Planet Rock: The Album
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force
(Tommy Boy/ Warner Bros)
The US has seen its share of block parties, starting early in the 20th century when live or recorded jazz would blast from one home to another and out on the street, giving rise to these spontaneous neighbourhood celebrations.
Block parties continued, blasting rock and pop through the decades. But when hip hop was born in 1970s New York, block parties became more interactive - especially when DJ techniques were developed allowing performers to seamlessly cross between two turntables, while keeping to the beat and throwing in scratching effects and spoken lyrics.
In 1976, block party organiser and DJ Afrika Bambaataa performed on his home turf at the Bronx River Centre in what has gone down as hip hop's first public DJ battle. After that, small-scale battles became common at block parties. And when DJs wanted to play the most current urban tunes, it was Bambaataa's electronic dance tracks from the early 1980s that got the most attention.
Slow jam Jazzy Sensation was his first wide-reaching official single release in 1981, but the seminal Planet Rock, which followed in the same year, blew away those attending dance parties far away from the Big Apple and outside the US. Against a backdrop of drum machine beats and synthesiser harmonies inspired by German futurist techno-pop, Bambaataa dropped in TV and radio snippets, looped group vocal excerpts and recorded his own rap vocals and those of others from his Universal Zulu Nation crew. For a more space-age feel, some vocals were run through a vocoder.
The Planet Rock single became, and remains, a landmark recording, having been sampled to death by later musical outfits and for commercial use. The album of the same name, released five years later, features an extended mix of the track plus a handful of other pioneering old-school hip hop tracks that, in turn, influenced European electronic outfits as well as furthered the development of hip hop and dance music in general.
Bambaataa, a former gang leader whose mother and uncle were black liberation activists, tried to use hip hop music and culture as a force for positive change. He took his name after a trip to South Africa: Bhambatha was a Zulu chief who stood up to colonial repression. Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation music and dance collective was so-named afterwards.
In 1982, he took the entourage on international tours; they were a big hit in Europe. It's unsurprising that continent was receptive - they had heard the sound before. While Bambaataa freely admitted being inspired by Kraftwerk, the German electronica pioneers weren't happy that he had borrowed the melody from their track Trans Europe Express and the percussion from Numbers as key elements in the Planet Rock single.
Kraftwerk sued, and Bambaataa apparently settled out of court.
Looking for the Perfect Beat, the hardest and tightest electro track on the album, also formed the basis of British dance collective Bomb the Bass' smash single Beat Dis in 1987.