Tag Archives: Afrikaa Bambaataa

What Is Hip Hop? And What Environmental Factors Helped To Propel This Phenomenal Music Into Existence?

5 Nov

In the late 1970’s, a new and distinctive sound arose from the streets of New York. The sound was hip hop, and nearly 20 years later, it has transcended the street parties and music clubs of New York to become a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

Simply put, hip hop music consists of a DJ mixing rhythmic passages of albums on a turntable while a rapper raps over the beats. But hip hop is a culture unto itself, equipped with its own language, lyrical style, visual arts (graffiti), dance moves and look. And although hip hop is the musical outgrowth of urban African-American culture, its popularity is not bound by geography or culture.

So what was happening during the 1960’s and 70’s in the Bronx, specifically the south Bronx, that made such unlikely characters, people, and events to come together and create this amazing music?  What environmental factors played a huge role in the birth of hip hop? A number of things took place inside The South Bronx that most people outside of it are totally unaware of.

The following video describes the mood and environment of the Bronx during the 1970’s and how certain factors, occurring specifically in The South Bronx, influenced the birth of hip hop. Let’s go back in time and see what was going on.

So stay tuned. Watch and read because you are about to find out what happened and how.

Where It All Started

For many years, The South Bronx was a pre-dominantly middle-class manufacturing center, the home of over 63 piano factories, employing thousands of people.  But from 1950-1979, the quality of life for Bronx residents sharply declined. Historians and sociologists have attributed many factors to this decline. One factor, they believe, is that the Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed existing residential neighborhoods. Another factor may have been the development of high-rise housing projects. Third, there was a reduction in real-estate listings and property-related financial services (such as mortgages or insurance policies) offered in some areas of the Bronx.  This illegal discriminatory process is known as red-lining.

As a result, it became less profitable for landlords to maintain existing buildings with their existing tenants than to abandon or destroy those buildings.  Shortly thereafter, the Bronx became plagued by a wave of arson. The burning of buildings was mostly in The South Bronx and in West Farms. The most common explanation of what occurred was that landlords decided to burn their low property-value buildings and take the insurance money as profit. After the fiery destruction of many buildings in The South Bronx, the arsons slowed by the beginning of the 1980’s, but the after-effects were still felt into the 1990s.

Because of poverty, crime, drugs, gang violence, and a lack of basic services like law enforcement, firefighters, sanitation and health to name a few, lawlessness abounded. This was the environment in which many of the key players that created hip hop lived. The people didn’t have much. But the one thing they did have was their music.Their love of music led them to discover and create some great things with records. And because they had a lot of records, these pioneers invented an idea called sampling, which is the act of isolating a particular sound from one song and reusing it in another. They invented sampling along with the other key elements of hip hop through trial and error, mostly by fooling around with records at home.

The Pioneers of Hip Hop

Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, laid down the first building block of hip hop in 1973. That was when he reportedly hosted a party in his building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue with a sound system, or sound equipment used to DJ a party. The sound system was a guitar amp and two turntables.  Kool Herc also invented the now commonplace deejaying technique of breaks, or breakbeats. He would, for example, play James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose” on two turntables, and would spin one of the records back to the break repeatedly. His innovation brought the breakbeat to the sound of this new movement, which later became known as hip hop.  Kool Herc’s technique was to drop a needle on a record, and then go back and forth from one turntable to the other.

DJ Afrika Bambaattaa, who formed the famous non-violent hip hop crew Universal Zulu Nation in the Bronx, used DJ Kool Herc’s breakbeats in his own deejaying. Bambaataa and other key players of this emerging new music, would take global sounds from West Indian music, salsa music, and great beats from rock records and other types of music.  Afrika Bambaattaa is best known for his 1982 song “Planet Rock,” which samples an electronic piano sound from the German group Kraftwerk.

Grand Wizzard Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Livingston, also incorporated breakbeats into his music in the Bronx. He added another technique to the hip hop toolbox called scratching. Grand Wizzard Theodore reportedly invented the technique in his bedroom.  Scratching involves DJs moving records back and forth while they are playing.  He discovered it by accident, when while talking to his mother one day, he started moving a playing record back and forth.  Grand Wizzard says he thought it would be a great percussive sound to add to this newly emerging music.

Then, there was Grandmaster Flash, or Joseph Sadler, who may be best known for his song “The Message,” which was made with The Furious Five. Grandmaster Flash began experimenting with turntables and records at home, and the results were astounding. He invented cutting, which is achieved by playing the same record at two turntables at the same time and cutting back and forth between the two turntables (and records) to repeat a phrase or sound. Another Grandmaster Flash innovation, was a technique called back spinning or pulling the record back, so you could make it repeat.

Not only did these DJ techniques invented in The South Bronx form the basis for the hip hop we know today, they also brought about the rise of a new kind of aggressive dancing called b-boying–known to most people by its more generic term, break dancing.

A new movement of street art and graffiti also came out of the beginnings of hip hop and gang culture in the Bronx in the late 1970’s. Once considered a nuisance, some graffiti art now hang on the walls of major art museums. And although the Bronx was much more violent in the 70’s and 80’s, many of the pioneers of hip hop consider the music that DJs put out back then was less violent than the music of hip hop today.  So the bustling energy that laid the groundwork for today’s hip hop culture came out of the gang culture in the 1970’s. Back then, gangs sprouted up all over the Bronx due to widespread urban decay, from heavy arson activity from slumlords seeking insurance money to the lack of basic services like law enforcement, firefighters, sanitation and health.

With the horrific environmental conditions of extreme poverty, drugs, and gang violence–these social factors combined, contributed to the birth of what became the hip hop culture. All of these ingredients combined led to the creation of what we now know as Hip Hop music.

Although they lived through such adverse environmental and economic conditions, many of the pioneers of Hip Hop music were compelled to bring this new music to the forefront of mainstream society because it allowed the voice of the poor and working class to be heard.

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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.