Interview: Afrika Bambaataa

From the DJ History archives: Frank Broughton’s definitive chat with the hip-hop icon

Peter Noble / Redferns

As a kid he’d rally his mates to go hunting rabbits along the Bronx River with bows and arrows. And he’s been throwing parties since the age of 11. Of hip-hop’s founding trio, Kool Herc brought the breaks, Grandmaster Flash chased the technique and Afrika Bambaataa dug out the music. Not for nothing was he the “Master of Records.”

Starting with his mom’s sizeable collection, Bam set the standard in digging for all the hip-hop DJs who came after, seeking out any track with a funky break lurking among its grooves. As a former lieutenant in the Black Spades who transformed his gang into a breakdancing and DJing crew the Zulu Nation, he was also the main catalyst in carving out an enduring culture for hip-hop.

This interview from the DJ History archives took place in 1998 in his old stamping ground of the South Bronx, complete with the sound of a not-too-far-away gunshot just after getting off the subway.

What were your very first parties like?

We would give parties in the community center, and I would bring my house system down and someone else brings theirs on the other side of the room. We would bring out flashlights and you have the lights off and you have your flashlight, choosing which records you want, so when you put on one record – you might put on say “Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone – then when you know that it’s finishing somebody might put on James Brown “It’s a New Day” on the other side...

Sly & The Family Stone - Dance To The Music

So you synchronize it with the flashlights.

Right, with the flashlights, and that’s the time when it wasn’t really mixing, it’s just playin’ the records. People just wait for the next song to come on, or if you want to keep it going, before we ever had systems, when the flashlight goes on, to the other side, the guy knows to already start his record off while the other one, you hear it going down.

This is when you’re real young?

Yeah, real young. Say about 11, 12, something like that.

When did you get serious about throwing parties?

’73 is when it really started getting massive with super-big parties, with larger centers, then movin’ on into schools and all that.

Which was the one in ’73 when you thought, right, this is what I’m going to do?

We started off in the old center, which could fit maybe 200 people. That was on 174th Street and Bronx River, between Manor and Stratford Avenue. The Bronx River Center, the big center, had a large gym that could fit you know a thousand people. And then when we moved into there that’s when we started seeing a large people following us.

We was playin’ everything, everything that was funky.

And what kind of music were you playing?

We was playin’ everything, everything that was funky. Records which was just comin’ out, and the disco music of the time. We would play oldies-but-goodies, lot of the soul and funk songs of the late ’60s, early ’70s, some rock records.

Who else was playing around the same time?

At that time, you had Kool DJ D...

He was down with you, right?

We was down with him at first. You had Plumbers, Flowers from Brooklyn. You had Maboya from Brooklyn, Pete DJ Jones, this is the disco type DJs of this time.

And what was their style?

It was mainly disco at first, a lot of disco beats, and breaks, and they was rockin’ with the disco style of rappin’, you know, like you would hear on a radio station DJ.

So they were rhyming?

It wasn’t really rhyming it was more, “Come on one time, get down baby doll.” Something like Jocko, or Gary Byrd, who was doing his style of rhyming and rapping, with his GB experience on WWIL and WLIB, and you had stuff from the ’60s, Murray the K when he used to do his radio station and Cousin Brucie on WABC. Rap was always here, but it was in a different form. Where you got to the heavy rhymin’ and the funk under the hip-hop culture, was after Kool Herc, myself, Flash and all the other pioneers started comin’ out… Furious Five, Soulsonic Force…

You were inspired by these disco DJs who’d been going a long time?

I was more inspired between Kool DJ D and Kool Herc. The disco DJs I just used to listen to them ‘cos that was what you listened to on the radio.

So what were Kool D and Kool Herc doing that was so different?

Kool D was the first out of the street gang we was in – the Black Spades – to get a whole component set, what they call a coffin, which had the turntables, the mixer, a little echo chamber and all that stuff in there. And then Kool Herc, comin out with the funky breaks that he brought out.

What made you think you could make it?

I had a crazy record collection, more than all of them, so I just decided, I had this vision, I want to make this happen, and incorporate an organization of people into this new thing I was starting, The Zulu Nation.

So it was at about the same time as you were starting the Zulu Nation?

Right. This is when the street gang era was starting to die out, fade out, and I was trying to transfer people from this other group that I had started – The Organization – to the Zulu Nation. It started in the black and Latino community, and then it started spreading out to the different communities, throughout the tri-state area, and then throughout the United States, and then throughout the world.

When you started the Zulu Nation, at first it was a breaking crew.

Yeah. It was a B-boy, male and female crew. You had the Zulu Kings and the Zulu Queens, and the Shaka Kings and the Shaka Queens. And they were really tearing shit up. Nobody was really beating them, and they started winning contests and break dance shows throughout the city.

Which year is this?

That was ’70s – ’74, ’75, ’76, ’77.

Where are your parents from? Are they from the Caribbean?

My parents are from New York, but my roots is from the Caribbean. From Jamaica and Barbados.

So were there elements of Jamaican culture in your family?

Always. Jamaican and Barbados. My family and Herc’s family and Grandmaster Flash’s family.

How much were you aware of Jamaican sound system culture?

Oh, all the time. I’m one of the first. In fact I am the one in hip-hop who started playing all the Jamaican music in the hip-hop parties. More than Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Even though Herc is from the Islands he was focused more on America, on funky stuff.

Did you ever travel to Jamaica when you were a kid?

Nah, not as a kid. I travelled there in like the ’80s.

Did you ever go to big Jamaican sound system parties in New York?

No, I just knew of them when we did block parties, and after a while when the Jamaicans started bringing they systems outside. We used to have sound systems up in the Valley Park, up in the Baychester area of the Bronx.

Was that an inspiration, seeing sound systems Jamaican style?

Naw. I’d say more the inspiration came from the disco DJs and Herc, when he came out. It was more his inspiration, cos he came straight from the islands. Mine was straight from seeing the systems of the disco DJs.

Did you really win a trip to Africa when you were at high school?

Yeah, I went to Africa, way before. It was in High School year, it was ’75.

How did that come about?

Well in ’74, there was a thing with UNICEF, and people had to write an essay on why they would want to go visit, at that time it was India. So I won the essay to go to India, but when it was time for me to meet the decision staff, I was out giving out flyers for one of my parties I was havin’. So I missed that trip to India. So the next year was a trip to Africa, so I really bust my ass on the essay for that one and I won that one.

Can you remember what you wrote?

No, I can’t remember. I told them why I need to go to Africa. And then I won and then I went. I went to Africa and Europe. Africa for two weeks and Europe for one week. I was in Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Guinea Bissau.

And was that a big inspiration?

That was a big inspiration, seeing black people controlling their own destiny, seeing them get up and go to their own work. Seeing their own farmers and agricultures, it was very interesting, when you were seeing all the negativity that you were seeing as a young cat in America, and all the stuff just coming out of the ’60s with the civil rights and human rights, so it was very inspirational seeing this.

I always had visions, and always felt I was sent to do a job or something. For the creator.

It must have been a big part of the inspiration for the Zulu Nation.

I always had visions, and always felt I was sent to do a job or something. For the creator. So that was always on my mind, to start this organization and to do things, especially when we started getting into the knowledge and we got out of the negativity and into the positivity and I started getting into the teachings of the most Honorable Elijah Mohammad, Minister Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Black Panthers... I started incorporating a lot of that and then checking out stuff that I learned from when I was a Christian, and all these other grooves, and then hanging with all these black, white and Catholic schools, then just start incorporating that into the Zulu Nation, start speaking to people in all walks of life. Especially when I started travelling and seeing the world more.

Were you deep into gangs before that?

Yeah, heavy into gangs. Back in the early days. I’d probably be dead if it wasn’t for getting straight into hip-hop culture, and making a culture out of it, and bringing a lot of my people from that type of way. ‘Cos I never had a problem in poolin’ a large army or crowd. So when we shifted right into the DJ thing I already had a packed house.

So that was starting from gang days. And then at high school with the Organization. What were your aims for that?

We had the saying: “This is not a gang. We are family. Do not start trouble, let trouble come to you, and then fight like hell.” We used to carry our little cards around and stuff. That’s when gangs were starting to die down. And then the Organization became the Zulu Nation; that’s when we was getting more into the music side of things. And then it went to the Almighty Zulu Nation, and then it went to the Universal Zulu Nation once we started incorporating all people from the planet earth.

Do you remember hearing Herc play breakbeats for the first time?

Herc is not really the first time I heard breakbeats, but it was the first time that someone really pushed it.

Was Herc the first or was there someone else?

No, Herc was the first to push it in the culture, but breakbeats had been around since disco, since James Brown, all the little breaks between records.

But in terms of just playing the breaks? In terms of a DJ who just played the breaks.

Oh yeah, it was definitely Kool Herc.

Kool DJ Herc - Merry Go Round

And do you remember when you first heard him do that?

Hmm, it’s a while back. Early ’70s. When I first heard it I went, “Hmm, he playin some of the stuff I got in my house. I got a lot of that stuff.” I thought, “That’s funky. That’s more funky than the way these disco DJs were playing they records.”

Read the full Grand Wizard Theodore DJ History interview here

So you liked the way he was cutting it up?

Yeah. I liked the way he was mixing the records. Like he would say one word and use the echo chamber, and by the time the echo chamber finished it was switched to another record. Cos he wasn’t heavy into all that cutting. All that cutting and scratchin came along with Grand Wizard Theodore and Flash and all them.

But your thing was more about having records no one else knew about.

Yeah. We was bringing out more of the funky music and mixing in the funky breaks. The other DJs, they might bring out certain breakbeat records, but the Zulu Nation was more progressive minded, and their audiences. If we played a certain rock record, then everyone else would jump on it, because a lot of the other people’s audiences wasn’t so open like ours. They know our DJs were crazy motherfuckers, just play all crazy type of shit. They even would stop in the middle of a party and throw on a commercial, you know, from some of the TV shows we thought was just bugged and funky for the people to hear.

Where were you buying your music?

Well, I had a large record collection, starting with what my mother bought. She probably bought the first 200 records in the house and I bought the other crazy thousands. I started at a very early young age and I was heavy into the Motown, the Stax sound and all them, the Sly, James Brown sound. I was a radio fanatic nut. So I would switch from WABC to WWIL, to WLIB, you know, WCBS…

So where were you hearing records like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk and stuff like that?

Once I started getting into the record pools, at a young age. I was in the rock pool, I was in a pool called Sure Record pool, I was in IDIC, can’t remember all the damn pools I been in.

Yellow Magic Orchestra - Firecracker (Soul Train 1980)

So you joined them all?

Yeah, I joined a lot of pools and when I was risin’ up and powering and people’s hearing the wild stuff that I was playing. And then I started travelling throughout the tri-state and checking what was in the record stores. I used to look for weird covers. I might have seen Yellow Magic Orchestra and thought, “That’s a weird lookin’ cover, let me pick this up.” Then it was something called “Firecracker.” I said, “Hmm, I could play with this...”

Kraftwerk - Trans Europe Express

What were the other tunes you discovered that way?

“Trans Europe Express.”

How did you discover Kraftwerk, do you remember?

It was from some record store downtown, in the Village.

What did you think?

I thought it was some weird shit. Some funky mechanical crazy shit. And more and more as I kept listening to it, I said, “They some funky white guys. Where they from?” Start reading all the… I always read labels yunno, want to see what it says on the back, who wrote what. I went digging more into their history so I got into Autobahn, and once I got into rock pool, they told me other things to check out, and I was checking Radioactivity.

Hugo Montenegro - Love Them from The Godfather

You played a lot of crazy stuff.

I got into Hugo Montenegro, looking for the Godfather theme, which was a break, and then they had another one, Dick Hyman who did a more electronic type of James Brown groove. Then I got into Gary Numan, couple of other things, and mixing their stuff up with the funk, and James and Sly. It was an interesting mix for our audience. They were bugging out when we got into “Cars,” and “Metal,” and you see the audience waits wants to hear the beginning of “Metal,” the synthesizer and the beat just claps and stuff...

How did they react?

At first it was a bugged reaction. Certain records that when I played some people were, “What the fuck is this?” they stopped, but I keep repeating it, over, I come back with something else, and then come back with that record again.

What records took a while…

I had a record from the Philippines called “Ego Trippin’” with this group called Pleased, and I kept playing just the breakbeat, just to get people going. It used to go, “Hey, you, stop, freaking freaking.” And the break keep hitting and the louder you hear it, the funk was hittin,” and then I started playing the whole record after a while. People was gettin’ into that.

You’d be looking for records all over.

We would go diggin’ in stores and I would take a posse, walk all over from the Village to stores in the Bronx, to stores in Brooklyn and just look for obscure stuff. I just was finding music from all over the place. Then from my travels, cos that’s when we started travelling to different cities in the tri-state area.

Your records were what gave you the advantage.

We just was comin’ out with crazy breaks. Like other DJs would play they great records for 15, 20 minutes, we was changing ours every minute or two. I couldn’t have no breakbeat go longer than a minute or two. Unless it’s real crazy funky that we just want the crowd to get off.

Who gave you the title “master of records”?

I gave my own self that, because I knew no one could mess with me ‘cos I was a crazy record collector. I had stores like Downstairs Records, if I was playin’ certain records they’d bootleg it up and sell them $50, $40, $100. Or other people might see me buying a Hare Krishna record and they’re like “Oh, give me five of them.” They was buggin, I told them, “Don’t buy that because it’s not what you think it is. It’s not breakbeats or nothin’.” And they’re, “Aw, you’re just tryin to keep it secret.” Thinking I’m fronting on them. And they go home and hear it and they be mad.

Did you ever get acetates pressed up from albums and things?

Many times. I started all that. I learned that from the disco DJs, of getting acetates and plates, made up. I used to make little mix things with the pause of a cassette tape, where you press it and it comes right on cue. Then we make up a mix song.

So you’d make up mixes ready for the parties?

I did it for parties or for when we having battles. Other DJs used to bug out when they hear me play “People get up, get up, clap your hands, get down down-down-down, du du du du,” How the hell he got a record like that? Or I might have a commercial from The Addams Family, have it pressed up.

When did you start doing that?

Like ’76, ’77. Mid-’70s. It was on the breakbeat time of trying to get beats, to out-do the other DJ,

Did you have MCs?

We had MCs straight from the early parts. Even in our disco era we always had some type of MC. We had about 11 MCs, or 12. Which after that became the Soulsonic Force, the Jazzy Five, the Cosmic Force.

It was really competitive between you and Herc and Flash.

Each DJ had they own respective crowds, they posse. Herc would have his pack, Flash could have his pack and I could have mine.

And was that by area as well?

Yeah. Flash in the South Bronx, we was the South East Bronx, and you have Herc in the West Bronx. And then when DJ Breakout came, he had the North Bronx. And AJ. And then when Harlem started getting into it, Treacherous Three and all them.

Tell me about the battles. They were pretty civilized mostly?

It started, you play your system, and I play my system: a bunch of noise going at the same time. You out-louded the next person, and then a member might get mad and go there and knock the turntable or something, and it leads into a rumble. So then we started having it agreed where we play an hour, you play an hour, and this way the audience decides, and it got more peaceful. Because at the early stages it definitely could have led into a lot of beatdowns and killings and fightings.

Herc tells a story of the battle at the PAL in 1977.

Yeah, he had a big loud system. We let them do they thing. Then we did our thing. At the battle we funked them up with our music so much that when we left, the whole crowd left with us too. He had a louder system, but when it came to the music they couldn’t fuck around.

DJ Breakout had the Sasquatch. DJ Herc and them had the Herculords. After a while we started building our system. Jazzy Jay, he was a wizard at building sets, and him and Superman, and they were building up our system, which we called the Earthquake system.

One time Grandmaster Flash had this big battle against one of our other brothers at the time, Disco King Mario, and this should’ve been a movie. It was in James Monroe High School, and Flash came in with this whole nice little wall of speakers, Disco King Mario had nice big speakers that was going this way, but then he sent out for help, so I came with my system, then another guy named DJ Tex came with his system, and we put our stuff together and it looked like a whole big wall of Jericho, and it became a battle with Flash’s people against us and Grand Wizard Theodore.

It was just going crazy, crazy, and I gave Theodore some of my records to play, but he didn’t know them, so I just punched the spot and Theodore hit the spots just tearin’ it up against Flash and them, and then Flash came under the ropes and starts screaming, “I know you gave him your records, I know you gave him your records!”

What year was that?

Might have been ’76. James Monroe High School.

Talking with other people, it seems the Disco Fever and the Hevalo, the Zulu Nation was very separate from all that.

We played with Herc there at certain places, but when a lot of them were playin’ in these little clubs, we were playin’ in big centers. Myself and Disco King Mario had big control over the South East Bronx. So we was the first area to play in schools. He was in the Chuck City Crew, but he was part of our family, it was like two crews. I used to play on his system a lot too, before I got my own system. And we had crazy control in our area of the South Bronx, so anyone wanted to come to that area had to come to us first to play in that area or play anywhere in the Bronx River area.

But you never went to Disco Fever?

No, Fever never grabbed me. Some people went to the Fever, it was their type of thing. They could be cool, get into the drugs and all that. I wasn’t into all that shit.

Most of your parties were in community centers or parks.

Parks was only on the outside. Mostly it was in community centers in the beginning and in high school gyms and junior high school gymnasiums. And once we stepped into all the gyms we started bringing all the other DJs in and others started getting chances. ‘Cos people see how much control the Zulu Nation had in their parties.

So you didn’t play in clubs until you went downtown?

I played in clubs. I played in Sparkles, Hevalo, all that, with Herc. I played in some of the little spots that they had.

So you were pretty tight with Herc.

Yeah. When we first came out we had disagreements, and he was like a guardian angel looking over where we go, because he knew we were definitely rising up powerful and had control on our side. And then we became real close and stuff and knew about our West Indian background and we started doing parties together. And Flash crew was also part of our family too. They was the Casanova crew.

There was the three of you, how did it divide up?

Well, the three of us had our respective areas.

So it was very geographical.

Yeah, Flash was always in the Black Door or in 23 park in the summertime. Herc was in the Hevalo and Cedric Avenue Park. I was always in the Bronx River Center, or in high schools or junior high school gyms in the South East Bronx. So then sometimes we would coincide and give things at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. I had control of the T-Connection uptown, which was a strong spot, and everyone was comin’ there to play. But we respect each other. You could play in your spot, you could play in my spot.

How come hip-hop stayed in the Bronx for so long without people knowing about it downtown?

Basically because we probably wanted it like that. Then when we started travelling – I believe we were the first to really start travelling to all of Connecticut, and Jersey.

You always had the ambition to take it worldwide.

Yeah, cos I was always a person who just likes to move around. I just had a vision. I said we just got to make this move.

How did you meet Lady Blue [the promoter behind the famous Roxy nights]?

Met her through Michael Holman, who was one of the first people that brought us to the downtown scene. When we started playing clubs like Negril, and then Lady Blue came in and started doing functions too, at the Negril, with Michael Holman, and then Michael Holman faded out of the scene, they fell out, and Blue was still doing it and we would travel everywhere, into the Negril. Also Fab 5 Freddy brought me down to play clubs like The Jeffersons, the Mudd Club…

What was the very first downtown gig you played?

It was probably the Jefferson and the Mudd club.

And that was for Freddy?

Yeah, and the head of the rock pool at the time, I forget his name.

How did you feel about that, cos it’s a totally different audience. What was the party like?

Oh, they were funky, they got loose. They liked the shit I was playing, Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, Jungle Boogie all that stuff, mixed with the breakbeats and the disco stuff. Once I was getting more into the rock pool and hearing a lot of punk rock records I started playing a lot of their stuff. Flying Lizards and all that other type of things that I might think that would get over there. And that’s when my following started happening. “I want you at Jefferson.” “I want you at the Mudd Club.” “I want you at Danceteria.” I need you at the…

Where was Jefferson?

It was down from the Palladium. It was a big old movie house. And they had these romantic parties upstairs, when they used to come dressing like pirates, looking like Adam Ant. Then you had other scenes where they looked like vampires. It was definitely a weird scene. After a while you started getting used to it and it was on. Then when they started coming up to our places, it was very fun and interesting. Especially when we was shutting up the mouths of the press. The media would be saying, “Oh, there’s gonna be racial fights” and all this shit, but then it was just people partying, hanging, taking pictures, cooling out. Lines with black, white all in ‘em waiting to get in. And we give much props to the punk rockers, ‘cos they was some of the most fair to just come out and party along with the people, for the music. Like Uncle George Clinton used to say, “One nation under a groove.”

Once we started playing downtown, once it started getting towards the late ’70s, early ’80s you start seeing the white punk rockers started coming to the black and Latino areas to hear the music. They would come to the Bronx. People were scared at first, you know you had the media said, “Oh, there’s gonna be race violence,” which we showed them was a bunch of shit.

And at first people was buggin’, when they first seen them, Blacks and Latinos looked at them like they crazy. They had the spikes and the hair, and the colors and all the different clothing, but then when that music hit, you just see everybody tearing they ass up. And then the punk rockers developed a dance which they used to do, and this became a black and Latino dance called the punk rock. You see the punk rockers learning the black dances and the blacks and Latinos learning the punk rockers dances that they was doing. And then the parties just was killing.

And once we started stretching into Negril, Danceteria and then eventually the Roxy, which became the world club. It just blew up from there, punk rock and hip-hop, and got them all to start coming up to the Bronx.

The Fatback Band - King Tim III (Personality Jock)

How did you get into making your own records, ‘cos for a long time people didn’t think it could be captured on records.

We got into it after Sugarhill and all them, and Fatback came out with “King Tim III.” At first everybody was against that because they thought it was gonna kill our sound system. And seeing as it was a way to make money, I was one who stood away longer. Flash and all them jumped on the scene, and a couple of other people joined with Bobby Robinson and Enjoy. I stood more watching.

You thought it would kill the scene?

Yeah, I thought it would kill the scene in a way, and then I asked them how it was they get along with their companies and stuff, and a lot of them told me the problems they was having. And then I tried it out with the Paul Winley label, and I didn’t like very much working with him. And that’s when Tom Silverman [Tommy Boy head honcho] came to visit us.

How did you meet him?

He came along with Arthur Baker, cos I had met Arthur and them first. And I met John Robie first, he came to my house, he was trying to shop a record. He knew about me from my interesting list that I used to put in Dance Music Report, or in the rock pool list. People were like “Oh, this guy plays a lot of wild shit.”

So a lot of music business people knew you.

Yeah, they knew me, and a lot of the organizations, the record pools and stuff, was hearin’ about this black guy that was playin’ to a large black and Latino audience, all this type of wild rock funk hip-hop soul type dance music, so they all started to visit the different places I was playing: the Bronx or wherever I was playing in Manhattan, Harlem, or they would read the list of records that I would pick. And some of the recording artists that made these records even started checkin’ us out. That was when Malcolm McLaren came down, to the block party, and he invited us to come play with Bow Wow Wow.

Afrika Bambaataa & the Jazzy Five - Jazzy Sensation

How did “Jazzy Sensation” come about?

Tom Silverman came to check us out. I had made a record with him called “Let’s Vote,” with a guy named Nuri.

You produced it?

No, we just fixing it and pushing it out for him. Then he came with a girl group called Cotton Candy, which was our first recording for his label. He put Soulsonic on there with a little disco-type rapping. Then we came with my group the Jazzy Five with “Jazzy Sensation.” We had Arthur Baker do the music with that, and that took off. And then I was deciding to come off with this electro sound I’d been working on for a while. And me and Tom was working on it, and that became “Planet Rock.”

Read Arthur Baker on the making of “Planet Rock” here

“Planet Rock” was revolutionary, but what were your ideas working up to it. What did you want it to be?

I wanted it to be the first black electronic group. I always was into “Trans Europe Express,” and after Kraftwerk put “Numbers” out, I said, “I wonder if I can combine them two into make something real funky with a hard bass and beat.” So we combined them. But I didn’t want people to think it was just Kraftwerk, so we added a track called “Super Sperm,” by Captain Sky. The breakdown as the synthesizers going up, that’s the “Super Sperm” beat. And then we added “The Mexican” by Babe Ruth, another rock group, and we speeded it up.

Were these records that you would mix like that in the parties?

Yeah, these were records I would play at the parties.

Yeah, you would play them, but would you actually mix them together in the same way as you did on the record?

No. I just thought of how they would sound mixed together. I had this thing of pulling different records together and replaying them and stuff. A lot of people think we sampled Kraftwerk but it’s just not true. John Robie was a bad-ass synthesizer player, so he was just so good in playing stuff, that it sounded like they sampled the record. At that time there was no such thing as sampling. Sampling came more out when we did “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” that’s when the Emulator machine came out. There was none of these little sampling machines that we got today.

Afrika Bambaataa - Looking for the Perfect Beat

Can you remember how long did it take to put together?

We started in Tom Silverman’s father’s house up in White Plains. We had a bassline taken from BT Express at first, but that didn’t grab us and after a while we got Arthur Baker involved and Tom left the project to me, Arthur and John Robie, and shit started falling into place. Commissioned my group to make up this lyric, to where we was talking about the Planet Rock, “All Planets are made of rock, but our planet earth is a planet rock.” And it just took off. With the elements of the Kraftwerk sound and then the hard funk bass, and a beat underneath it. And I decided the name of this sound is the electrofunk sound.

When you first heard it, did you think it would be as important and influential as it was?

Not at first. When I made it, I was trying to grab the black market and the punk rock market. I wanted to grab them two together. So that’s all I was thinking off. I wasn’t thinking of the world and the rest of that. But then when I start seeing Chinese get into it and all these other people’s was dancing and going crazy on the record and people started saying, “Oh you’ve got to go to Germany.” To Germany? And I start having to tour countries and cities and small, little clubs, and that’s how we started building it up overseas. Whereas a lot of other groups wasn’t really travelling, they didn’t really care about it as long as they knew it was happening in America.

We were doing a lot of shows with a lot of funk singers and stars, ‘cos at that time it was just me and Flash and Sugarhill that was travelling. And we was going against a lot of funk groups. There wasn’t really a lot of rap groups, so that’s why we came with all the wild clothes, ‘cos you had to dress wild to deal with the Bar Kays and Cameo, and groups like that. We was blowing a lot of people off the stage too, ‘cos it was their first time seeing just electronic instruments. One place we got chased off in DC, because it was straight up band-land with the go-go. When they didn’t see no whole band they booed us off.

When you’re DJing, what’s the thrill?

There’s a lot of fun when you’re DJing. Seeing people dance, seeing what records can make them get frenzied and let the God spirit out of their body and just travel out, and what could bring that calm spirit back into they bodies, where they just mellow out and cool, and then you make them get frenzied again. Or playing other records that makes them think, or makes them just shake their booty. It’s the thrill of just controlling the music and seeing the people on the dancefloor partying.

What do you mean makes them think?

If you play certain records, like James Brown, “Say It Loud.” And the crowd would yell, “I’m black and I’m proud,” and they’d get off on that. Or you might play Sly’s “Stand,” and they just waiting for that break part to come, and when that breakbeat come in they just go crazy. So it was different records, like “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”

Sly & The Family Stone - Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Messages really.

Yeah, messages. “How many of y’all thank you for bein yourself?” “How many of y’all love your mamas? Say yeahh.” ‘Cos we were one of the first to add messages, telling the MCs to say more than just throw your hands in the air, how many people smoke the reefer? Cos you had a lot of rappers who was all about themself, how many women they can get. But we start getting into message things, political things. Raise money for sickle cell anemia, raise money for our community center, to get games and TVs and sound systems.

You used to get a kick out of playing things that people wouldn’t normally dance to.

Yeah, obscure things. I play stuff where people talk about “I don’t like Latin,” so I play a Latin artist, and get them movin. I’ma play a rock artist, say “I ain’t into heavy metal”, so I play something like Led Zeppelin, or Foghat or something, then move into that.

Which Led Zeppelin?

I used to play “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog.”

Which Foghat?

“Slow Ride.” Rock-wise I played “Tom Sawyer,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Miss You,” “Hot Stuff,” all they funky type of songs. Billy Squier “Big Beat,” Eddie Money “Baby Hold Onto Me.” I used to play all sort of shit.

Throughout it all, what do you remember as the best days?

I think the early hip-hop was when it was more fun. It was some parts dangerous, but it was more fun and it was more lovin’ and it was just for the music, and people comin’ together really to party. Where it’s more now just gangsters that want to kill each other and all that type of mess. But I know things go in cycles, so you have different feels of time where people have different feelings in the music of hip-hop. But they definitely were the best, the ’70s and early ’80s. Especially through the electrofunk era. I think the electrofunk style of hip-hop brought more people round the world together than all the other styles put together.

Looking back, what are you most proud of?

Bringing people together. Settling their differences and spreading the hip-hop culture all around the world.

Kind of like a musical preacher?

Yeah, to bring the message of the music and also to get people to be thinkers. You know, especially in this day and age, to stop the foolishness and lies that’s been taught through this century and let’s get on with truth. We want right knowledge, right wisdom, right overstanding and right-sound reason. Like telling us Columbus discovered America, or Greece is the mother and father of western Civilization, when they got all their knowledge from Egypt and Africa.

Let’s tell the truth about what black people, brown people, red people, white people, yellow people has done to better civilization, on this planet so-called Earth. And let’s get into the universal thing that’s going on with our planets and galaxies and stuff, because we’re shitting on mother earth and mother earth is getting tired of this shit, and she’s spitting out humors left and right.

Do you ever think it’s strange that you’re going through life now, spreading this knowledge and visiting different countries and all that comes from just being a DJ and playing records?

Oh definitely. The power does come from being a DJ, but it really comes from the creative force, which is the source. We allow people to take credit all they want, but it definitely is a force that’s out there which is the source of all. We don’t care what name you call it: Allah-Jehovah-Yahweh-Elaheem-Jah-Rah-Anu-God, but we know there’s definitely a force and it’s dumb or blind for people to think that we as humans are the only beings in this whole universe, on the planet Earth.

In Zulu Nation we always told them that there’s 12 planets in our galaxy and a 13th one that comes every 26,000 years. They thought we were crazy, but they only found the ninth planet in 1930. It’s gonna get up to 12, watch. Because the Sumerians, the Aztecs, the Incas, the Dogons, the Egyptians, all knew about this science and stuff, and all these Hindus talked about the beings in the flying ships…

So when you’re DJing, do you feel like it’s not just you? It’s this power…

It’s a spiritual thing. It’s definitely an aura or something that hits you. Because I never really rehearse or practice. When you hear me, you always hearin’ me fresh and new. I ain’t got no time to really sit down and mix this record or this one go with that one. I’m just thinking real quick.

I could go to any country and feel comfortable.

You definitely kept that hip-hop attitude: play any kind of music as long as it’s funky.

I could go to any country and feel comfortable. When I’m in Bulgaria, “Let me hear your funk.” “I ain’t got no funk.” “Trust me, you got funk!” Then you find certain records: “That’s funky.” Find another: “You could dance reggae to that,” and go to another place and hear another sound…

It’s an international language.

It is definitely is. It crosses those barriers. And then you catch those people who say, “I don’t like Latin,” “I don’t like rock.” And you go in their collection, “Well, what’s this Rolling Stones doing here? What’s that Tito Puente record doing there?” It’s all out there. People just get caught up in the categories and labelizing, but music is music. It’s just that too many of these radio stations; they’re caught up in the apartheid of the music. I said just play it all, let the people decide if they like it or not.

This interview was conducted at Hunt’s Point Community Center, Bronx, New York, in October 1998. ©

By Frank Broughton on April 7, 2017

On a different note