Last week, I had the absolute honor of interviewing Afrika Bambaataa, the Godfather of Hip-Hop, the leader of the Universal Zulu Nation, and one of hip-hop culture’s most active advocates. I don’t think I can do much more of an introduction. If it wasn’t for Afrika Bambaataa (Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash), there would be no hip-hop. And if it wasn’t for the Universal Zulu Nation, hip-hop would’ve died a long time ago. He is a DJ, a teacher, a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, one of the 20th Century’s most important people, a leader and a visionary, and this is an interview I never thought I’d get to have…
“We believe in Power, Education in truth, Freedom, Justice, Equality, Work for the people and the upliftment of the people.” – Universal Zulu Nation
[Erin of Bad-Perm] The Universal Zulu Nation just celebrated their 39th anniversary in November, so congratulations first and foremost. Did you ever think the creation of the Zulu Nation would make such an incredible impact around the world?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well, we definitely worked to make it an impact around the world. It didn’t come easy, it took a lot of work, travelling, going from city-to-city, town-to-town, country-to-country…playing in places people wouldn’t even play. Most people who do world tours deal with the major cities, whereas I went through all the different cities whether they were big or small and try to make things happen and build the hip-hop culture in the respected countries that we visited.
[BP] Alongside the Universal Zulu Nation, you were the first to truly bring the hip-hop movement worldwide. Where have you seen a strongest hip-hop culture outside of the United-States?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well definitely the strongest one outside of the United-States is definitely France. They were the first to accept it and they the first of having all the first hits of rappers coming into their own respected territory, speaking their own native tongues.
[BP] Would you say other countries uphold the fundamental pillars of hip-hop more so than in North America?
[Afrika Bambaataa] I think many of the outside countries are holding it stronger through the whole culture of the movement than any other places in the North…[like] in Central America, South America is holding the culture strong to. I think it’s because the United-States and Canada had it so long too, that we get uppity with you know…this is ‘our’ stuff and forget now that it’s a world cultural movement.
[BP] Do you think hip-hop still supports the Universal Zulu Nation as a fundamental organization in this culture or has these new fans turned their back?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well hip-hop culture – the people that are into hip-hop culture, support the Universal Zulu Nation, the Rock Steady Crew and all those types of events that happen around the world. The people who follow rap just follow rappers…they more like ‘what’s your last hit record?’
[BP] Is this something that you’ve been doing at Cornell University?
[Afrika Bambaataa] At Cornell University, they are considering the preservation of hip-hop artifacts and culture, with me teaching there. I’ll go there for three years [terms] and be a teacher with the students, taking questions and answers and teaching them about the hip-hop movement.
[BP] Is that your main goal with the possibility of a museum of hip-hop in the Bronx?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Oh most definitely, I was trying to get a museum. It’s a shame New York City, even New York State, hasn’t produced one museum or something for the culture movement of hip-hop that has brought so many people together and many people around the world who visit New York City because of hip-hop.
[BP] With Planet Rock, it was a complete electro funk-hip-hop mash-up and now we’re seeing the same thing repeat itself in 2012. What do you think the connection between hip-hop and that type of music is?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well, eclectro-funk is hip-hop. It’s just another category in the hip-hop cultural movement. When we did electro-funk [Planet Rock], that was our hip-hop style of up-tempo hip-hop, and which from our up-tempo hip-hop came on different styles and sounds…whether it be hip-house, electro-funk, Miami-bass, electronic, techno and all the other sounds that came from it. And a lot of our sounds came from techno-pop that Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk and Gary Numan was doing at the time. Add it to funk of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, which became the birth of the electro-funk style of hip-hop.
[BP] When we have so many different genres trying to employ hip-hop music into their own, like trip-hop or pop-rap, do you think it’s beneficial to our music industry or that it’s almost destroying the (not to be cliché) “real hip-hop”.
[Afrika Bambaataa] No, because it’s all still part of hip-hop. Hip-hop took from many other music [genres] to make hip-hop, and now hip-hop is giving back to all the other music and making their music more funky with the breakbeats added to it. That’s why you got drum ‘n bass, [in which] they call themselves breakbeats, which was taken from the breakbeats that hip-hop used to play from the old funk, R&B, soul, disco and whatever else that was happening at that time to make this style of music, and now giving back to all these music so they can funky back through hip-hop and rap.
[BP] So it’s kind like putting the soul back into these genres of music?
[Afrika Bambaataa] It’s definitely putting the funk back in all kinds of music.
[BP] There’s always a constant debate as to what hip-hop music is and what “real hip-hop music” is. In your opinion, what constitutes hip-hop music in 2012?
[Afrika Bambaataa] All these people be thinking that but they never come and ask the architectures hip-hop, being myself, the Father Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Because if they came to speak to us, they’d find out exactly what hip-hop music is, cause we played everything. So those are people down the line that never heard or did their research or studies on what the architectures did, and then study what all the pioneers in hip-hop was doing after us three that formulated this whole movement.
[BP] Can you tell me a little about the art of sampling? [Editor note: After a little confusion about the documentary “Sample This”, which Bambaataa spoke in but is a part of too many documentaries to remember, we switched to talking about sampling.]
[Afrika Bambaataa] The art of sampling is a beautiful thing. Take a sound of Aretha Franklin and put it with some Sly bass or horn and add a little grunts of James Brown, and put some guitar on top of it…it’s beautiful how you can take all the different sounds of music and clash it all together to make a whole new sound of recording. But just give credit to who you took something from if it’s more than 8-bars or their music or give them some of that credit…put their name down as a writer and things would be ok. But if you’re just straight up taking it and stealing and not giving no respect to your um, what we call the ancestors, you’re just a thief.
[BP] What about sampling on mixtapes, where they don’t have to legally give credit?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well, go on and make it. If there ain’t no laws dealing with it, then go on and do it. Until there’s laws dealing with that, go on and do it.
[BP] In your opinion, do you think the concept of regional sound [especially in regards to New York] in hip-hop music still exists?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well, New York is built from many different sounds. Electro-funk came from New York and many people think when they here Miami bass came from Florida and all of that came down to New York. Punk rock, new wave, electronicas…house music…same like Chicago had their sound. Everyone had their little sound…the Motown sound, the Shirley sax sound, everybody has their vibration and how they were living their way of life and how they put it into their music. That’s a good thing though – different variations of different categories of sounds of music being added to it and taken away.
[BP] And what about the actual hip-hop sound?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Yeah, it’s still present. Radio stations been playing all the different music…they gonna play the East Coast, then they gonna play West coat, some from the North coast, some from the south coast…but they need to not just play rappers but play real hip-hop. And if you’re gonna play hip-hop, you still gotta play James Brown, Kraftwerks, some break beats, some toasting reggae, some Miami bass… So, if you’re say you’re playing hip-hop on your radio stations, stop lying to the people, you just playing city rap records and you’re not playing all the different music of hip-hop.
[BP] How can hip-hop honor it’s hip-hop legends before it’s too late?
[Afrika Bambaataa] By giving events and giving everyone their just-due while they’re still living. That’s why we made every November hip-hop history month for people to research on and respect for what hip-hop did by letting so many people from different nationalities and cultures together around the world, and how hip-hop has saved so many peoples life. It’s up to each city and country to proclaim November as hip-hop history month and give all types of functions throughout the month to remember all the different styles and people they got love for in hip-hop. The same with any music, any legend. Don’t wait for Chuck Berry or Chubby Checker, Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson, Sly Stone or whoever…give them they honor and just due while they’re living, no matter what ups and downs they had.
[BP] Do you find a big reception every November in NY?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well we have the world community that comes in from around the world when we give our Universal Zulu Nation anniversary every year [Nov 12th], the only true anniversary since the beginning. So we get people to come to honor every November and other people are starting to pick it up in other cities and other places. So, it’s up to each person that loves this culture to fight with their city hall to proclaim November as hip-hop history month, and even the politicians don’t claim it, still respect it and do it yourself. Just do it.
[BP] What are you doing with the politicians to have it proclaimed as a month?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Well we have it in different cities. Different cities already proclaim it, different states already proclaim it. We need Canada to start shaking something up there to proclaim for all those people like Michie [Mee] and all those greats that did things years ago in Toronto that they’re not respecting now.
[BP] Can I ask you who you’re currently listening to in hip-hop?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Hmm…Immortal Technique, I’m still listening to Missy Elliot, OutKast, Cee-lo and those types of groups.
[BP] Anybody recent?
[Afrika Bambaataa] There’s a girl named Sa-Roc. She is killing it!
[BP] What do you expect from the hip-hop culture in 2013.
[Afrika Bambaataa] I hope we get more organized cause we definitely need health insurance, and all type of other things that need to be added to the culture. And you know, there’s more independence going on because most labels are folding anyway and everybody trying to get a hold of the internet, so we got all these digital companies popping up all over the place. It’s gonna be very interesting to see where the music is gong because right now, not many people aren’t selling many records, it’s your fanbase that you’re building and going back to more shows. And [with] most people now…well the hip-hop is moving towards Asia. We see a lot more people starting tours in Asia than we’ve seen in a long while.
[BP] What do you have planned for 2013?
[Afrika Bambaataa] Keep doing and doing. Keep waking up people and keep telling people to respect mother earth. She’s a living entity and if you don’t respect, Mother Earth will come and move on you. She don’t care what race, nationality or color you are, or religion you profess, she’ll take you out in seconds.