DJ Interview: Hip-hop’s affectionate leader Afrika

Bambaataa is (still) looking for the perfect beat

Deanna Rilling

This New Year’s Eve, top DJs from around the world will help club-goers in Las Vegas celebrate the beginning of 2008. But a true legend will step behind the ones and twos at Eyecandy Sound Lounge and Bar to ring in the New Year with a performance that anyone who respects hip-hop (and is brave enough to navigate the traffic) won’t want to miss.

While Afrika Bambaataa’s name may be unknown to younger hip-hop fans, his influence on DJing has been felt since the late 1970s. His importance includes not only his music, but also his impact on hip-hop culture. A former gang member in the Bronx, Bambaataa pulled a complete 180 and founded the Zulu Nation, his own music-based community organization. Unfortunately, Bambaataa says, merit is sometimes based solely on record sales. “Many don’t see what we do on a worldwide level. You have others that just see to the music. They don’t look at the humanity side of what we might do,” he says.

Bambaataa’s multilevel involvement has garnered him the nickname the “Godfather” and the “Grandfather of Hip-Hop.” He’s credited as one of the innovators of break-beat DJing and has also been called the father of the electro-funk sound. Yet, while Afrika Bambaataa—whose chosen name means “affectionate leader”—was recently nominated for possible induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, he still remains unknown by a large majority of music fans.

Though he may not be all over the television and radio airwaves, Bambaataa has continued to DJ and be involved in music since his emergence on the scene. Furthermore, he’s worked with more well-known acts, such as UB40, George Clinton and even Johnny Rotten. Though his only single to make the charts was “Planet Rock” in 1982, his music is continually sampled by other DJs. In addition, his song “Renegades of Funk” was popularized nearly two decades after its release when it was covered by Rage Against the Machine. So, while the average American music consumer may not give Bambaataa’s music the attention it deserves, he keeps providing his listeners with fresh material.

“We have new music that should be coming out soon. I don’t know exactly when the date will be, but every now and then, we put stuff on iTunes. When people want to get my music, they can go straight to iTunes,” he says.

However, with his return to Las Vegas, Bambaataa promises to focus on “whatever makes you dance.” He says his set will cover a range of “old to new, new to old, as long as it’s true school.” He may add a few of his own tracks to the mix. “Sometimes I add one or two,” he says. “I like when the people come and ask me and want to hear some of my music. Most of the time, I might be jamming enough and get to add some of my own.”

Bambaataa’s turntable prowess is deeply rooted in tradition. “I ain’t played with CDs in a long time,” he says, and for his live sets he sticks to vinyl. With regard to the crowd, he feels the atmosphere “depends on what you’re playing for. You could be playing for the part that’s just drinking, and they just want to hear all types of music. Then you could be playing for the b-boy club events, like what [Tabu’s legendary break-dancer] Mr. Freeze does, which is dedicated to the style of crowd that comes to hear what you really play.

“Sometimes people forget in Vegas, you know, they just want to be entertained, and then you got the audience that come out that knows you and who you are and all that, and they want to hear you throw down, get funky for them. Basically, come out, have a good time and enjoy yourself. We don’t want no wallflowers. We gonna play all types of music, so if you into one particular style, then you better go to that particular style party.”

While some critics may argue that true hip-hop DJing and the culture may be on the way out, Bambaataa believes the opposite. “It’s definitely not dying. Hip-hop’s going to be universal. As we’ve begun collecting humans, you gonna see hip-hop travel to many of the other planets and meet with our extraterrestrial beings, brothers and sisters.” Although his explanation may not be entirely clear, at least we know his New Year’s Eve appearance promises to be out of this world.

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Deanna Rilling

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