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Hip-hop is all about bragging rights: who’s got the biggest chain, the iciest wrist, and the best rhymes. So how’s this for a brag: Afrika Bambaataa helped create hip-hop, a perch only a few can claim.
His use of electronics not only crystallized hip-hop’s electro-funk sound, it set the course for the creation of electronic dance music. “The hip-hop we created took from all forms of music,” Bambaataa tells Arts Desk. “When hip-hop first came, it spoke to so-called black people, then it reached out to all other nationalities of the great human race.”
Before his DJ set this Sunday at U Street Music Hall, the South Bronx native discussed the magnitude of go-go legend Chuck Brown, the need for unity within hip-hop, and the lack of local music being played on FM radio.
Washington City Paper: What is your opinion of today’s hip-hop?
Afrika Bambaataa: Most people, when they claim or say “hip-hop,” they think of a rapper, or a rap record. Most don’t associate it with the whole culture movement of the term “hip-hop,” which includes the b-boys, the DJs, the MCs, etc. Those elements hold it all together, along with the knowledge and the overstanding of the culture. So most people, when they say “hip-hop,” they just connect it with what they hear on the radio and forget about all the other products of the culture.
WCP: To that point, with today’s hip-hop, it seems more about radio airplay and less about the underground movement necessary to preserve it. What needs to be done to return to that aspect?
AB: More teaching. More people researching, and speaking to the epicenter of hip-hop—-like myself, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and all the pioneers of hip-hop. Where you have all these scholars at these colleges, they need to know what the whole culture is. All the scientists who started this are still walking around living, but nobody’s calling them to ask them what happened back then. That way, people could know where hip-hop’s going in the future. That seems to be a problem for me.
When I go to radio stations, they’ll say “We’re hip-hop and R & B.” And then when I start challenging them, they can’t wait for me to get out. I’m like, “Oh, you hip-hop? Where’s your Miami bass? Where’s your electro-funk? Where’s your hip-house? Where’s your go-go music? Where’s your DJ breakbeat records? Where’s your James Brown and Kraftwerk?” All those sounds made hip-hop.
WCP: You mentioned go-go, and as you know, we just lost Chuck Brown. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AB: Oh, that’s the master and the God right there. I really try to get people away from saying “Godfather” and all that. Like with James Brown, before he was the Godfather of Soul, he was the King of Soul. Same thing with Chuck Brown: He was that god that started go-go music, which brought Rare Essence, E.U., and everybody else that came from that sound. That all came from the god.
WCP: Going back to hip-hop, I’ve noticed that the music is a very slight return to the electronic sound you created.
AB: People wanna dance again. They wanna party and people are going back to their roots with the electro-funk. When you go around to different countries, a lot of folks are doing the electronica. People just wanna enjoy themselves again because there’s so much chaos and craziness on the planet. We need some fun to happen in the atmosphere.
WCP: How does hip-hop regain the sense of community it once had?
AB: While hip-hop culture is a movement around the world, there are some who just follow the rappers, like “What’s your latest hit?” In other countries, they don’t care what hit you may have had. It’s more about the culture. That’s why in Europe, old R&B acts, soul groups, and certain old school hip-hoppers can still travel because the people remember what the artist was, and what they were about. In the United States, it seems like they get rid of their hip-hop once you get a certain age. This is what we do in our community, and our so-called fake radio stations that’s taking payola.
WCP: Nowadays, it seems like hip-hop is less about creative freedom and more about formulaic sounds to get onto the radio. Is that something you’ve noticed?
AB: Really, you’re beginning to see mind control within the music industry. To get on the radio or to be pop, some of our brothers and sisters have had to change themselves to look like somebody else. They’ll put on the blonde hair and change their noses and lips. That’s because they don’t love themselves. Many are taught to hate themselves and think that everything looks like Ms. Daisy.
The industry is taught that as well, so if they have one T.I., they want 10 T.I.s. If someone comes out looking like Nicki Minaj, they want 10 Nicki Minajs. Instead of people being their natural selves, like in the ’60s and ’70s, they are taught to be like somebody else. Many people have sold their souls, or they’re being told by others what they should look like.
WCP: Is there anything that can be done to combat that?
AB: Basically, it all comes down to teaching. The media, the schools, and the radio stations. Most radio stations don’t even give you the news any more. Some stations, like the ones in D.C. How you gonna play just straight hip-hop and so-called R & B, and you’re not playing any of the go-go music that’s right in your own community? We want a balance of all music on the radio, we don’t care if it’s hip-hop, funk, soul, jazz, or classical. Play the old with the new, the new with the old. That way, people will know where the music came from, what it is now, and where the music needs to go for the future.
Afrika Bambaataa performs Sunday with All Good Funk Alliance, Fort Knox Five, and Nappy Riddem at 9 p.m. at U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. $10. ustreetmusichall.com. (202) 588-1880.