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Afrika Bambaata - Planet Rock / Beware: The Funk Is Everywhere

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Artist: Afrika Bambaata

Album: Planet Rock / Beware: The Funk Is Everywhere

Label: DBK Works

Review date: Jan. 16, 2006

The interplanetary craft. Sun Ra and George Clinton were both obvious fans, and while neither of these two treaded similar aesthetic territory, both took the dominant musical idioms of their times and wedded them to surreal sci-fi imagery – an attempt to break not only musical conventions but also transcend the deep despair of crumbling inner city life. But years after Ra explored the spaceways and Clinton found his mothership connection, Afrika Bambaataa picked up on the same thread and took it in a wholly new direction. Sure, his terse beats and delirious synthesizers have little in common with his ideological forbearers, but his work in the rap game found the boundaries that existed in that nascent scene and blew them to smithereens. Imitators? Yeah, there were tons. But make no mistake – there was only one Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, a hip-hop godfather, electro pioneer, and true funk acolyte all rolled into one.

In the mid-70s, Bambaataa gave up gang warfare for DJing, taking his stage name from an old Zulu chief. After rocking parties and breakdancing competitions across the Bronx, he turned towards production with Soul Sonic Force's "Zulu Nation Throwdown," a track that drew together the famous crew of the same name. However, it wasn't until the 1980s that Bambaataa became a solo artist, signing to Tommy Boy and releasing "Jazzy Sensation" in 1982. A hot platter for sure, but it was nothing compared to the sheer sonic boom that erupted when "Planet Rock" hit dancefloors later that same year. On that 12” he took the melody from Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express," unleashed some wicked drum machines, and watched as the track sent reverberations across clubs nationwide, proving that four stiff Germans and one tough DJ from the Bronx could make excellent, if somewhat strange, bedfellows.

Planet Rock - The Album collects the single and his other classic sides from that period – most importantly the furious "Looking for the Perfect Beat." The cuts with Melle Mel and Trouble Funk also included on the full-length are nice too, but the importance of the two singles cannot even be remotely understated -- this was the blueprint for electro, Detroit Techno and Miami Bass. In addition, it provided sounds hip-hoppers and dance/electronic producers have been toying with for decades. And more than that, these tracks still slam crowds of people time and time again. There was maybe a brief stretch during the height of G-Funk and/or Bad Boy's airwave dominance where the precision frigidity of Bam's beats sounded a wee bit dated. Now, though, after suffering through a couple years worth of piss-poor electroclash imitators just dying for a taste of that same zeitgeist, this stuff sounds relentlessly funky and even a little bit dangerous. Bambaataa was successfully mapping uncharted territory and it clearly shows every step of the way.

After the smash success of “Planet Rock,” Bambaataa started branching out from his trademark sound. He cut "Unity" with James Brown, and then explored rap-rock (years before it became tired, insipid, and pointless) with a little help from John Lydon on "World Destruction." This rock jonesing carries over a bit onto his second full-length Beware: The Funk Is Everywhere, with six-string stabs punctuating "Rock America" and a decent cover of MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" (produced by Bill Laswell) dominating the album's first half. Side two gets back to basics with "What Time Is It," a posse cut featuring Melle Mel and Soul Sonic Force, whereas "Funk Jam Party" gives a little nod to the DC go-go sound he tapped earlier with Trouble Funk. "Bionic Cats" adds some laughs too, answering George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" from the feline perspective, complete with meows and everything. Beware isn't up on the same classic level that Planet Rock is, but these tracks have more than enough funk moves to keep anybody's ass shaking well into the early morning.

Bambaataa didn't stop there, but if he had his place in history would have been secure. With the exception of The Light from 1988, nothing else he's done has really matched up to the raw power of his initial singles and albums. But so what? Afrika Bambaataa has done his part for this great musical nation, and in all honesty deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as folks like Sun Ra and George Clinton for his endlessly palatable contributions and his groundbreaking, genre-defying scope. It's a very good thing that these first two records are now back in print, as they should always be on hand to show a younger generation just how the game is played.

By Michael Crumsho

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