By Jacob Katel
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Any DJ with any sense knows she or he owes a debt to Afrika Bambaataa. And if she or he happens to be spinning hip-hop, make that double. Yeah, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and DJ Hollywood were all in on the early spinning action too. But it was Bam who first used the term hip-hop to describe all that was going down back in the heyday. And it was Bam who, with the release of his and Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock," made the DJ a superstar.
Nearly four decades and at least that many million mixes later, Bambaataa is as on it as ever. He recently teamed up with house producer and DJ Roger Sanchez for a remake of Bam's hip-house track "Just Get Up and Dance," which should be out this summer.
He also has been working frequently with Washington, D.C.-based breakbeat heavies the Fort Knox Five. "We just shot a video for the track "Shift,'" Bam says. "They're some kicking producers when it comes to breakbeat." So kicking, in fact, Bam sought them out rather than the other way around, which is how it usually goes down when you're talking about such a legend.
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"I liked a lot of their stuff," Bam says. "And when I did my Dark Matter album, I told my label [Tommy Boy] that I wanted work with these cats. That's when we did the track "Got That Vibe."
"Vibe" mixed sitar with cowboy and made it street, kind of like driving through Bollywood in a lowrider with the Magnificent Seven in the back seat. It was all in great, good fun, of course, and it was infinitely funky. It also spurred a slew of successive collaborations, including "Just a Smoke," "Take You Back," "Do Me Right," and a Betty Wright-driven island-hopper called "Zulu War Chant."
Further (and future) adventures in sound include another pairing with Afrika Islam and a remake of James Brown's "You Got to Have a Job (If You Don't Work You Can't Eat)." And in addition to Bam's wax works, there's radio, where Bam slams on not one but two stations.
"We got Zulu Beats, which is two hours on XM Sirius satellite radio," the main man explains. "Then we've got True School Radio, which is four hours on WHCR [90.3 FM in New York City]. Zulu Beats is more hip-hop/R&B; True School is everything under the sun — a musical journey."
Beyond the vinyl and the radio ether is the multimedia action, such as the Zune commercial Bam did with Common, and the FIFA Streets 3 and NBA Live soundtracks he's done for EA Sports. All of that has turned new generations on to the master and his work.
But sounding off all over the spectrum is only half of what makes this legendary beatster tick, and those new generations are never far from Bam's mind. Since the days he ditched the Black Spades and created the Universal Zulu Nation, this natural-born leader has been intent on making the whole world a much better place in which to kick it. And as Bam has evolved, so has the Nation.
"It's factology now," he says. "Factology versus beliefs. Most people who believe, don't know. If it's a fact, then you know."
The old version of the Zulu Nation (that of the 20th Century) adhered to 15 tenets, one of which cited a belief in an Abrahamic god. With the new millennium, however, that system has been flipped, apparently in favor of something that can be held as truly self-evident.
One fact, though, that Bam shies away from is the number of Zulu warriors existing in this world. "Those who say, don't know," he insists. "And those who know, don't say."
There's no such reticence when it comes to another world-bettering effort called Mojofiti, a social network that aims to open communication among all creeds and cultures. Bam has been appointed to its board of directors, which in itself makes the venture something worth noticing.
"It's kind of like a MySpace for breaking down barriers," he says. "If you're in Japan and you're writing in Japanese, this will translate your words into whatever other language you're dealing with, and back and forth."
Imagine wondering what someone halfway around the world is saying about a certain something. Or picture reaching out and making friends with someone whose language you've never even heard. Mojofiti will handle that — and then some.
Even with all of that action, right now our town is pretty much most concerned with one thing: catching Bam at Winter Music Conference. He says he'll "leave it up to us to get off [our] asses and dance." But we won't need much persuading. There's just something in the way the man says what he says and does what he does that promises one kick-ass party. Yeah, the Godfather of Hip-Hop will always be remembered for "Planet Rock," yet there's no question that Afrika Bambaataa still has a whole lotta rocking to go.