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Thank You, Bam: Afrika Bambaataa created hip-hop out of necessity and love.

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Before you put Eminem or Cam'ron on a pedestal, their achievements pale in comparison to hip-hop's godfather, Afrika Bambaataa

By Todd Inoue

IT DOESN'T take much for hip-hop (or MTV) to award icon status to the latest million-selling artist. All it takes is a catchy hook and the record sales to back it up, and soon you're flossing on an episode of Cribs.

Way before Eminem crossed 8 Mile and long before Cam'ron spotted his first "Ma," there was a man who nurtured hip-hop out of necessity and love, not dollars and ass. He recognized hip-hop's overall potential--it wasn't just beats and rhymes, it was dancing, B-boying, graffiti art, the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you walk. Hip-hop was a living, breathing culture, and who better to preside over it than a former warlord for the Black Spades street gang from the Bronx River Projects, Afrika Bambaataa?

Dubbed the Godfather of Hip-Hop, the former gang leader brought graffiti artists, breakdancers, MCs and DJs together under the Zulu Nation banner.

His legendary parties in the late'70s/early '80s were showcases for the four elements that made his native Bronx borough ground zero for hip-hop culture. As a DJ, he was an alchemist, the "Master of Records," playing instrumental breaks from bargain-bin throwaways that drove the dancers and MCs crazy.

He introduced such classic breaks as "The Big Beat" by Billy Squier, "Jam on the Groove" by Ralph McDonald, "Dance to the Drummer's Beat" by Herman Kelly and "Champ" by the Mohawks. Sometimes, he'd layer speeches by Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or introduce a drum machine--both pioneering moves.

Bam loved all kinds of music, including soul, funk, jazz, classical, New Wave and, especially, punk rock. White punk-rock kids were some of the first to embrace his DJ sets, and Bam never forgot the support. Sex Pistols Svengali Malcolm McLaren, inspired by what he saw at one of Bam's Zulu Nation parties, embarked on his own journey--the Duck Rock album and one of the first scratch records, "Buffalo Gals."

As Steinski (of Double D and Steinski fame) so excitedly describes in the DJ documentary Scratch, Bam would pass records to DJs and point out where the break was. At one gig, DJ Jazzy Jay grabbed "The Clapping Song" from Bam's mitts, cued it up to the break, threw it in the mix and the audience went crazy.

As a producer, Bam's songs reverberate with a consciousness that was far ahead of its time. His production debut, the 1980 Cosmic Force track "Zulu Nation Throwdown," was a rallying cry for the collective. His key singles, "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat," both collaborations with studio whiz Arthur Baker, meshed Bam's fascination with Kraftwerk and hip-hop. These cuts of newly dubbed "electro funk" proved to be key blueprints for Miami and Atlanta bass, Latin freestyle and all electronic music in the '90s. The singles still have the power to move crowds; "Planet Rock" and "Perfect Beat" endure as the universal calls for breakers to open up a circle.

Bam never doubted hip-hop's potential, especially its ability to crossbreed with other types of music. He gave a shout to his punk rock fans when he collaborated with Johnny Rotten on "World Destruction" (which recently ran over the closing credits on the 2002 season opener of The Sopranos). Bam also worked with his hero, James Brown, on the aptly titled "Unity." Rage Against the Machine understood Bam's master plan--the group rerecorded Bambaataa's "Renegades of Funk" in 2000, which would be its last single as a group.

Bam didn't keep hip-hop to himself or chained to a specific borough. He took it around the world, through the galaxy and to a mystical land of his own making called Planet Rock. He arrives in town to dig through his amazing crate of breaks and remind us who clearly deserves pioneer status, no doubt including even Jam Master Jay. Though he might never make hip-hop's list of millionaires, Afrika Bambaataa has more lucrative cachet: the titles Master of Records, Godfather of Hip-Hop, Goodwill Ambassador to the World.

Afrika Bambaataa performs Sunday, Dec. 1, at 9pm at Spy, 400 S. First St., San Jose (408.298.9375). Tickets are $15 and available through Ticketweb.

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From the November 27-December 4, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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