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
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.