Aug 15, 2014

DJ Afrika Bambaataa - Under Pressure (August 2014)

The Commodores told us Three Times a Lady many years ago. This blogger got exposed to Afrika Bambaataa on numerous recent occasions leading him to write this post.

I came across a write-up about Afrika Bambaataa which talks about how he got inspired after seeing Michael Caine's 1964 film Zulu.

I remember Wilt Chamberlain's character in Conan The Destroyer was named Bombaata.

While doing some cleaning and organizing of music & magazines, I popped in the last volume of James Brown's Star Time anthology. 

Coincidence or not, the last song on the CD is the James Brown/Bambaataa duet Unity.

Afrika Bambaataa & James Brown ◘ Unity by Audiomicid

Another piece of the puzzle was my later popping in the first volume of The Perfect Beats, one of the best compilations I know.

The first song on that disc and of the 3-volume collection is the iconic Planet Rock. I didn't really learn the magnitude of Planet Rock until many years after its 1982 release.

When I first saw video footage of Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force, the first thing that came to my mind was George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic. I had little exposure to the 1970s funk legends at that time but I imagined the costumes and pageantry of Planet Rock was inspired by Clinton's Parliament.

Like Herbie Hancock's Rockit and most synthesized music of the 1980s, Planet Rock was among the most futuristic music my young ears had ever heard and forms the foundation for what I like in electro/RPM music today.

On a 1998 trip to New York for Rock Steady Reunion with my crew, we met Afrika Bambaataa at a Bronx park jam. I was the first to spot him and went to shake the hand of the man and thanked him for his contributions to hip hop.

One Saturday 2013 summer afternoon, I was sitting in my comfy chair listening to music.  I reached for my phone and browsed Facebook to see what was what.  To my great surprise was a post in one of my crate digger/record collector groups about Afrika Bambaataa’s record collection.

Something I read in the Ego Trip Book of Rap Lists has stuck with me since the first time I read the book in the late 1990s.  Aside from recording classics like Planet RockAfrika Bambaataa’s record collection from his time as DJ is considered to be one of the most important, if not the most important, of hip hop history.  So much so that claims of his possessing ultra-rare records were called into question.  As interesting and intriguing as that was for me to learn that about his record collection, I had no means of investigating the matter. 

Fast-forward to summer 2013 and I see that post about Afrika Bambaataa’s records being on display on exhibit until early August. 

My mind raced at the possibility of going to New York to view the Archive.  I looked at my itinerary for the days leading up to the August 10 finale and realized it was feasible if I cancelled my Suite Delight radio show for that week.  Anyone that knows enough about me knows I don’t miss my radio show.  Considering the time constraints presented me with regards to witnessing the Archive, it didn’t take me too long to come to grips with the magnitude of my decision. 

The bus ticket along with snacks and other incidentals were bought and brought with me.  I arrived in The Big Apple early enough in the morning to visit some familiar crate digging haunts until the Gavin Brown Enterprise opened for the day.  I got slightly carried away with the record stores and reminded myself what I came to New York for in the first place and proceeded to find the exhibit.

I knew which subway stop to get out of but I made the mistake of not securing the directions to get to the Gavin Brown Enterprise.  A merchant assured me I was heading in the right direction to get there. 

A man that happened to have been by the door as I entered the Gavin Brown Enterprise told me where in the space the Afrika Bambaataa Archive was being held.  I asked him how he knew I was there for that and he pointed at the records peaking out of the bag in my hand.  We laughed. 

I immediately recognized the space designated for the Afrika Bambaataa Archive from the photos that were available online.  There were white cardboard boxes with letters all over the place.  I understood that each box contained hundreds of records and that I would not be able to photograph/film as much as I had hoped.  I lost an hour or so from the digging earlier and had to deduct the time to get back to Port Authority

I stood at the entrance of the Archive and devised a strategy to maximize the most of the moment.  I thought to first take photos of the space on a whole.  The boxes against the back wall were intimidating because I wouldn’t have been able to browse them all to my satisfaction.  I chose one or two to film/photograph.  The lighting was also not that bright in the area and instinctively I decided to move more to the center of the room. 

Within 30 minutes of being there, I had started to film and photograph in the area of the curators.  I realized I could’ve been an inconvenience to them but my rationale was that I was going to try not to be in their way for too long as to really impede their work.  After having done my equivalent of going into the mosh pit of curators at work, I made do with the outer edges of their work space for the rest of my time at the Enterprise

The photos and videos naturally centralized to where the curators were working.  The lighting was conveniently brighter in the middle of the room. There was a large window adding additional light and the human element of people actively archiving were too ideal for me to ignore.

The curator I came closest into contact with first appeared to have been dealing with Afrika Bambaataa’s records with artists starting with the letter E as documented by the photos.  I saw multiple records and 12” singles by EPMD, The Equals and Edwin Birdsong to name a few.

Another curator was working on the letter K.  As I turned my head, A few Kool Moe Dee 12” singles on his table were being boxed.

I brought 3 cameras with me to film/photograph as much of my time at Gavin Brown's Enterprise as possible that day.  I charged the batteries for all three prior to my arrival in New York.  Within a few hours, each of the camera batteries died significantly.  Little did I know that occurrence was foreshadowing for my own eventual departure from the Archive

The soundtrack for the hours there was naturally provided by the Afrika Bambaataa record collection.  The station with two turntables was indeed open to the public as well.  I didn’t expect to even touch the turntables but some things are indeed a given.  When the Gary Numan album finished it was time for something else to fill the air.  I asked to put something on and a copy of Jimmy Castor Bunch’s It’s Just Begun was nearby.  I love the song and have it multiple times in my own collection.  The album cover was the most beaten up I’d seen of any vinyl but that didn’t matter.  What mattered was I held in my hands a copy of the album used by Afrika Bambaataa to rock hip hop’s earliest parties and jams.  The fact that the cover was so beaten up screams of stories of how much it was packed and played back in the days.  I was not at those early hip hop jams, as much as I wish or imagine them, but being in the room with that record was as close to a time capsule as I had ever encountered.

Admittedly, the time at the Afrika Bambaataa Archive became a little overwhelming for me.  With the exception of record conventions, including WFMU Record Fair where I was working against the clock, I had never been in the presence of so many records for so long without the opportunity to buy one.  Indeed, I turned towards bringing home a few more to add to my own collection before my time in New York was over.  I returned to the same spots I was at earlier in the morning, bought a choice handful of  records and made my way to Port Authority to return home.

The photo of the George Duke 12"single above was taken on August 6, 2013.  I arrived in New York to have heard Duke died the night prior.  

More video footage taken during the Afrika Bambaataa Master of Records Open Archive can be seen at the DJ Solespin Youtube channel.

For additional photos from the Archive, visit the Ego Trip & Complex websites. 

A thank you goes to the Village Voice, Gavin Brown EnterpriseAfrika Bambaataa and especially DJ Furious for being among the elements responsible for making this post, and my impromptu trip out of Montreal for the summer possible. 

Check out his Crate Diggers documentary to see where and how the records ended up at Cornell University.


Brad said...

Great post Solespin!

DJ Solespin said...

Glad to know you're alive and well :)