With so much talk of royalty in the air, it’s fitting that this week we salute another monarch: Afrika Bambaataa, the king of electro funk and godfather of hip-hop. In Looking at Music: 3.0 we feature “Planet Rock,” the influential 80’s disco hit he made with the Soulsonic Force. Although Kool DJ Herc is credited with creating hip-hop’s signature sound, specifically the “break,” or extended instrumental beat, it was Afrika Bambaataa who pushed hip-hop into new territory as both a musical style and a cultural movement.
“Planet Rock” was the first hip-hop/funk anthem to incorporate elements of electronic music, specifically the melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express.” When you first enter the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery, listen to some of “Trans-Europe Express” and then check out “Planet Rock”— the sample is unmistakable, yet it is reinvented in the context of Bambaataa’s song. “Planet Rock” has the unmistakable sound of hip-hop at it’s birth, when DJs like Bambaataa supplied the beats, MCs brought lyricism and poetry through rap, b-boys and b-girls danced in stylized, bravado-fueled floor battles, and graffiti artists created the visual aesthetics of hip-hop. The hip-hop culture that Bambaataa championed was collaborative, inventive, and progressive.
Indeed, Bambaataa saw that hip-hop culture had the potential to revolutionize the lives of the young and disenfranchised across the world. After years of presiding over the Black Spades, one of South Bronx’s largest street gangs, Bambaataa won a trip to Africa that dramatically altered his vision of power and social change. Upon returning to New York, Bambaataa co-opted the Black Spades and turned them into an international hip-hop awareness group, the Zulu Nation. Through the Zulu Nation, performances all over New York City, and the first international hip-hop tour, Bambaataa helped create hip-hop’s rich culture and spread the message of hip-hop around the world. For Bambaataa, like many of the artists featured in Looking at Music: 3.0, making and promoting his music was a form of art activism.