Hip-Hop 50: Afrika Bambaataa The “Master of Records” And A Pillar Of An Entire Culture

Afrika Bambaataa

This article explores Afrika Bambaataa’s upbringing in the Bronx, his role in the establishment of the Zulu Nation and his impact on Hip-Hop. However, it is equally important to address the sexual abuse scandal that has overshadowed his legacy.

Afrika Bambaataa is a name that resonates with the very essence of hip-hop. As a pioneering figure in the genre, Bambaataa’s contributions have left an indelible mark on the music industry.

From his early days in the Bronx to his groundbreaking records and establishment of the Zulu Nation, Bambaataa’s influence extends far beyond his own career. However, it is also important to address the controversy surrounding him and the sexual abuse scandal that has tainted his legacy.

This in-depth biography will explore Afrika Bambaataa’s journey as a founding father of hip-hop, his milestones, and the complexities surrounding his life and career.

Growing Up in the Bronx, the 1960s

On April 17, 1957, a young boy with roots in Jamaica and Barbados was born in the South Bronx, New York City. While there are conflicting accounts regarding his birth name, he is commonly known as Kevin Donovan or Lance Taylor. As a kid, he loved hunting rabbits with his friends along the Bronx River and displayed a keen interest in organizing parties, drawing inspiration from the lively block parties that were a staple of Bronx culture.

Parties in the 60s were in the community center, and the 11-year-old boy would bring his house system. He thrived with his mother’s collection of about 200 records, which he eventually added to and expanded upon. The young boy loved the likes of Motown, the Stax, the Sly, and the James Brown sound, and at the parties, people brought flashlights and chose the records they wanted to play.

Apart from music, he was also heavily into gangs. His mother and uncle were activists, so he was constantly exposed to the Black liberation movement. When gangs started taking over the Bronx, clearing the turf of drug dealers, and helping with community health programs by fighting and partying, he saw a purpose in it. He began participating in gang activity and eventually took over the Black Spades as their leader.

As a warlord, he was never afraid to cross boundaries. Under his leadership, the Black Spades became the city’s biggest gang, with an impressive reputation already marking his youth.

From Lance Taylor, Kevin Donovan, to Afrika Bambaataa, 1970s

In 1973, Lance Taylor (or Kevin Donovan) started getting more serious with his parties. They moved to larger centers and schools, gathering hundreds of people each time. Along with the now legendary Kool DJ D and Kool Herc, he played everything from soul to funk, oldies-but-goodies, rock, and disco. Parties were one of the many ways to keep the gangs alive. But in 1974, his life took a transformative turn.

Lance or Kevin, whichever his real name was, joined a UNICEF essay-writing contest and was set to fly to India. Unfortunately, on the day he was supposed to meet the decision staff, he went to give out flyers for another party. He missed the trip and spent another year partying and living gang life.

In 1975, he joined the same essay-writing contest and finally won a trip to Africa. There, he was exposed to a rich tapestry of African culture, including music and traditions that would profoundly impact his artistic vision. In an interview in October 1998, he shared:

“That was a big inspiration, seeing black people controlling their own destiny, seeing them get up and go to their own work. Seeing their own farmers and agricultures, it was very interesting, when you were seeing all the negativity that you were seeing as a young cat in America, and all the stuff just coming out of the ’60s with the civil rights and human rights, so it was very inspirational seeing this.”

Upon his return to the Bronx, he adopted the name Afrika Bambaataa Aasim, paying homage to his newfound connections. It came from the name of a Zulu chief, Bhambatha, who led a rebellion in the early 20th century against unfair economic practices in South Africa.

During this period, Bambaataa became an even more influential figure in the emerging hip-hop scene, using his platform to promote peace, unity, and social consciousness. He leveraged the power of music to unite the diverse communities of the Bronx.

The Zulu Nation

Back in the Bronx, it was Kool D who first got a “coffin” or a component set. It had turntables, a mixer, and all the other necessary pieces for a DJ set-up. At the same time, Kool Herc came out with the funky breaks, and Afrika Bambaataa still had his unmatched record collection. What made things different from before was his vision for the scene.

The gang life used to have a saying, “This is not a gang. We are family. Do not start trouble, let trouble come to you, and then fight like hell.” However, when the street gang era eventually started to fade out, Afrika Bambaataa wanted to have an organization that would bring all the DJs and dancers together in one place to celebrate their art forms. This vision gave birth to the Zulu Nation.

Afrika Bambaataa’s vision thrived with the feeling of being sent to do a job. He always felt his purpose was bigger than himself, and he started learning from Honorable Elijah Mohammad, Minister Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Black Panthers, and other leaders. He didn’t stop checking out other scenes and connecting with people from all walks of life, incorporating all these elements into his vision. He also gave himself the title “Master of Records,” knowing nobody could outdo his record collection.

The Zulu Nation started with the black and Latino communities, reaching various communities. It began as a B-boy crew, having Zulu Kings and Queens and Shaka Kings and Queens. From 1974 to 1977, the Zulu Nation won contests and break dance shows everywhere they went. From heavy gang influence to a positive and productive culture, the Zulu Nation was instrumental in uniting people.

Eventually, hip-hop had its holy trinity: Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa. Kool Herc had the breaks, Grandmaster Flash had the technique, and Afrika Bambaataa had the music.

The Five Elements of the Newly Coined Hip-Hop Movement

In 1977, Afrika Bambaataa moved to throwing block parties, preaching the four elements of the hip-hop movement: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti-writing. Hip-hop started to become more than just music but a cultural movement.

Rapping, or the vocal stylings of MCs, was at the forefront. DJs began to mix records together and battle each other for control of the musical environment. Breakdancing was a physical expression of the music, and graffiti-writing provided an art form to showcase the messages of hip-hop.

The four pillars of hip-hop eventually developed into other subcultures, and Afrika Bambaataa added the fifth element to the mix: knowledge. Knowledge of self was vital to becoming conscious people, and this is where much of hip-hop’s roots come from. These elements formed the foundation of hip-hop culture and served as a framework for its growth and evolution. Bambaataa’s holistic approach ensured that hip-hop encompassed not only music but also visual arts, dance, and intellectual exploration.

After five years of spreading the gospel of hip-hop, Afrika Bambaataa and other pioneers took hip-hop to Manhattan. Hip-hop mixed with proto-punk and post-jazz music, creating a hybrid sound embraced by all races and backgrounds.

Hip-hop became a cultural revolution that took over the world. It reached and shaped music styles, art, fashion, dance, technology, and entertainment. It even got into politics, education, and media! From there, hip-hop quickly spread to new markets far beyond the Bronx.

Recognition In the 1980s: The Revolutionary “Planet Rock”

It was in the 1980s that Afrika Bambaataa achieved significant recognition for his innovative work. The release of the groundbreaking track “Planet Rock” in 1982 catapulted him to the forefront of the music industry. Produced in collaboration with the Soulsonic Force, “Planet Rock” combined elements of electronic music with hip-hop, creating a sound that was ahead of its time. The song became an instant hit and laid the foundation for the electro and techno genres, which would go on to shape the future of dance music.

In 1983, Afrika Bambaataa released “Looking for the Perfect Beat” and “Renegades of Funk.” In 1984, he released “World Destruction” and later appeared with other hip-hop celebrities in the movie Beat Street. The same year, he recorded what the music industry billed as “The Godfather of Soul meets the Godfather of Hip Hop” with James Brown, “Unity.”

Afrika Bambaataa worked on the anti-apartheid album with other music stars in 1985. Three years later, he recorded “Afrika Bambaataa and Family” and many other works. One collaboration after another, a hit after another, Afrika Bambaataa’s influence during this period extended beyond his own music. And in 1990, he made it in Life magazine’s “Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” issue.

Since then, Afrika Bambaataa has been credited for contributing to the development of the hip-hop genre. He was also said to have made a habit of trotting the globe, fighting for indigenous people’s rights, and mediating conflicts in different places. His countless collaborations with other musicians, groundbreaking albums, and indomitable spirit are proof of the legacy he has left in the music industry.

Looking Back

After decades of pioneering and influencing music, Afrika Bambaataa expressed that early hip-hop remained the best for him. In the 1998 interview, he described it as follows:

“It was some parts dangerous, but it was more fun and it was more lovin’ and it was just for the music, and people comin’ together really to party. Where it’s more now just gangsters that want to kill each other and all that type of mess. But I know things go in cycles, so you have different feels of time where people have different feelings in the music of hip-hop. But they definitely were the best, the ’70s and early ’80s. Especially through the electrofunk era. I think the electrofunk style of hip-hop brought more people round the world together than all the other styles put together.”

Afrika Bambaataa was most proud of bringing people together. It’s beyond doubt that hip-hop settled differences in a way no other genre could. He was like a musical preacher, bringing the message of music and turning people into thinkers. Afrika Bambaataa believed in the importance of getting on with the truth. He wanted the right knowledge, wisdom, overstanding, and sound reason. He added:

“The power does come from being a DJ, but it really comes from the creative force, which is the source. We allow people to take credit all they want, but it definitely is a force that’s out there which is the source of all. We don’t care what name you call it: Allah-Jehovah-Yahweh-Elaheem-Jah-Rah-Anu-God, but we know there’s definitely a force and it’s dumb or blind for people to think that we as humans are the only beings in this whole universe, on the planet Earth.”

DJ-ing became spiritual to Afrika Bambaataa. It was something that hit him, pushing him to play everything fresh and new. He wasn’t the “Master of Records” for nothing. His skills kept people dancing and inspired them to experience new sounds. He was definitely a leader in the scene.

Hip Hop’s Best (Worst)-Kept Secret

While Afrika Bambaataa’s contributions to hip-hop are undeniable, it’s crucial to acknowledge the complexities of his life and career. It was in April 2016 when Ronald “Bee-Stringer” Savage, a Bronx political activist, accused the hip-hop pioneer of having molested him in the 1980s when he was only 15 years old. He graphically described how Afrika Bambaataa allegedly molested him, and this sexual abuse scandal cast a shadow over the latter’s legacy.

Three more men accused Afrika Bambaataa of sexual abuse, but he denied all allegations through a statement to Rolling Stone. In May 2016, the Universal Zulu Nation, of which Afrika Bambaataa was the founder, underwent an organization restructuring and removed all associations with accused parties of child molestation. Afrika Bambaataa eventually let go of his position as head of the Zulu Nation and the organization issued a statement expressing apologies and regret over the incident.

Five months after Afrika Bambaataa left his position, Vice published “Afrika Bambaataa Allegedly Molested Young Men For Decades.” The investigative article featured stories of the alleged victims and witnesses, with Savage saying:

“He was a father figure to me… I looked up to him as someone doing something positive. I looked at him as a role model, because the role model I looked up to in my house was an alcoholic. I used to see my father always arguing and fighting with my mother, and I didn’t see that in Bam. So that’s how I had the attachment to him.”

He added that that attachment brought him “too close” to Afrika Bambaataa. The article also said the alleged abuse had been common knowledge in the Bronx.

“They tell of a decades-long cover-up by the Zulu Nation and a hidden network of victims whose lives were allegedly haunted by death threats, suicides, drug abuse, and violence.”

In March 2021, American rapper Melle Mel also spoke about how everyone knew about the allegations surrounding Afrika Bambaataa. It was “hip-hop’s best-kept secret.” Still, Afrika Bambaataa hasn’t been charged with any crimes. Though in the same year, in October, an anonymous man sued him for allegedly engaging in repeated sexual abuse when he was a minor and sex-trafficking him to other adult men.

These allegations absolutely shook the hip-hop community and led to reevaluating an icon’s position as a respected figure in the industry. The controversy surrounding Afrika Bambaataa has raised important questions about accountability and the need to address abuses of power within the music industry. Now, it serves as a reminder that even those who have made significant contributions to their art can be flawed individuals, and their actions must be examined critically.

A Hip-Hop Legend’s Request

In his later years, before the allegations became public, Bambaataa expressed his appreciation for the progress made within hip-hop, citing artists such as Akon and Lil Wayne as examples of the genre’s evolution. In a 2009 interview, he said he holds no resentment toward artists who have taken the genre in new directions, earning millions off the culture he helped build.

Decades after the birth of hip-hop, it has certainly come a long way, touching the lives of millions around the world. His only request was for the younger generation to respect the wisdom and contributions of the elders who paved the way for their success.

A Multifaceted Legacy

Despite the controversy, Afrika Bambaataa’s impact on hip-hop culture remains indisputable. His innovative approach to music, community building, and cultural preservation laid the foundation for generations of artists to come. Bambaataa remains a complex figure, both celebrated and scrutinized, but his legacy inspires and influences the hip-hop community.

Afrika Bambaataa’s journey from the Bronx to becoming a founding father of hip-hop is a testament to the transformative power of music. While groundbreaking records marked his career, the sexual abuse scandal surrounding him serves as a reminder of the complexities within the music industry. Afrika Bambaataa’s legacy is a multifaceted one, demanding a nuanced understanding of his contributions and the impact of his actions.