Afrika Bambaataa was an important rap-music pioneer who, much like Grandmaster Flash, became a forgotten elder statesman as rap evolved. Bambaataa, who took his name (which means "affectionate leader") from a movie about Zulu warriors, quit the notorious Black Spades street gang in the mid-'70s and formed Zulu Nation, a music-oriented "youth organization." Among the members who became minor rap luminaries were DJs Red Alert, Jazzy Jay, and Whiz Kid, as well as Afrika Islam, who went on to work with Ice-T.
Bambaataa became a popular DJ on the nascent South Bronx rap scene, where his encyclopedic knowledge of funk grooves earned him the nickname "Master of Records." He formed two rap crews: the Jazzy 5 (with MCs Ice, Mr. Freeze, Master D.E.E., and AJ Les) and Soulsonic Force (Mr. Biggs [Ellis Williams], Pow Wow [Robert Darrell Allen], and Emcee G.L.O.B.E. [John B. Miller]). Each made its debut 12-inch single in 1980: Jazzy 5's "Jazzy Sensation" and Soulsonic Force's "Zulu Nation Throwdown," both classic proto-hip-hop party anthems, with round-robin rapping backed by live bands playing slinky funk vamps.
In 1982 Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force dropped the live band to go high-tech. Producer Arthur Baker (who had worked on "Jazzy Sensation") and synthesizer player John Robie provided electronic "beat-box" rhythm and an eerie keyboard hook modeled on "TransEurope Express" by Kraftwerk, whose robotic trance music had long been popular with inner-city youth. The result was "Planet Rock," a pop hit (#48, 1982) that went gold and spawned an entire school of "electro-boogie" rap and dance music.
While Bambaataa continued to exert some influence on rap music, "Planet Rock" turned out to be his only hit. Bambaataa's groundbreaking tracks that failed to chart include 1982's "Looking for the Perfect Beat" (sampled in Duice's 1993 rap-dance hit "Dazzey Duks" [#12]); 1983's "Renegades of Funk" (on which G.L.O.B.E. pioneered the rapid-fire "poppin'" style of rap later popularized by Big Daddy Kane and Das EFX); 1984's "World Destruction" by Time Zone, a rap-rock fusion unit featuring Bambaataa, ex–Sex Pistol John Lydon, and bassist/producer Bill Laswell; and 1984's "Unity," which Bambaataa recorded with rap forebear James Brown. Even Bambaataa's and Soulsonic Force's appearance in the 1984 rap movie Beat Street brought problems: Emcee G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow were arrested for their roles in a 1979 Manhattan bank holdup, when a policeman watching the movie recognized Pow Wow from the bank surveillance video. G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow were later put on probation and received community service sentences for convictions on conspiracy to commit bank robbery.
Bambaataa has remained active if not commercially successful. The Light featured guests George Clinton, Sly and Robbie, Boy George, and UB40. Decade of Darkness collected dance-oriented tracks produced for an Italian label. Bambaataa formed his own label to release the Time Zone compilation. The rise of "turntablism" as its own subgenre and the ratification of "electronica" as an industry-certified trend in the late '90s brought Bambaataa renewed recognition well beyond the hip-hop community. Each year brings a new batch of remixes on multiple dance and import labels, and updates of his signature hit. Lost Generation sports "Planet Rock '96," and the millennium would not have been complete without the release of "Planet Rock 2000."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies