The story of Afrika Bambaataa's evolution from gang leader to global cultural icon is the stuff of legend. In 1973, the former leader of the Bronx's biggest gang, the Black Spades, used his influence and leadership skills to empower young gang members to pursue creative endeavors by founding the community activist organization the Universal Zulu Nation. As the pied piper of hip-hop, he was instrumental in spreading the message of rap as a socio-political weapon as opposed to being just about bling and making money. His seminal hit "Planet Rock," created a new, revolutionary, genre-spanning sound; one that combined hip-hop, electronic, rock and funk in unexpected ways.
We met almost 30 years ago on a European rap tour organized under the auspices of the French magazine Actuel and Europe One Radio. Along with Bam, there was DJ Grandmixer D.ST, Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew and a team of Double Dutch girls along with graffiti artists Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Dondi, Rammellzee and Phase 2. A chapter of the Zulu Nation founded on that trip remains active in Paris and many other parts of the world thanks to Bambaataa's efforts. As the journalist on the tour, I'd sit with Bambaataa on the long drives between cities like Metz and Strasbourg and listen to him philosophize, via a mashup of ideas that included Black Muslim nationalism, extraterrestrials and George Clinton's Funkadelics. When the bus stopped, he'd head out to find a record store and start flipping through the bins, ready to explore new worlds at the drop of the needle on the vinyl.
Today his mission and message continue to resonate as a DJ, teacher and activist. He's planning a hip-hop museum in the Bronx and continues to raise funds for the Universal Zulu Nation Dome Cultural Center, where he hopes to continue his work as a community activist and educator, helping to meet the needs of at-risk youth and their families. And most of all, he continues to be Bam, probably the most laid-back, peace-loving ex-gang leader you're ever going to meet -- if you're lucky enough to make his acquaintance. As I was.
David Hershkovits: What was it like when you first came downtown in the early '80s to perform at the Mudd Club and Danceteria, this very different world?
Afrika Bambaataa: It was really interesting to be among the punk rock/new wave sound, and to start getting a lot of that audience following me and my music and coming to some of my events in the Bronx. It definitely was a "family affair," like Sly and the Family Stone say.
DH: For you there's always been a link between hip-hop and punk rock.
AB: They're both radical genres.
DH: What was the general reaction when you first started talking about your "Zulu Nation" identity?
AB: Well, you had some people who thought I was crazy. Especially when I explained
the Zulu Nation name, saying that we were the people of the universe -- kids really thought I was crazy. When I was talking about extraterrestrials and other planets back then people would look at me like, "What's wrong with this cat?" But now, all these people tell me, "You hit it on the nose 20, 30 years ago! We can't believe all the stuff you said back then is happening in space now!"
DH: What influenced you to put that kind of vision together?
AB: First, it came from the teachings of the Most Honorable Elijah Mohammed of the Nation of Islam, as well as George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone. And then I heard the works of Dr. Malachai York. It was also going around and meeting people, taking trips and talking to people all around the planet.
DH: We traveled together to France and England on a bus tour. Does that stand out as a magic moment for you, as it was for me?
AB: Yes, going to France and bringing a whole movement and culture there that's still very powerful to this day -- very exciting. And for everybody to go there with a family attitude, without being like, "I'm better than you," and leaving the evil at home. That's a compliment to the supreme force itself.
DH: On that trip, you introduced Europe to hip-hop. And look what happened. Looking back, is this something that surprises you?
AB: No. I knew the work that we had to do. I knew we had to keep coming back, to go from town to town, city to city, from café to café. A lot of other people could come in and play the major cities thanks to all the work we did. We were doing it for the love, unlike artists today.
DH: And you know how it is with the originators sometimes. The founders don't get the recognition and the people who come later reap the rewards of the people that planted the seeds.
AB: It's people being too much under mind control, and not looking back at history. And you have something called the Internet, which shows so much history, but it also shows a lot of history mixed with falsehood, and you have to dig through before you get the facts; what is truth and what is not.
DH: To that end, I heard that you're working on establishing a hip-hop museum. Is that true?
AB: We're still fighting to make it happen. And I hope that I get to see it made in my lifetime. We're fighting for the spot [the Kingsbridge Armory] in the Bronx that's been sitting there for 20-something years since Tina Turner played there way back in time.
DH: What would you like to see at the International Hip-Hop Museum?
AB: Archives, artwork, clothes, turntables, mics... It would be history, what even predated hip-hop; soul, country-western, rock, and all that. We need our own thing in the Bronx where it all started, that the world can come to.
DH: I'm assuming you're an Obama supporter.
AB: I'm nobody's supporter. I'm the people's supporter. We have got to stop looking at one person and think they're going do what we all need to get up and do ourselves. So many things are getting corrupted; people are getting under mind control and they're forgetting to think. That's why I tell them to go back and watch movies like Idiocracy, which is about a dumbed-down America, and go back and watch all the Matrix movies -- 15 times
over, all three of them.
DH: The Zulu Nation is still a very active organization doing community work.
AB: That's why we're trying to get people to donate to the Universal Zulu Nation Dome Cultural Center of the Universe. Domes are gonna be the homes of the future and the buildings of the future. You should look at what dome homes and dome centers look like online. It would blow your mind. Like if you were looking at another planet that's what you would see.
DH: How do you protect yourself from the "mind control" games that are going on?
AB: I forget exactly where I was -- it might have been Europe -- something came to me in my dreams that said, "Start warning people about putting love back in the atmosphere." It also warned that if you don't put love back in the atmosphere, respect Mother Earth and the universe, that they will know who the lord of all the world is through the wrath of Mother Nature. I've been saying that for a couple years, telling people certain things -- that the water's gonna be coming up and tsunamis and all types of stuff are gonna be happening if we keep disrespecting our planet and disrespecting each other as humans. And sure enough, a lot of stuff's been happening.