It is not an understatement to say that without Afrika Bambaataa there would be no hip-hop. The New York City DJ literally coined the phrase that led to the genre of music even being called hip-hop.
Although he is a legend, Bam is nothing if not humble: He gives credit to the community for building the culture.
“It came out of lyrics by Luv Starski and Keith Cowboy,” he says. “We were on stage, I was DJing, I said, ‘This is hip-hop. It’s hip and it makes you hop.’”
Bambaataa was an instrumental figure at the birth of the culture that included rap, Djing, breakdancing and graffiti art; from hip-hop’s start in the 1970s-era Bronx. But he has continued to evolve artistically and intellectually.
“I’ve been an honorable scholar at Cornell for the past three years,” he says. “We were there this month speaking, doing a Q&A with Zulu Nation. We performed at night; during the day there was a panel and documentaries like Wild Style. Cornell is becoming a leader in archiving hip-hop and stepped up when New York City didn’t, showing interest and respecting the culture. A lot of colleges are starting to archive. People came to see the Cornell display; records, Soulsonic costumes, documents. Hip-hop sitting next to the Gettysburg Address, books and treaties.”
It’s about time that somebody archived Afrika Bambaata, as this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Zulu Nation family, formed in 1973.
“Every November we come together to celebrate the pioneers of hip-hop greatness with four days of events all over New York City,” he says. “At Cornell there was Grandmaster Caz, Joe Conzo, Tony Tone, Lisa Lisa, Crazy Legs, Rahiem of the Furious Five.”
As a teen, Afrika Bambaataa won a writing contest by UNICEF and the prize was a tour of Africa and Europe. When he came home to the Bronx he started Zulu Nation, organizing music events based on unity and peace, in neighborhoods run by gangs. His single “Planet Rock” became one of hip-hop’s first hits. Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force were ahead of their time, combining American funk and Kraftwerk’s techno. The artist also launched turntablism and arguably named the genre of electronica too.
What does Bambaataa, the New Yorker miss about the NYC club heyday?
“I miss the rave and new wave party scene,” he says. “Clubs were more progressive, partying for the people. The politicians and drugs destroyed it. On the dance floor people could enjoy all types of music, dancing to salsa, techno, rock, jazz.”