to me.
“I can’t go to a club where they strictly play Hi-NRG or strictly play rock or strictly play funk. Basically a lot of new wave clubs are more open-minded to playing all kinds of music. You’ll hardly see me in discotheques in New York, they just play the same music all night long.”
Bambaataa gets up to swap his blue jeans and hooded track suit top for something a little more glamorous. Within half an hour this serious, thoughtful man will be dressed like a Biblical Ken Dodd at a gay ball, tickling stick at the ready.
Well, just because you want to organise some unity doesn’t mean you have to forget about having some fun. Isn’t that right, James?
© Lynden Barber, Melody Maker, 20 October 1984