Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator," an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Afrika Bambaataa.
Thirty years ago, a groundbreaking single dropped in New York City like a meteorite, creating a big bang effect that fused different musical styles together and sparked the electro revolution. This, in turn, propelled lesser-known genres such as house, drum and bass, trip-hop, and many more into the mass-market influences that they are today. The single was the seminal “Planet Rock,” created by hip-hop pioneer and electro funk inventor Afrika Bambaataa.
In the early 80s, the sight of graffiti tagged all over subway trains, b-boys and b-girls breaking to the beat of rappers rhyming over boomboxes blasting funk or disco tracks defined a restless subculture rising from the South Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa, by then an ex-gang-leader-turned-DJ, was throwing some of the most sought-after block parties in the neighborhood with fellow hip-hop founding father DJ Kool Herc.
While Kool Herc was responsible for developing hip-hop's turntable techniques, Bambaataa was revered as the Master of Records, responsible for digging music out of his massive collection that would carry the dance party into a frenzy and back. Bambaataa's parties were unique and sometimes strange, for he was never satisfied with just playingt funk, R&B, and soul breaks already familiar to the hip-hop community, but rather he often experimented with mixing music from other genres like hits from The Beatles, The Monkees, and The Rolling Stones in his sets.
Yellow Magic Orchestra performing on Soul Train in 1980.
Soon after Bambaataa detected the immense popularity of synthpop groups Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan in the clubs, he decided to do something no hip-hop DJ had ever done before: infuse a computer generated electronic sound with rap and funk grooves. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force came up with this electro-funk recipe and recorded “Planet Rock,” which exploded onto the scene upon its release in 1982.
Utilizing the latest in music production technology like digital samplers and vocoders, Bambaataa was the first ever to use the Roland TR808 drum machine in hip-hop music, which has become a vital kit for subsequent hip hop artists, persisting even today as evidenced by Kanye West's album 808s & Heartbreak). Bambaataa lifted the sci-fi melody of “Planet Rock” from Kraftwerk's “Trans-Europe Express,” and the 808 emulated the beat from Kraftwerk's “Numbers” and Yellow Magic Orchestra's “Riot in Lagos.”
At the turning point when disco was on its way out of the club scene and hip-hop was just an emerging subculture, Bambaataa's “Planet Rock” surprised the masses by showcasing hip-hop's multifaceted potential. “Planet Rock” opened the floodgates for audiences to hear more classic electro tracks like Man Parrish's “Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don't Stop)” and Hashim's “Al Naafiysh”. This electro movement was an integral building block in the development of major acts such as the Beastie Boys, Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers, and countless others, all who followed the footsteps of Afrika Bambaataa's hip-hop inspired electronic music.