You know I’m sure people are sick and tired of hearing how things were better in the old days. If you’re under twenty you’ve got to be especially sick of old farts like me, over forty, who keep telling you about “when we were young rap music meant something”. Well if any of the above applies to you, you might as well stop reading now.
Nothing that I’ve heard to date has yet to match the power and the poetry of Afrika Bambaataa. I first started hearing about him and hearing him occasionally in the 1980s when he was leading the charge in bringing rap/hip hop music out of the ghetto into mainstream acceptance. He of course had been around a long time prior to that, starting out in the 1970s while still in high school.
It was a time when DJ’s would compete to see who could create the best mix of music to entice audiences to dance. An early forerunner of what we now know as sampling, DJ’s would inter cut varieties of music from their turn tables to create dance music. They would take their “coffins” (boxes with turntables set into them) to parties, parks and community events and face off against each other.
Bambaataa (which means “benevolent leader”) evolved from this format into utilizing musicians and b-boys (break dancers) to create his sound. Influenced by the funk sounds of performers like James Brown he kept that hard edge to his music while integrating samples of other music.
He had a far more political focus than the “home boys” of today and his lyrics and actions were reflective of that attitude. He worked on the anti apartheid album Sun City with Steven Van Zandt, Lou Reed, and others in what was Rock’s first overt political act in years.
But it was his willingness to cross musical boundaries that really set him apart from other musicians of the time, and still does today. Before RunDmc and Aerosmith recorded their version of “Walk This Way” he had been working with Rock musicians. In 1984 he developed two groups, Shango and Time Zone. One of the key members of Time Zone was one time Sex Pistol and PIL luminary, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten to his friends)
He’s recorded with acts as diverse as Boy George, UB40, James Brown, and Nona Hendryx. He’s done albums dedicated to exploring the sounds of the German minimalist electronic band Kraftwerk, and worked with George Clinton of funk fame. Building from his funk core he crafted unique sounds and pushed hip-hop into the electronic era.
Listening to one album of his music is to listen to one moment in time in his career. Something else has come before, and you know he will be onto something new before you’ve finished listening to the disc in your player. The disc Zulu Groove is a reissue of a 1999 disc that combined extended play albums that he put out with Shango and Time Zone in 1984. It contains the entire Shango album Funk Theology as well as mixes from Time Zone’s World Destruction and Wild Style extended plays.
Musically this is a funk collection. All hard lines and driving bass and guitar that you just can’t sit and listen to with wanting to get up and dance. Except that you also want to listen to the lyrics. Unlike the majority of today’s dance/rap/hip-hop with it’s predominantly superficial concerns Bambaataa was well aware of the real world.
Time Zone’s “World Destruction” that opens the disc is a searing commentary on the neglect of Black issues under the Regan government. With a continual refrain of “he don’t like us” repeated over the driving funk beat, the anger and frustration felt by African Americans during his tenure as President is made clear. Like fellow rapper Gil Scott-Herron, Bambaataa was not afraid to stand up and speak out against perceived injustices.
In both “World Destruction” and “World Destruction (Melt Down Mix)” John Lydon’s vocals jar one out of the seductive rhythms of the funk beat and force you to listen to what’s being said. That familiar angry sneer cuts through like a knife through butter and proves that contrasts in art are just as effective as seamless blends.
Sandwiched between the opening and closing “World Destruction” bookends are some of the best funk music I’ve heard in a long time. Afrika Bambaataa proves that he can create fantastic straight-ahead funk with the best of them. For all his innovations and crossing over into other genres, it’s obvious where his true home is from the music that he created with Shango and Time Zone.
From the Latin tinged “Soca Fever” to the driving funk of “Zulu Groove” this disc reminds you what great funk can be. For so many years we’ve been fed funk’s watered down palatable versions on main stream radio, that when you actually hear how it’s supposed to be played it’s like listening to a whole different genre of music.
Zulu Groove is a good introduction to Afrika for those who haven’t heard him before. It gives you a taste of his willingness to ignore the so-called boundaries between the genres of pop music, and some of the juiciest funk licks this side of a Parliament/Funkadelic concert.
If you think you know what rap and hip-hop music are supposed to sound like and you’ve never heard anything by Afrika Bambaataa than you’ve been living a delusion. Do yourself a favour, buy this album, or anything by him for that matter, and listen to a master at work.