Deep into their September 4th set at New York’s Irving Plaza, as DJ Shadow bent over his spread of turntables, cueing the next sequence of beats, his partner in spin, Cut Chemist, gingerly lifted a piece of 12-inch vinyl from one of his decks and held it aloft, like a round, black equivalent of the Ten Commandments. He had, in fact, just played a religious object: an original demo pressing of “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” the hallowed flipside of “Planet Rock,” the 1982 hip-hop breakthrough single by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force.
Like everything else that went under the needle during Shadow and Chemist’s propulsive 90-minute spree of old-school breakbeats and frenetic scratches, the disc came from Bambaataa’s fabled 42,000-piece record collection. That house of wax is part of an even bigger archive that Bambaataa, now 57, donated in 2013 to the Hip Hop Collection at Cornell University, where he is a visiting scholar. But every thump, riff and shout that boomed through the room tonight – including brazenly manipulated chunks of Sly and the Family Stone‘s “Sing a Simple Song,” Kraftwerk‘s “Trans Europe Express” and Bambaataa’s own ’83 jam “Renegades of Funk” – was pulled from the same LPs and 12-inch singles that Bambaataa broadcast across Bronx playgrounds and used to fill the floors at clubs all over New York in the late Seventies and early Eightes. Even the scratches sounded like history come alive.
Rebirth of the Zulu Nation
DJ Shadow (Josh Davis) and Cut Chemist (Lucas MacFadden) are co-headlining the Renegades of Rhythm tour, a 28-show celebration of Bambaataa’s academic ascension and – at a time when-hip hop is arguably 21st century America’s pop music – strangely overlooked legacy. A child of the Bronx River Projects, Bambaataa (Kevin Donovan) combined his adolescent exposure to local gang culture, his mother’s eclectic record collection and her black activism into an Afro-space-soul crew, the Zulu Nation, promoting non-violence in the community and hosting local dance parties. (Bambaataa took his name from a Zulu chief prominent in South Africa’s early anti-apartheid insurgence.)
That is a lot to get across in an hour and a half of two white disciples from California playing records. But the socio-political component of Bambaataa’s importance to hip-hop – especially the emphasis on crossing borders and color in his mixing – ran through many of the records Shadow and Chemist pulled from their respective crates. That Kraftwerk piece, central to “Planet Rock,” got an extended airing. There were dark materials from Public Image Ltd.’s Flowers of Romance. And Chemist didn’t just play the key riff from Yes‘ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” – he let the track run into singer Jon Anderson’s high, quivering vocal, allowing it to demonstrate how Bambaataa found momentum and unity in the least likely grooves.
Wheels of Steel
Coming just a few days after the Electric Zoo festival on Randall’s Island – a field of loops and sequences, presided over by superstar DJs at flight-deck armories of mobile-studio gear – the Renegades of Rhythm show was an object lesson in the early, hard work of DJ culture: the hectic, physical choreography of flipping dozens of black pancakes across turntables, tugging at the actual wax in rapid staccato to create an alien, vocal-like ecstasy.
At Irving Plaza, Shadow and Chemist each ran three decks and a tea-table-size mixer – you could have fit the entire tech, plus the record boxes, in the back seat of a cab. But they made the most of that minimalism, working in both tandem and exchange, building set pieces of dense, murky funk that broke into extended improvisations of scratch, shiver and new-math jolts of percussion. One set – the part where Chemist played that “Perfect Beat” demo – was devoted to Bambaataa’s own singles, like “Planet Rock” and “Renegades of Funk,” a lesson in how he made his greatest hits from the records he gathered and loved.
Seeing the Music
The show came with visual education too. One of the videos running behind Shadow and Chemist was a montage of Bambaataa’s actual records, screen shots of platter covers with his handwritten notes and, often, tape across the titles and artists (no doubt to prevent rivals from cribbing his sources). That parade was a gas in itself: Thin Lizzy’s Johnny the Fox; Life on Mars by the Philadelphia International disco-futurist Dexter Wansel; records by jazz man Grover Washington, Jr., Latin conga maestro Candido and the Seventies progressive British rock band Babe Ruth.
Most of the covers were battered beyond belief; it was not hard to imagine the condition of the actual discs Shadow and Chemist were throwing around on stage. If you saw them in a cardboard box at a record fair or thrift store, they would probably be going at ten for five bucks. Instead, they sounded like a million dollars, raw drive transformed into a gold that still sounds new and inspirational. At the end of the night, Bambaataa – who watched the set from the balcony – came down to the stage and took a bow, a radiant smile belying the inscrutable effect of his giant Sun Ra-like shades. His life’s work may now be a library, but it’s still a revolution with wheels.