By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
They say the devil is in the details. For DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the devil is hard at work in the lack of them.
"Hip-hop has been hijacked by a Luciferian conspiracy," he says, quite matter-of-factly. "People have used hip-hop in a lot of ways that cause a lot of mind problems. They use the word wrongfully. They use it to mean a part instead of a whole. Like many of these [radio] stations say they're hip-hop, they're playing hip-hop. I go to these stations, and these so-called program directors don't know jack crap about hip-hop culture. They know rap to a certain extent. But I question them. I say, 'Where's your go-go, your hip-house, your electro-funk, your raga, your R&B and soul?' They get real quiet."
As the man often credited with inventing the term "hip-hop," Bambaataa has the right to quibble over its application.
The history of the enigmatic Bambaataa — his real name is a mystery, though it's often reported as Kevin Donovan, and you absolutely do not ask him how old he is — has been told and retold and should be on tablets by now. Grew up in the south Bronx projects, became a warlord in the Black Spades gang, then decided to use his powers for good instead of evil. With a natural talent for community organizing and an innate charisma, Bambaataa formed his own gang, the Zulu Nation, and started throwing the coolest parties in his 'hood.
When people gathered for a block party, the distinction between audience and performer was nebulous. A DJ plugged his system (illegally) into the lamppost and played some records; to keep the energy up, he only played a minute or two of the song before cutting to another one. Kids would dance, showing off some crazy new moves. Someone might grab a microphone and tell stories or rap. Someone else colors a nearby wall with spray-paint. These would become the four pillars of what Bambaataa would enshrine as "hip-hop": DJing, break dancing, MCing (rapping) and graffiti art.
"It was a word that was being used in cliche raps, by Keith "Cowboy" [Wiggins, later of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] and other people," Bambaataa says. "Once this became a thing, you know, we had to call it something. It's hip-hop. It's hip, and you've gotta hop to the beat to get down to feeling what you're feeling."
This is why Bambaataa is still going, still touring as a DJ without much fanfare, still throwing block parties in whatever club will have them: It's about "getting down."
"I can't stand it when the audience just stares at you," he says. "I tell these promoters, 'I'm coming to DJ. It's about the audience and the party. People are gonna dance, so be ready.' ... Dancing brings out the inner self of people, lets certain things go. You're stressed out, got problems at home, hard times at work — the vibration of the music does many things to many different people. Has throughout history. We're never more human than when we're moving to music. Dogs run, birds sing, bees work. Humans do all that, but only humans dance."
Bambaataa's party culture thrived throughout the '70s. Then rappers started making records. Bambaataa's output during the last three decades has been erratic but influential (he recently collected his '90s output in "The Decade of Darkness: 1990-2000"), especially at first. His penchant for mixing old music with new also led him to blend styles, as well. His 1982 single "Planet Rock" was revelatory: Instead of a funk band, Bambaataa clipped beats and sounds from a record by Germany's dance-rock pioneers Kraftwerk. A new approach to music making (and copyright lawsuits) was born.
Today, though, Bambaataa is one DJ who doesn't show up to the club with a lot of precious vinyl.
"I love having a digital crate now," he says. "I still go looking for certain vinyl records, but I put 'em into my digital crate.
"This way I can have a variety of so much different music I can spring on any audience I play for. ... It helps me take people on a journey. The last gig I was at, I said, 'I want you to dance like your mom and pop used to.' I started throwing '60s records. People went crazy. Once you've got 'em, you keep 'em going. I jump back to a style they enjoy today, then hit 'em with James Brown. I play stuff even from the '30s and '40s, stuff I didn't even know I had. Whatever the moment presents."
The music Bambaataa is hip to now
Afrika Bambaataa still combs record stores for the purpose of loading up his digital DJ playlists. Here's what he's been grooving on lately:
• "I finally found Sly & the Family Stone's 'Dance a la Musique' in French. It's this thing they did, they re-cut 'Dance to the Music' and sang it like Alvin & the Chipmunks. It was serious to find that."
• "Brazilian electro-funk, rio-funk, Bali-funk — that's killing now. I'm pushing a lot of that."
• "In hip-hop, I like this Lore'l from Brooklyn. Very refreshing."
• "I'm liking a lot of the underground stuff people are making right off their laptops. What about that Gorillaz album they made on an iPad?"
• "Janelle Monae, man, I love her. I DJ'd for some of her shows. I'd like to do more."
with Intel, Maker, Trew and Shred One
• 10 p.m. Jan. 26
• The Mid, 306 N. Halsted
• Tickets: $10, (312) 265-3990, themidchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Liz Phair knows the indie-rock party line. She's heard it stated and restated for coming up on 18 years: Her first album, 1993's landmark-knighted "Exile in Guyville," was feminist rock 'n' roll genius on every level — and everything else she's ever uttered since, as speech or song, is utter crap.
Perhaps that's because "Guyville" is such a strong, confident statement from a Wicker Park woman who seemed quite uncompromising, and each follow-up record has seemed unsteady, whimsical and quite compromising. When Phair surprised fans last summer with a new album, "Funstyle," released through her website, the wrath returned. Critics were universally dumbfounded by the album's tuneless talent, dreadful rapping on one track ("Bollywood") and wide-of-the-mark execution, few more colorfully than those around her adopted hometown. The A.V. Club called "Funstyle" a "box of dirt." Pitchfork said it was "horrible on just about every conceivable level." The Reader said listening to it gives you a good case of the "douchechills."
But unlike Phair's stab at mainstream pop in 2003, much of the vitriol flung at "Funstyle" was tempered ever-so-slightly by an underlying fascination. In my own review, I held out hope that Phair was in on her own joke (one song, "U Hate It," foretold all the bad reviews, and the music was posted with a note explaining "How to Like It"). It's a difficult work of art but, for better or worse, it's certainly daring. When we consider art outside the typical commercial, consumerist frame of pop music, that trait is usually respected, if not always revered.
Before she started another tour this month — on which she and a full band will indeed perform songs from "Funstyle" — we caught up with Phair to find out just WTF is going on.
Q. You've taken another beating over "Funstyle." How does this one rate?
Liz Phair: I feel less beaten up about this than on previous things. The first two weeks of press was so, "Blah blah, I'm freaking out, why wasn't I told?" My career has been riddled with controversy, which I never fully understand. I don't know why it surprises people that I surprise them.
Q. Your intent then was to spring something wacky on us?
LP: It was really done in the spirit of good-hearted fun. ... That's part of why I wrote the little blurb to go with it. I didn't expect people not to get that. I called it "Funstyle." I was trying to be direct. The first round of reviews — I don't think they even got that it was funny. Really, you think I'm actually trying to start a rap career now? It stopped me in my tracks, like when you're at a party and someone says something and you just don't know how to respond to further the conversation? It's, like, OK, I'm going back to the bar to get another drink now ...
Q. And this isn't just your damage-control explanation now — ha ha, it was a joke, get it?
LP: No, I've been as consistently clear about this from the very beginning of the project. I don't see how it could be clearer.
Q. So what was the beginning of the project?
LP: The stuff on "Funstyle" came from two things. First, there's stuff influenced by my TV scoring career. [Phair's day job these days is scoring television shows. Her music has set the mood for episodes of "90210" and "In Plain Sight," winning her an ASCAP award for composing.] You spend long, long hours in a studio messing with soundscapes, and you get slap-happy. So you try to have fun with it, you try to crack yourself up. And there's a mania that develops having all this stuff, these sounds, at your fingertips, which I tried to put into a quasi-serious but mostly tongue-in-cheek piece of work. ... The other part was born in very natural jam sessions and a friendship with Dave Matthews. [Phair was briefly on Matthews' record label, ATO. Some of his playing appears on "Funstyle."] I would fly around and piggyback on various recording sessions he does when he's on the road when he wants to get ideas down. It was truly just two artists meeting and wanting to make music together. It was very simple on my end.
Q. Dave wasn't thrilled about the results, I guess. You just lost your ATO deal and your management — directly as a result of "Funstyle"?
LP: Yeah. ATO is a lovely label, but the guy that signed me left, and you know what that does. There's a reassessment, and suddenly the new people don't know who you are or care. And the stuff I was doing, they didn't know what to do with. My management said, "Hell no, I am not taking a rap song into a radio station! It's the stupidest thing I ever heard." I said, "Really? I think it's the funniest thing." I took it hard. I loved my management team. But sometimes it's time to part ways.
Q. So you wind up with this batch of songs, you know they're going to throw people for a loop. How much thinking about the situation did you do before posting?
LP: I waited a year sitting on this stuff. I wasn't trying to blow this up. I waited to see if I liked it as much as I thought I did. Now I'm writing a more mature and serious record, but it felt really wrong to skip over this. It's who I am intrinsically as a person, someone who puts it all out and takes a chance with an unbroken chain and doesn't stop to make sure I look just so before I leave the house.
Q. You're unfiltered. You think: Why not only try rapping but let's even display the results?
LP: Sure. It's about the journey and the process. I do things because I love doing them, or trying them. I'm less invested in protecting or even developing a brand. Obviously. ... And who cares if it's outside your comfort zone? I've always been a little daring. My parents like to joke that if there's something I'm totally unqualified for, that's of course what I'll be doing next.
Q. Can there be a Liz Phair album other than "Guyville, Part 2" that will please the masses?
LP: Uh, no? To do "Guyville 2" because I'm supposed to do it or because it's the only thing people like feels — meh. I'm writing stuff now that's really touching me, some stuff that's actually made me weep. I don't know if it's "Guyville 2," but it's off-kilter and very heartfelt and very personal, directed at a single person. It feels authentic, maybe in the same way.
Q. Does this free-wheeling spirit you're describing have anything to do with raising your son, who's now in his teens?
LP: He's just 14. All parents gush about what it's like to be a parent. I love it. His little world — he's basically sound, he's independent, and I enjoy him. There's kind of a rock 'n' roll way a 14-year-old boy thinks, and there's definitely a resonance between my job and what his brain is like. It's partly uncomfortable and partly really inspiring. He keeps me in touch with that part of myself.
with the Horse's Ha
8 p.m. Jan. 22
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $25, (800) 514-ETIX, metrochicago.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.