Few have done more to spread hip-hop culture around the world than Afrika Bambaataa. Renowned as the Godfather of Hip Hop, and the Master of Records, he was one of the music's early pioneers. A former Bronx gang leader who founded the Universal Zulu Nation collective to champion the values of peace, unity, love and having fun, he was one of the originators of breakbeat DJ-ing. As a recording artist working with the producer Arthur Baker, he invented electro-funk on the seminal single "Planet Rock" in 1982. A spokesperson for and elder statesman of hip hop for more than three decades, Bam's reputation was tarnished in 2016 when four men accused him of having sexually molested them when they were teenagers in the 1980s. Bambaataa has denied the allegations, which to date remain unproven.
Growing Up Gangster in the Bronx
Bambaataa was born Kevin Donovan on April 17, 1957, the child of Caribbean immigrants. He was raised in the South Bronx by his mother and uncle, both political activists. He has credited his mom, an avid record collector, for his early interest in music. "She played a lot of different music in the house," he told Vice in 2014. "One minute you could hear soul, like James Brown and Motown… and the next it could be African sounds… and then more pop sounds like Edith Piaf and Barbra Streisand."
As a teenager, he fell under the influence of the gang culture that was particularly rife in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and joined the Black Spades, the largest and most feared gang in the city. With more than 200 members, the Spades had a deserved reputation for extreme violence, but also helped protect African-American communities from racist attacks, and policed parts of the Bronx to stem the flow of drugs and street crime. Donovan rose to become a warlord of the Bronx River division of the gang. In 1973 he heard hip-hop pioneer Kool Herc DJ-ing with breakbeats, and, realizing that he had many of the same records at home, Donovan founded the Bronx River Organization in 1974 to put on parties for local youth, as an alternative to gang activity.
Bambaataa Begins, 'Jazzy Sensation' Goes Big
Months later, Donovan won a Unicef essay-writing competition, the first prize for which was a trip to Africa. He spent two weeks in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau and returned to America a changed man. He began calling himself Afrika Bambaataa Aasim — adopting the name of the Zulu chief Bhambatha after watching the movie Zulu. He renamed the Bronx River Organization as the Universal Zulu Nation, and through its parties began assembling a collective of rappers, breakdancers and graffiti artists. He established two rap crews: the Jazzy 5 and the Soulsonic Force.
By 1981 Bambaataa had begun to reach out beyond the Bronx, DJ-ing at downtown Manhattan venues such as the Mudd Club and the Peppermint Lounge — his popularity among the mostly white crowds was an early indicator that a much larger market for hip hop might exist. The same year, the independent label Tommy Boy records launched, and its founder, Tom Silverman, introduced Bambaataa to the producer Arthur Baker. The pair recorded a disco-rap record for the label, enlisting the Jazzy 5 to rhyme over a loop, recreated by session musicians, from Gwen McRae's Funky Sensation. The debut single by Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy 5, "Jazzy Sensation," sold 50,000 copies.
'Planet Rock' Album Gold-Certified
It was Baker and Bambaataa's next record that would make music history. Planet Rock — this time with Soulsonic Force rapping — was not created with a band but instead with keyboards, a sampler and a Roland TR-808 drum machine. Its sound was inspired by the electro-pop of Kraftwerk, the Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan, and also by the funk of George Clinton — giving birth to a new genre, electro-funk. "We wanted something that was going to be uptown and downtown," Baker told Redbull.com. "We wanted to make a record that people into the Talking Heads would play, that people into the Sugarhill Gang would play… And that had a lot to do with Bam, because Bam was open to that. Bam definitely crossed the boundaries."
Released on April 17, 1982 — Bam's 25th birthday — Planet Rock became the first gold-certified vinyl 12-inch single, peaking at No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Planet Rock sounded like it had been beamed down from another dimension. At a stroke it created a new, funky, Afro-futurist template for hip hop — and also influenced the techno sound that was developing in Detroit, as acknowledged in the sleeve notes to Virgin's 1988 compilation album, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit.
Bambaataa: Global Ambassador of Hip Hop
Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force toured Europe and in 1983 released two follow-up singles, also regarded as all-time classics — "Looking for the Perfect Beat" and "Renegades of Funk," the latter's politicized lyrics name-checking Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and exhorting "everyday people like you and me" to "change the course of history." Bambaataa would make music history again in 1984 by collaborating with the former Sex Pistol John Lydon on the single "World Destruction." He also released a single, "Unity," with James Brown, billed as "the godfather of soul meets the godfather of hip hop."
Bambaataa was active in the struggle for racial equality in South Africa, joining forces in 1985 with artists including Run D.M.C, Lou Reed and U2 to record the anti-apartheid album Sun City. He helped organize a fundraising concert in London for the African National Congress in 1990 in honor of Nelson Mandela's release from prison that year. He also featured in Life magazine's "Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" issue.
From the mid-1990s Bambaataa became increasingly involved in the dance-music scene that was blowing up in Europe. He recorded a single, "Afrika Shox," with the electronic dance band Leftfield in 1999, and an album, Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light, with the German DJ/producer WestBam, who is named after him. But he continued to act as both spokesperson and cultural custodian for hip hop — donating his entire record collection, audio and video recordings, books and manuscripts to Cornell University's Hip-Hop Collection in 2013.
"Hip hop is basically the whole culture of the movement," he told the writer Davey D in an interview for the KMEL Beat Report. "It could be breakdancing, freestyle dancing, or whatever the form of dancing that's happening now in the black, Hispanic and white community. It's also the DJs, rappers and their dress codes. That is hip hop, meaning the whole culture. Now if you're talking rap music, the music itself is colorless… It's what a rapper puts on top of it that will make it a black thing, or a white thing, or a human thing, or a universal thing. The music itself comes from all types of sound."
Sexual Abuse Scandal
In April 2016, the New York Daily News published allegations made by a Bronx activist now in his fifties, Ronald Savage, who claimed that in the 1980s Bambaataa, had sexually molested him when he was a teenager and Bam was in his twenties. Savage had first made the claim in a self-published memoir in 2014, but it wasn't until the Daily News picked up on the story that the mainstream began to pay attention. In response, Bambaataa made a statement to Rolling Stone in which he called Savage's allegations "baseless" and "cowardly." In April 2016, the Daily News reported that three more men had come forward to allege that Bambaataa had abused them as boys — Bambaataa again refuted this. The following month, the Universal Zulu Nation removed Bambaataa as its leader — to which Bambaataa responded by claiming he had not been involved with the organization for years. To make matters worse, Bambaataa's bodyguard also gave an interview to an online radio, claiming the DJ molested "hundreds" of boys while employing him.
Under New York State law, nobody over the age of 23 can take either criminal or civil action in child abuse cases. Bambaataa's attorney, Charles Tucker, told Billboard magazine in May 2016 that any action from the hip-hop legend against his accusers was unlikely. In August 2016, Ronald Savage collaborated with the celebrity publicist and producer Jonathan Hay to release a hip-hop track dissing Bambaataa.
In February 2017, Bambaataa's one-time collaborator John Lydon was asked his opinion about the case by the online magazine HipHopDX. "We will wait and see," he said. "I've got no evidence either way. It's not anything that would occur to me as being a possibility. I've been around child molesters all my life [in Catholic churches]. I think I could have smelt one. A man is innocent until proven otherwise. There it stands."
(Profile photo of Afrika Bambaataa by David Corio/Redferns)
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