Portrait by Mo Daoud
Afrika Bambaataa is widely credited as the godfather of hip-hop. He started out in the Bronx in the 1970s, as a leader of the street gang the Black Spades, before turning the gang into Universal Zulu Nation and starting to spread the hip-hop word around the world. Tank’s Felix L. Petty spoke to Bambaataa about his illustrious career, hip-hop today… and aliens.
Felix L. Petty Let’s start at the beginning – New York in the late 1970s. Did it feel like what you were doing was going to be huge?
Afrika Bambaataa Oh, most definite. Especially when we started to see the crowds reacting to what we were doing, and they were getting bigger and bigger, and we were moving through all the different boroughs. Then we started taking it to the tri-state too, and they got it, so we decided to start travelling properly, and I knew my mission was to build a hip-hop culture across the world with Universal Zulu Nation.
FP Why did you decide to form Universal Zulu Nation?
AB Well, I went to Africa and saw so much powerful cultural awareness that when I got back to the Bronx I had to rethink things. I had to form my group on the world level to spread that consciousness, to spread all the wisdom of the great teachers and the great music, and that’s the Zulu Nation, an international hip-hop awareness movement. We decided to spread the word of hip-hop to all the great cities on our planet.
FP What was it like taking hip-hop to Europe on that first tour in 1982? How does it feel now that these places have developed their own sounds?
AB We tried to encourage each area to develop their own sounds because at first people just wanted to do it like us in the United States, but I started telling people in these cities, “Rap about your own issues in your own native tongue.” I still keep pushing it in all these places that I visit, and I try to be inspiring to them, you know, telling them, “Do it your way.” Now you got hip-hop stars all over the planet, and each country got their own hit records, doing it in their own styles.
FP How did the first crowds react to hip-hop in Europe?
AB They was bugging out at first, man! They were like, “Why the hell he scratching those records for, man?” Mick Jones from the Clash travelled and played with us, and everyone was like, “Why ain’t he playing guitar up there for?” They was wondering what was going on, but we kept travelling, kept it going, playing from the cafes to the clubs to the discos and back to the cafes, until it took off.
FP The Clash were some of the first people to get hip-hop right.
AB They were, like, the first guys in England to put out a rap record, and it’s one of the strengths of hip-hop that these punks could start messing around with it.
FP You did a collaboration with John Lydon from the Sex Pistols too?
AB Yeah, we collaborated on “World Destruction”. He ain’t no joke, man, he’s a very interesting person. He tore it up on that track. At the time I was getting into Nostradamus, through this Orson Welles film called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, and I thought I needed someone interesting to work on a song about it, so we got in touch with Johnny. We wanted to make the first rock/hip-hop record and I wanted someone who could bug out on the beat with me. So he got it together and we got it together.
FP Universal Zulu Nation had a really positive message. How do you feel about changes in the culture of hip-hop?AB Hip-hop as a culture should keep alive the motto of “Peace, unity, love and having fun”, but now you get radio stations who’ll only play one side of hip-hop, and that’s gangster, cussing, using the N-word and claiming they are hip-hop, and we challenge them ’cause we are hip-hop and they are bullshitting the people. They aren’t hip-hop. They using it to make money, they using it to get advertisements, and I’m challenging these stations, going, “Where’s your funk? You faking the funk. Where’s the calypso, where’s the reggae, where’s the jazz?” I’m saying, play the old school with the new school and keep it true school. I be using the internet, I be using satellites, and I’m gonna kick some of these regular stations’ butts. They only in it for the payola.
FP How do you feel about people glamourising life in the ghetto, which seems to be such a big part of hip-hop culture now?
AB Well, that ain’t what life in the ghetto is about, you know. Many labels be pushing the stations to start dumbing down the world with their lyrical contents. They’re being told by these higher-up officials to play certain styles. These officials be telling everyone that they don’t want to hear that, but I’m putting pressure on them to bring a balance to the airwaves. We’re not talking about censorship, but we don’t want to hear people calling women bitches, or cuss-cuss-cuss every minute; we want to hear about people and politics. We want to hear about love on the radio – about peace, unity and having fun.
FP Outside of hip-hop, what have you been listening to?
AB I’m digging in the digital crates these days. I’m mad as hell that there is all this good music from all round the planet and these radio stations ain’t got no jive. I’m getting these lounge records and these French R&B records. I like these country-and-western records where they put the hip-hop beats on top of that. That’s why I did so many collaborations. I wanted to show hip-hop people that you could do all these different things with hip-hop. If you want to sing, then sing – don’t let the corporations tell you what to do. If Rod Stewart wants to sing some soul music he’s gonna sing some soul music. If Mick Jagger’s gonna get funky he’s gonna get funky. So don’t tell no rap artist he can’t do something, ’cause he should do what he want to do.
FP How has the internet changed the way you DJ? Are you a vinyl purist?
AB I like shopping for vinyl in the stores, but I’m an internet, digital person, so I mix it up, I use my laptop, I’m trying to save my vinyl from being kidnapped by airplanes, ’cause they have kidnapped my records before, and it ain’t no joke when those airliners be kidnapping your records.
FP How do you think it has changed the way you make and distribute your music?
AB The music industry is hurting from the internet. They are trying to get control of it from the independents, but things are getting so computerised that the kids today gonna be looking at you like you crazy ’cause you got turntables, when they all got iPod and iTunes.
FP How do you think that will affect DJing?
AB I’ve seen lots of CDs, I see people using Serato, and people be keeping it pure using vinyl or 45s too, but I say use it all. Use what you feel. But the singers are becoming DJs; the rappers are becoming DJs.
FP OK. Thanks, Afrika.
AB Wait up, bro. I gotta tell you something. I was told through this extraterrestrial channel that I had to start warning people, start telling people in every interview I do. This is serious, bro. Respect Mother Earth, she is the living entity, otherwise the wrath of the creator and the destroyer will come down upon all humans. We can love all the music in the world, we can listen to all the funk in the world, but if we don’t care for Mother Earth we can kiss all that goodbye. Something’s definitely gonna happen in 2012, because they gonna get on the people and make something happen, and if we don’t all get taken over by the government then we are definitely gonna start seeing some extraterrestrial attacks. But they ain’t gonna be from outer space, they gonna be human spacecraft – it’s gonna be a big future shock. Now, NASA found 50 other earths in the solar system, sitting right behind the sun, except they be hiding it from us, but all the ancient prophecies from ancient days be coming true. You’ll see.
FP So you believe in aliens?
AB I know, man. I seen them. I seen some crazy shit and that ain’t no joke. §