Afrika Bambaataa (born April 19, 1960) is an American DJ from the South Bronx, New York who was instrumental in the early development of hip hop throughout the 1980s. Afrika Bambaataa is one of the three originators of break-beat deejaying, and is respectfully known as the “Grandfather” and “Godfather” and The Amen Ra of Universal Hip Hop Culture as well as The Father of The Electro Funk Sound. Through his co-opting of the street gang the Black Spades into the music and culture-oriented Universal Zulu Nation, he is responsible for spreading hip hop culture throughout the world. On September 27, 2007, he was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Afrika Bambaataa grew up in the Bronx River Projects, with an activist mother and uncle. As a child, he was exposed to the black liberation movement, and witnessed debates between his mother and uncle regarding the conflicting ideologies in the movement. He was exposed to his mother’s extensive and eclectic record collection. Gangs in the area became the law in the absence of law, clearing their turf of drug dealers, assisting with community health programs and both fighting and partying to keep members and turf. Bambaataa was a founding member of the Bronx River Projects-area street gang The Savage Seven. Due to the explosive growth of the gang, it later became known as the Black Spades, and Bambaataa quickly rose to the position of warlord. As warlord, it was his job to build ranks and expand the turf of the Black Spades. Bambaataa was not afraid to cross turfs to forge relationships with other gang members, and with other gangs. As a result, the Spades became the biggest gang in the city in terms of both membership and turf.
After Bambaataa won an essay contest that earned him a trip to Africa, his worldview shifted. He had seen the movie Zulu and was impressed with the solidarity exhibited by the Zulu in that film. During his trip to Africa, the communities he visited inspired him to stop the violence and create a community in his own neighborhood. He changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, adopting the name of the Zulu chief Bhambatha, who led an armed rebellion against unfair economic practices in early 20th century South Africa that can be seen as a precursor to the anti-apartheid movement. He told people that his name was Zulu for “affectionate leader”. A young Afrika Bambaataa began to think about how he could turn his turf-building skills to peacemaking. He formed the “Bronx River Organization” as an alternative to the Black Spades.
Inspired by DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Dee, he too began hosting hip hop parties. He vowed to use hip hop to draw angry kids out of gangs and formed the Universal Zulu Nation Bambaataa is credited with naming hip-hop. “Hip hop” was a common phrase used by MCs as part of a scat-inspired style of rhyming, and Bambaataa appropriated it for use in describing the emerging culture, which included the four elements: the music of DJs, the lyricism and poetry of emcees, the dancing of b-boys and b-girls, and graffiti art.
In 1982, Bambaataa and his followers, a group of dancers, artists and DJs, went outside the United States on the first hip hop tour. Bambaataa saw that the hip hop tours would be the key to help expand hip hop and his Universal Zulu Nation. In addition it would help promote the values of hip hop that he believed are based on peace, unity, love, and having fun. Bambaataa brought peace to the gangs as many artists and gang members say that “hip hop saved a lot of lives”. His influence inspired many overseas artists like the French rapper MC Solaar. He was a popular DJ in South Bronx rap scene and became known not only as Afrika Bambaataa but also as the “Master of Records”. He established two rap crews: the Jazzy 5 including MCs Master Ice, Mr. Freeze, Master Bee, Master D.E.E, and AJ Les, and the second crew referred to as Soulsonic Force including Mr. Biggs, Pow Wow and Emcee G.L.O.B.E.
In that same year Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force dropped the live band to go high-tech. He borrowed an eerie keyboard hook from German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and was provided an electronic “beat-box” by producer Arthur Baker and synthesizer player John Robie. That resulted in a pop hit “Planet Rock”, which went to gold status and generated an entire school of “electro-boogie” rap and dance music. Bambaataa formed his own label to release the Time Zone Compilation. He created “turntablism” as its own sub-genre and the ratification of “electronica” as an industry-certified trend in the late 1990s.
Birth of the Zulu Nation
Bambaataa decided to use his leadership skills to turn those involved in the gang life into something more positive to the community. This decision began the development of what later became known as the Universal Zulu Nation, a group of socially and politically aware rappers, B-boys, graffiti artists and other people involved in hip hop culture. By 1977, inspired by DJ Kool Herc and DJ Dee, and after Disco King Mario loaned him his first equipment, Bambaataa began organizing block parties all around the South Bronx. He even faced his long time friend, Disco King Mario in a DJ battle. He then began performing at Stevenson High School and formed the Bronx River Organization, then later simply “The Organization”. Bambaataa had deejayed with his own sound system at the Bronx River Community Center, with Mr. Biggs, Queen Kenya, and Cowboy, who accompanied him in performances in the community. Because of his prior status in the Black Spades, he already had an established Army party crowd drawn from former members of the gang. Hip hop culture was spreading through the streets via house parties, block parties, gym dances and mix tapes.
About a year later Bambaataa reformed the group, calling it the Zulu Nation (inspired by his wide studies on African history at the time). Five b-boys (break dancers) joined him, whom he called the Zulu Kings, and later formed the Zulu Queens, and the Shaka Zulu Kings and Queens. As he continued deejaying, more DJs, rappers, b-boys, b-girls, graffiti writers, and artists followed him, and he took them under his wing and made them all members of his Zulu Nation. He was also the founder of the Soulsonic Force, which originally consisted of approximately twenty Zulu Nation members: Mr. Biggs, Queen Kenya, DJ Cowboy Soulsonic Force (#2), Pow Wow, G.L.0.B.E. (creator of the “MC popping” rap style), DJ Jazzy Jay, Cosmic Force, Queen Lisa Lee, Prince Ikey C, Ice Ice (#1), Chubby Chub; Jazzy Five-DJ Jazzy Jay, Mr. Freeze, Master D.E.E., Kool DJ Red Alert, Sundance, Ice Ice (#2), Charlie Choo, Master Bee, Busy Bee Starski, Akbar (Lil Starski), and Raheim. The personnel for the Soulsonic Force were groups within groups with whom he would perform and make records.
In 1980, Bambaataa’s groups made their first recording with Paul Winley Records titled, “Death Mix”. According to Bambaata, this was an unauthorized release. Winley recorded two versions of Soulsonic Force’s landmark single, “Zulu Nation Throwdown”, with authorization from the musicians. Disappointed with the results of the single, Bambaataa left the company.
The Zulu Nation was the first hip-hop organization, with an official birth date of November 12, 1973. Bambaataa’s plan with the Universal Zulu Nation was to build a youth movement out of the creativity of a new generation of outcast youths with an authentic, liberating worldview.
In 1982, hip hop artist Fab Five Freddy was putting together music packages in the largely white downtown Manhattan New Wave clubs, and invited Bambaataa to perform at one of them, the Mudd Club. It was the first time Bam had performed before a predominantly white crowd. Attendance for Bambaataa’s parties downtown became so large that he had to move to larger venues, first to the Ritz, with Malcolm McLaren’s group “Bow Wow Wow”, then to the Peppermint Lounge, The Jefferson, Negril, Danceteria and the Roxy. “Planet Rock”, a popular single, came out that June under the name Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. The song borrowed musical motifs from German electro-pop, funk, and rock. Different elements and musical styles were used together. The song became an immediate hit and stormed the music charts worldwide. The song melded the main melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” with electronic beats based on their track “Numbers” as well as portions from records by Babe Ruth and Captain Sky, thus creating a new style of music altogether, electro funk.
Bambaataa organized the very first European hip hop tour. Along with himself were rapper and graffiti artist Rammellzee, Zulu Nation DJ Grand Mixer DXT (formerly Grand Mixer D.St), B-boy and B-girl crews the Rock Steady Crew, and the Double Dutch Girls, as well as legendary graffiti artists Fab 5 Freddy, PHASE 2, Futura 2000, and Dondi.
Bambaataa’s second release around 1983 was “Looking for the Perfect Beat”, then later, “Renegades of Funk,” both with the same Soulsonic Force. He began working with producer Bill Laswell at Jean Karakos’s Celluloid Records, where he developed and placed two groups on the label: “Time Zone” and “Shango”. He recorded “Wildstyle” with Time Zone, and he recorded a collaboration with punk-rocker John Lydon and Time Zone in 1984, titled “World Destruction”. Shango’s album, “Shango Funk Theology”, was released by the label in 1984. That same year, Bambaataa and other hip hop celebrities appeared in the movie Beat Street. He also made a landmark recording with James Brown, titled “Unity”. It was billed in music industry circles as “the Godfather of Soul meets the Godfather of Hip Hop”.
Around October 1985, Bambaataa and other music stars worked on the anti-apartheid album Sun City with Little Steven Van Zandt, Joey Ramone, Run-D.M.C., Lou Reed, U2, and others. During 1988, he recorded another landmark piece, “Afrika Bambaataa and Family”, for Capitol Records, titled The Light, featuring Nona Hendryx, UB40, Boy George, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Yellowman. Bambaataa had recorded a few other works with Family three years earlier, one titled “Funk You” in 1985, and the other titled “Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere)” in 1986. Bambaataa was involved in the Stop the Violence Movement, and with other hip hop artists recorded a 12″ single titled “Self Destruction”, which hit number one on the Hot Rap Singles Chart in March 1989. The single went gold and raised $400,000 for the National Urban League to be used for community anti-violence education programs.
In 1990, Bambaataa made Life magazine’s “Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” issue. He was also involved in the anti-apartheid work “Hip Hop Artists Against Apartheid” for Warlock Records. He teamed with the Jungle Brothers to record the album “Return to Planet Rock (The Second Coming)”.
Gee Street Records, John Baker and Bambaataa organized a concert at Wembley Stadium in London in 1990 for the African National Congress (ANC), in honor of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The concert brought together performances by British and American rappers, and also introduced both Nelson and Winnie Mandela and the ANC to hip hop audiences. In relation to the event, the recording Ndodemnyama (Free South Africa) helped raise approximately $30,000 for the ANC. Bambaataa also helped to raise funds for the organization in Italy.
From the mid-1990s, Bambaataa returned to his electro roots, collaborating with WestBam (who was named after him) which culminated in the 2004 album Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light which featured Gary Numan and many others. In 2000, Rage Against the Machine covered Afrika’s song “Renegades of Funk” for their album, Renegades. The same year, Bambaataa collaborated with Leftfield on the song “Afrika Shox”, the first single from Leftfield’s Rhythm and Stealth. “Afrika Shox” is also popularly known from the soundtrack to Vanilla Sky. In 2006, he was featured on the British singer Jamelia’s album Walk With Me on a song called “Do Me Right”, and on Mekon’s album Some Thing Came Up, on the track “D-Funktional”. Bambaataa performed the lyrics on the track “Is There Anybody Out There” by The Bassheads (Desa Basshead). As an actor, he has played a variety of voice-over character roles on Kung Faux.
Bambaataa was a judge for the 6th annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists’ careers. On September 27, 2007, it was announced that Afrika Bambaataa was one of the nine nominees for the 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions. On December 22, 2007, he made a surprise appearance performing at the First Annual Tribute Fit For the King of King Records, Mr. Dynamite James Brown in Covington, Kentucky.
Year Album Label
1983 Death Mix Paul Winley Records
1985 Sun City EMI
1986 Planet Rock: The Album Tommy Boy Records
Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere) Tommy Boy Records
1987 Death Mix Throwdown Blatant
1988 The Light EMI America Records
1991 The Decade of Darkness 1990-2000 EMI Records USA
1992 Don’t Stop… Planet Rock (The Remix EP) Tommy Boy Records
1996 Jazzin (Khayan album) ZYX Music
Lost Generation Hottie
Warlocks and Witches, Computer Chips, Microchips and You Profile Records
1997 Zulu Groove (Compilation) Hudson Vandam
1999 Electro Funk Breakdown DMC
Return to Planet Rock Berger Music
2000 Hydraulic Funk Strictly Hype
Theme of the United Nations w/ DJ Yutaka Avex Trax
2001 Electro Funk Breakdown (Compilation) DMX
Looking for the Perfect Beat: 1980-1985 (Compilation) Tommy Boy Records
2004 Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light Tommy Boy Records
2005 Metal Tommy Boy Records
Metal Remixes Tommy Boy Records
2006 Death Mix “2” Paul Winley Records
Year Title Label
1981 “Zulu Nation Throwdown” Winley Records
“Jazzy Sensation” Tommy Boy Records
1982 “Planet Rock” Tommy Boy Records
“Looking for the Perfect Beat” Tommy Boy Records
1983 “Renegades of Funk” Tommy Boy Records
“Wildstyle” Celluloid Records
1984 “Unity” (with James Brown) Tommy Boy Records
“World Destruction” Atlantic Records
1986 “Bambaataa’s Theme” Tommy Boy Records
1988 “Reckless” (with UB40) EMI
1990 “Just Get Up And Dance” EMI
1993 “Zulu War Chant” Profile Records
“What’s the Name of this Nation?…Zulu” Profile Records
“Feeling Irie” DFC
1994 “Pupunanny” DFC “Feel the Vibe” (with Khayan)
1998 “Agharta – The City of Shamballa” (with WestBam) Low Spirit Recordings