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Afrika Bambaataa – The Godfather of Hip Hop

22 Aug

Afrika Bambaataa–the godfather of hip hop–is responsible for first using the phrase “hip hop”–giving hip hop its name, and spreading the music around the world.

Kevin Donovan aka Afrika Bambaataa, born April 19, 1957, is undoubtedly considered one of the godfathers of hip hop.  Afrika Bambaataa was a DJ from the South Bronx during the 1970’s, who is often credited with naming the culture “hip hop”, a term frequently used by his friend Love Bug Starski aka Kevin Smith.  Love Bug Starski, who is currently an MC, musician and record producer, was a record boy and DJ from the Bronx, New York during the birth of hip hop in the early 1970’s. “Hip hop” was a common phrase used by MCs as part of a scat-inspired style of rhyming, and Afrika Bambaataa appropriated it for use in describing this new emerging culture, which included four elements: 1) the music of DJs, 2) the lyricism and poetry of emcees, 3) the dancing of b-boys and b-girls, and 4) graffiti art.

As a teenager in the mid-1970′s, Afrika Bambaataa was a founding member of The Bronx River Projects-area street gang The Savage Seven. Due to the explosive growth of the gang, it later became known as the Black Spades, and Bambaataa quickly rose to the position of warlord. As warlord, it was his job to build ranks and expand the turf of the Black Spades.   Bambaataa was not afraid to cross turfs to forge relationships with other gang members, and with other gangs.  As a result, the Spades became the biggest gang in the city in terms of both membership and turf.

Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc–the Father of Hip Hop

Afrika Bambaataa’s involvement with gangs was heavily influenced by his activist mother and uncle.  As a child, he was exposed to his mother’s extensive and eclectic record collection. He was also exposed to the black liberation movement, and witnessed debates between his mother and uncle regarding the conflicting ideologies in the movement.  Gangs in the area became the law in the absence of law, clearing their turf of drug dealers, assisting with community health programs and both fighting and partying to keep members and turf.

Afrika Bambaataa’s ideological influences ran the gamut of the black political leaders of the time.  Although he was involved with gangs, he began to take on a different interest than causing trouble.  After winning an essay contest that earned him a trip to Africa, Afrika Bambaataa’s worldview changed.  He saw the film Zulu, which depicted the battle between British troops and the Zulu tribe in 1879. The British seem victorious before they were overwhelmed by the number of Zulus who spared their lives.   Bambaataa was so impressed with the solidarity exhibited by the Zulus in that film that during his trip to Africa, and the communities he visited, he was inspired to stop the violence and create a community in his own neighborhood. He later changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, which means “affectionate leader.”

Afrika Bambaataa decided to form his own Zulu Nation to help assemble what he referred to as “the elements” of the culture into organization. The original crew was called The Organization, but after two years he changed it into the Zulu Nation.  The group was a break dance crew at first but then it grew to include rappers, deejays, and graffiti artists.   As a result, the Hip hop culture began spreading through the streets via house parties, block parties, gym dances and mix tapes.

Following is an example of one of the first breakbeat and beat-mixing soundtracks by DJ Kool Herc while rapping and performing at a club during the early stages of hip hop. Watch.

Audio & Slideshow Version

Video Version

Because of his mother, Afrika Bambaataa had a passion for buying records and his tastes were very diversified from rock to R&B to African sounds to Latin, calypso, and classical.  Although Kool Herc was the top DJ at the time, Afrika Bambaata knew he owned most of the same records as Kool Herc so he decided to start playing on his own. He wanted to be a DJ, so he started deejaying in 1970, and would later be known as the “Master of Records”.  

Afrika Bambaataa began his career as a record boy in 1971 as hip-hop first appeared in the Bronx, and eventually became a DJ at the Disco Fever club in 1978.  Along with other DJs such as DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Dee, he too began hosting hip hop parties. He vowed to use hip hop to draw angry kids out of gangs and formed the Universal Zulu Nation.  He released his first record on Paul Winley Records called “Zulu Nation Throwdown, Part 1″ in 1980. The group released the first 12″ at Tommy Boy “Jazzy Sensation” in 1981.

In 1982, hip hop artist Fab Five Freddy was putting together music packages in the largely white downtown Manhattan New Wave clubs, and invited Afrika Bambaataa to perform at one of them–the Mudd Club. It was the first time Bambaata had performed before a predominantly white crowd. Attendance for his parties downtown became so large that he had to move to larger venues, first to the Ritz, with Malcolm McLaren’s group “Bow Wow Wow”, then to the Peppermint Lounge, The Jefferson, Negril, Danceteria and the Roxy.

“Planet Rock”, a popular single produced by Arthur Baker and the keyboardist John Robie, was later released under the name Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. The song borrowed musical motifs from German electronic music, funk, and rock. Different elements and musical styles were used together. The song became an immediate hit and stormed the music charts worldwide.  The song melded the main melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” with electronic beats based on their track “Numbers” as well as portions from records by Babe Ruth and Captain Sky, thus creating a new style of music altogether, called electro funk.

Afrika Bambaataa is one of the three originators of break-beat deejaying, and is respectfully known as the “Grandfather” and the Amen Ra of Universal Hip Hop Culture as well as the Father of The Electro Funk Sound.  He was instrumental in the early development of hip hop throughout the 1980s. Through co-opting the street gang–the Black Spades– into the music and culture-oriented Universal Zulu Nation, he is responsible for spreading the hip hop culture throughout the world.  On September 27, 2007, Afrika Bambaataa was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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