Afrika Bambaataa: the godfather of rap

Infusion We Are 9 headliner Afrika Bambaataa tells Saeed Saeed his performances are a musical journey.

Afrika Bambaataa. Courtesy Atlantis The Palm
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Rarely a year goes by without Afrika Bambaataa being honoured for his pioneering hip-hop career or namechecked by leading producers as a major influence.

But even the soft-spoken Brooklyn DJ was taken aback last year when New York’s Cornell University offered him the position of visiting professor.

The three-year tenure, the first offered to a hip-hop artist, has Bambaataa visiting the Ivy League School several times a year to discuss hip-hop culture and its impact on society.

“It is a beautiful thing,” he says of his experience thus far. “I always enjoyed meeting and learning from people and their cultures and generally about life. Doing this with Cornell is part of that.”

Bambaataa’s scholarly musical knowledge is not only limited to lecture halls; the 56-year-old is still a road hound with a steady stream of performances yearly, from dance festivals to club sets.

On Friday, he returns to the UAE to headline the Infusion We Are 9 concert at Atlantis, The Palm, alongside fellow hip-hop heavyweights Cypress Hill, Stereo MCs and The Cuban Brothers.

Known for his eclectic sets, Bambaataa says he has no real plan before each gig.

“All I know is I don’t want any wallflowers in my sets,” he says. “I like to play music to keep people moving all the time. I will be playing lots of different styles and there could be some surprises.”

Born Kevin Donovan in Brooklyn, Bambaataa’s entry into music began as a 10-year-old where he spun his mother’s funk and soul records at local parties.

His energetic rhyming commentary over the beats was one of the first demonstrations of a craft that went on to become known as rapping.

His youth found him drifting in unsavoury circles; it was as a teenager that Bambaataa rose to a leadership position in the New York gang The Black Spades.

It was a trip to Africa, as a high-school student, that led him away from street life and to focus instead on self-empowerment through art.

While Bambaataa’s first music experiences were with soul and funk records, it was electronic music that first inspired him as an artist.

His influential 1982 single Planet Rock, a collaboration with the hip-hop crew Soulsonic Force, found Bambaataa adding funk basslines to a sample of German electronic group Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express.

“It is still one of the most sampled hip-hop records of all time and there is a new remix of it coming out every year,” he says.

“For me, that is amazing in itself and I am happy that people are still playing with it and putting their own thing from different categories of music.”

This description perhaps sums up Bambaataa’s DJing style. His performances are not about enjoying the latest hits; beats are strongly manipulated and songs are used as canvases to add elements from other genres.

His shows can find Bambaataa mixing Kool & the Gang’s Jungle Boogie with Não Vou Ficar by the Brazilian crooner Tim Mala, or presenting AC/DC’s rock classic You Shook Me All Night Long in chilly acid bass mode.

It’s all in the spirit of keeping the crowd engaged, Bambaataa says.

“I am always thinking about the dance floor and how to lift the people up to a new vibration,” he says. “So I may play some hip-hop and then jump to house and then to electro-funk and then reggae. I like to go all over the world and it is a musical journey.”

Afrika Bambaataa is performing at the Infusion We Are 9 concert with Cypress Hill, Stereo MCs and The Cuban Brothers. Atlantis Beach, Atlantis the Palm, Dubai. Friday from 4pm to 2am. Tickets begin from Dh250 from