AFRIKA BAMBAATAA with THE SOUL MOTIVATORS, MC K-SWIFT, FARBSIE FUNK, EVAN G and others at Revival (783 College), Friday (December 21). $25. PDR, RT, SS, TW, WT. See listing.
Activist, peacemaker and pioneer of hip-hop and dance music Afrika Bambaataa has added another title to his CV: visiting scholar. In November, the MC/DJ legend gave his first lecture at Cornell, which he'll continue to do periodically over the next three years.
"We always got to keep teaching, because many people still don't know what hip-hop really means," says Bambaataa over the phone from New York City a day after playing the South By South Bronx Festival with DJ Kool Herc and other originators of the genre. "They're surrounded by rap, but they're not getting the whole cultural movement behind it."
Now that rappers like Kanye West and Jay-Z fill arenas and hip-hop dominates the airwaves, the genre has lost much of its early iconoclasm. This year, dinosaur rock mag Rolling Stone published its list of top hip-hop songs of all time (Bam clocks in at number three), and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted Public Enemy.
Hip-hop is entering its classic rock stage, but, says Bambaataa, the mainstream "corporate rap" landscape doesn't properly respect the broader cultural movement he helped forge. In in the early 80s, he stepped down as warlord of the Black Spades gang, formed the Universal Zulu Nation to promote peace and outlined the elements of hip-hop: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, graffiti and, later, knowledge.
"It's not about calling each other names or fighting the religious or so-called racial wars of our ancestors. It's about uniting based on things like ‘Can you b-boy? Can you DJ? Can you emcee? Can we have a discussion about what's happening in this world whether we agree or disagree?' That's caused many barriers to collapse not just here, but all over the world."
Bambaataa's criticism is similar to complaints by old-guard dance music lifers who say the new big-ticket arena EDM festivals don't follow the original scene's PLUR mantra: Peace Love Unity & Respect. It's a mantra that echoes Bambaataa's own: peace, unity, love and having fun.
His best-known and hugely influential hit, 1982's Planet Rock, blends funk and rap with the techno of Kraftwerk. Hip-hop was once an omnivorous genre, but, Bambaataa argues, what you hear on radio is narrowly defined rap disseminated for "payola and corporate brainwash."
He does recognize the power of the internet, where the vital free-mixtape culture allows artists to circumvent the industry and incorporate diverse styles and voices. Still, he warns that the industry is inching in.
"It's great that you can talk directly to your fan base, but many labels are trying in secrecy to get control of it. That's why everyone is using the internet as quick as they can."