Born Kevin Donovan on April 10, 1960, in South Bronx, NY. Addresses: Record company--Profile Records, 740 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10003. Website--Afrika Bambaataa Official Website: http://www.afrikabambaataa.com.
Afrika Bambaataa's personal history parallels the cultural history of hip-hop, since he was there in the beginning as one of the first street deejays (DJ) to achieve recording industry attention as well. Many may believe that Bambaataa's contribution is small, but he has been in the "rap game" since its inception. Steven Hager, writing for the Village Voice, identified Bambaataa as "founder and number one DJ of the mighty Zulu Nation." Ian Pye called him "a cornerstone of black street culture" in Melody Maker in 1983. He has become a sought after DJ as well as a historian for the generations that have followed since the 1980s.
At a time when rap music had become associated with gang violence and drug use in the minds of its critics, Afrika Bambaataa's voice and history reminded audiences that hip-hop culture--of which rap is one facet--started as an effort to pull vulnerable inner-city youths away from the dangers of gang membership. In fact, Bambaataa was at the center of that effort, as the press has extensively documented. "Peacemaker, guidance counselor, spiritual advisor, and purveyor of the music in an adolescent, violence-ridden, and educationally-deprived context, Bam is hiphop's great facilitator," Gary Jardim wrote in the Village Voice in 1984. "Stopping bullets with two turntables isn't about sociology, it's about finding the spirit in the music and learning how to flash it."
Bambaataa was born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx River Projects in New York City on April 10, 1960. That environment offered Bambaataa both danger and cultural richness, and, for a time, he became caught up in the danger. In the 1960s the most powerful gang on the streets of New York was the Black Spades; Donovan became a member when the gang sprouted a division in the Bronx River Project, while he was still in junior high school.
Donovan was also interested in politics at this time, bracketing his gang experience in a political consciousness nurtured on the Black Power literature of the Black Panther Information Center, which he was already visiting in the early 1970s. Donovan's influence as a leader in the Bronx River Project Black Spades grew until 1975, when he decided to leave the gang after two police officers ambushed and killed one of his best friends. He threw himself into the music that already supplied a real passion in his life. "While other gang members were playing basketball or hanging out on street corners," Hager commented, "he was scouring record bins for obscure R&B recordings." Donovan has credited his mother for nurturing his early love of music, as well as initiating the breadth of his musical knowledge. He was, in Melody Maker's Pye's words, "fed on a healthy multicultural diet, everything from early funk, to Caribbean and African music, by a mother with the biggest record collection on the block."
A Founding Father of Hip-Hop
In particular Donovan was polishing his talents as a DJ. Donovan became an official DJ at a party at the Bronx River Community Center on November 12, 1976, spinning his records on a sound system that his mother gave him as a graduation present the previous year. "An independent entrepreneur armed with a portable sound system and extensive record collection, the DJ emerged as a new cultural hero in the Bronx in 1975," Hager wrote in the Village Voice.
Donovan changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, after a nineteenth century Zulu chief. Bambaataa was among the most prominent of the new DJs, sharing the spotlight with Kool Herc, Kool Dee, and Grandmaster Flash. When the Source interviewed Flash, Herc, and Bambaataa for a hip-hop retrospective in 1993, the writer designated these three as "the founding fathers of hip-hop music."
Bambaataa used his reputation as a DJ to form a largely nonviolent "gang," eventually known as Zulu Nation. Bambaataa started the Zulus as a social group at Stevenson High School before he graduated in 1975. In a 1992 interview with Louis Romain from the Source, Bambaataa explained that part of the purpose of the crew was safety. "Sometimes, you could lose your equipment. Sometimes you might get rolled on by a crew that didn't like your crew, so you had to have a powerful organization. That's why I had a lot of members in the Zulu Nation. But after that it started branching off into a big social type and awareness organization." That awareness, however, was something that admirers have credited him with encouraging.
Zulu Nation Grew
A certain political impetus went even into the name of the group, which originated from a film called Zulu. "I thought Zulu was a great movie," Bambaataa told Melody Maker, "because for once the black man was portrayed as brave, and sensitive. The Zulus fought like warriors, but they also spared the British even though they could have wiped them out." By 1977 the Zulu Nation was spreading beyond the Bronx, and by the early 1980s Bambaataa conjectured that the membership had grown beyond a thousand. As the Zulu Nation flourished, so did Bambaataa's reputation on the streets and at parties. Bambaataa's fame as a DJ was shaped by his ability to mix incongruous and unpredictable cuts, all the while keeping a beat that compelled the crowd to dance.
Bambaataa released a first single, "Zulu Nation Throwdown," in 1980 on a small independent label. The record led to a 1981 contract which in return led to the 1982 release of "Jazzy Sensation" and "Planet Rock." The latter in particular became "the current smash in the streets, clubs, and airwaves of NYC," as Barry Cooper declared in the Village Voice in 1982. It not only went on to earn a gold record, but also earned one of the first five 12-inch gold records ever. The single was reportedly moving off the shelves at 650,000 copies a week during its peak. "Planet Rock" became a milestone in the evolution of pop music culture, winning a broad spectrum of listeners and dancers to its electronic, eclectic brand of hip-hop. The song achieved precisely the goal with which Bambaataa had gone into the recording studio--to make a hip-hop record that would bridge the gap between the Bronx and the then-burgeoning New Wave music.
A Prophecy for Hip-Hop
By the time "Looking for the Perfect Beat" came out in 1983, Bambaataa was on tour in Europe with other DJs and rappers. He had become central to pop music in the United States and the United Kingdom, as evidenced by mainstream media attention. Furthermore, Bambaataa and Zulu Nation were being hailed as miraculous peacemakers of the inner city. Tim Carr, writing for Rolling Stone, described Zulu Nation as "the only inner-city society of its kind ... a tribal-oriented peace-keeping force" and Bambaataa as "a cultural commissar, a former gang leader who has broken through the turf-conscious gang mentality that once terrorized the neighborhoods."
Bambaataa released one more single with Tommy Boy, "Renegades of Funk," just before switching to the French-based Celluloid label in 1984, where he quickly put together his first album, Shango Funk Theology. His new work continued to reflect his interest in bridging musical styles, from Jamaican reggae (he recorded with reggae musician Yellowman) to English New Wave. He created two new rap crews in Shango and Time Zone, both of whom were included on the Celluloid release.
Several more adventurous opportunities for Bambaataa came up in 1984, including the chance to record "Unity" with James Brown, recognized as the father of funk. Early in 1985, Bambaataa tried his hand at mixing black American funk with white British punk on the cut called "World Destruction," which he recorded with Public Image Ltd., the outfit headed by former Sex Pistol John Lydon. 1986 marked the end of Bambaataa's association with Soul Sonic Force. He was also experiencing disputes with both Tommy Boy and Celluloid, which held up the marketing for "Bambaataa's Theme," Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere), and "World Destruction."
Zulu Crew Turned on The Light
Only a year later Bambaataa moved again--this time to the major label security of EMI, where he recorded The Light with the Family, his umbrella name for the Zulu Nation crews that still recorded with him, and an eclectic cast of guest artists. Describing Bambaataa as "the founding figure of electro hip hop," Melody Maker listed the influences that showed up on the album: "Contributors span [pop singer] Boy George and [funk stalwart] George Clinton, Yellowman and Cabaret Voltaire's Mallinder. Every dance genre--go-go, electro-reggae, Seventies funk, hip-hop, disco--tries to occupy the same space." A single from the album, called "Reckless" and recorded with the British reggae band UB40, broke the top 20 on the British charts.
Bambaataa attempted to account for the way his career stumbled in the mid-1980s when he spoke with Andrew Smith from Melody Maker in 1991. "Suddenly I had to change and try to move in new directions," he told Smith. "It was a lot like what happened to [George] Clinton--I had to try to be on a thousand labels, [because] they were afraid of where I was heading. I got really tired of that. I was glad others were having success with stuff they'd got from me, [because] I'm a humble person, but it was frustrating, yeah. Also, I've never been afraid to speak out against the industry, and that hasn't helped."
Although Bambaataa's recording career slipped during the early 1990s, he was still an active and popular DJ. After cutting Decade of Darkness: 1990-2000 on EMI in 1991, Bambaataa decided to try a hand at his own label. He created Planet Rock Music, releasing his Thy Will "B" Funk! in 1992--just as Tommy Boy rereleased the now legendary "Planet Rock" on compact disc. The label appeared to be unsuccessful, since the maxi-single "What's the Name of This Nation?" came out on Profile just a year later.
Still Working at His Craft
Though the public hasn't acknowledged Bambaataa's releases in a big monetary way, he is still working at his craft. He has continued to deejay, becoming one of the most wanted in the world. He has contributed music to films, including Vanilla Sky, and produced music used by athletic shoe company Nike, for an ad campaign that showed basketball players making music with their feet and basketballs. The ads were hugely popular, and were named as one of the ten best international television ads and one of the ten best cinema ads. Bambaataa was also named as the spokesman for shoe company Dada's new television ads, which included a shoe named after his former group, SoleSonicForce. He, along with Chuck D of Public Enemy, participated in the "Hip-Hop Generation--Hip-Hop as a Movement" Conference held at the University of Wisconsin. Bambaataa also contributed to the documentary film Scratch and Yes, Yes, Y'all, a book chronicling the first decade of hip-hop.
"Planet Rock" and "Looking For The Perfect Beat" have been included in numerous rap and hip-hop compilation albums. Rhino Records as well as Tommy Boy Records, Bambaataa's former label, have begun reissuing classic rap albums to scores of new fans. Although people today know of Afrika Bambaataa as a popular DJ and producer, he has, in fact, helped to develop a music genre many thought was a passing fad.
by Ondine E. Le Blanc
Afrika Bambaataa's Career
Member Bronx River Projects branch of New York City street gang Black Spades, 1969-75, became a lieutenant; acted as leader of the Zulu Nation, 1973; gave first official performance as DJ, Bronx River Community Center, 1976; recorded two cuts, "Jazzy Sensation" and "Planet Rock" with Tommy Boy Records, 1982; released first album, Shango Funk Theology, Tommy Boy, 1984; released albums on Capitol/EMI, 1988 and 1991, and a single with the Jungle Brothers on Warlock, 1990; formed own label, Planet Rock Music, 1992; moved to Profile label, 1993; released Jazzin' by Khayan and Lost Generation, 1996; Zulu Groove, 1997; Electro Funk Breakdown, 1999; Hydraulic Funk, 2000, and Electro Funk Breakdown 2001, 2001; took part in documentary Scratch, 2002.
Afrika Bambaataa's Awards
The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards, Pioneer Award, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Unity , Tommy Boy, 1984.
- Shango Funk Theology , Celluloid, 1984.
- Planet Rock , Tommy Boy, 1986.
- Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere) , Tommy Boy, 1987.
- The Light , Capitol/EMI, 1988.
- Decade of Darkness: 1990-2000 , EMI, 1991.
- Thy Will "B" Funk! , Planet Rock Music, 1992.
- Jazzin' by Khayan , ZYX, 1996.
- Lost Generation , Hot, 1996.
- Zulu Groove , Hudson Vandam, 1997.
- Electro Funk Breakdown , DMC, 1999.
- Hydraulic Funk , Strictly Hype, 2000.
- Electro Funk Breakdown 2001 , DMC, 2001.
- (Contributor) Vanilla Sky (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 2001.
- Contemporary Black Biography, volume 34, Gale Group, 2002.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, editors, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
- Billboard, January 27, 2001; March 31, 2001; March 9, 2002.
- Broadcasting & Cable, June 28, 1999.
- Campaign, December 17, 2001.
- Footwear News, July 30, 2001.
- Keyboard, November 1988.
- Melody Maker, June 11, 1983; April 14, 1984; October 20, 1984; July 19, 1986; February 27, 1988; November 2, 1991.
- Nation, May 15, 2000.
- New York, May 20, 1985.
- Rolling Stone, May 26, 1983; December 23, 1993.
- Source, November 1992; November 1993.
- Village Voice, May 25, 1982; September 21, 1982; January 25, 1983; October 2, 1984.