Afrika Bambaataa





ALONG WITH the equally outstanding 'The Message', 'Planet Rock' sprang hip hop into being something of more force and substance than was made evident by the tint of fadishness which ran through the second rate rap discs issued on the heels of 'Rapper's Delight'.

'Planet Rock' stemmed from the combined efforts of Arthur Baker, who produced it, Afrika Bambaataa, the artist, and Tom Silverman, who released the thing on his then fledgling Tommy Boy label.

In the late 70s Tom had been an obsessive disco fan and was publishing an industry tip sheet called Disco News. When disco became a dirty word the rag was revamped under the new banner of Dance Music Report. Publishing was handled out of Tom's apartment and while it made him few dollars, he did gain a knowledge of the glorious music biz.

Tom ducked out of his environmental geology finals at college to set up Tommy Boy, the first release being 'Havin' Fun' by Cotton Candy. For this Silverman hocked all his possessions and borrowed about 10,000 dollars. Ungratefully the record sank without trace. But, again, it was part of a learning process.

Next came the Jazzy Five's 'Jazzy Sensation' which flogged a respectable 30,000.

Tom: "That to me was like a major hit. It paid off the debts but then I had two more stiffs."

Tom Silverman is a bubbly talker who, like a lot of New Yorkers, would be interesting to gauge in words per minute. He's proud of his brainchild and the rumble it caused in the industry at large. Smallness and efficiency seem to be key factors. Even now, when the label is internationally recognised, it has only recently moved to an office of appropriate proportions. Including Tom, there are three people on the staff.

The crucial point was meeting with Bambaataa:

"I was looking into the reasons for my early attempts at rap records failing. When I met Bambaataa and the people from the uptown scene, I discovered that rapping isn't about rhyming words, it's about a spirit. A feeling.

"After that meeting things were immediately comfortable and immediately real. It seemed that a whole lot else in the music business was fake. Graven images and no reality.

"Rock in America is the figment of some mistaken imagination. Heavy metal and all that, it doesn't exist around any social group. You go uptown and you feel the music. You can't really go anywhere and find people bopping around to Molly Hatchett. That's music to pop zits to. This is a sociological statement and a need that's in the blood of the people who are into it."

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA sits in a Tommy Boy backroom, one that is still under construction. The rattle of hammers and drills fills the air. Bambaataa can reel off a potted history of the hip hop movement seemingly without pausing for breath, a stream of conversation dutifully punctuated with relevant dates and places. An ability no doubt practised to deal with the legions of NY youth scene chroniclers from around the world who've passed his way and pumped him for answers over the last year or so.

He recalls the scene in the Bronx and his first connection with Tom:

"Tom had been writing about me in the magazine and talked about the Zulu Nation. The Zulu Nation is a large young adult and youth organisation which is basically dealing with survival and the world today. We have rappers and graffiti artists, break dancers, people who road manage other groups. Just people who want to be around the music and go to different parties.

"In the 70s most radio was disco orientated and hip hop was anti-disco. It had no colour, it wasn't black or white but took from a lot of things. Bits of rock and jazz from everywhere.

"In those days there were no rap records so we made cassettes of parties and they went out all over the country. You might have a cousin in North Carolina and you could mail him a tape of what was happening in the Bronx and he'd mail you back a tape of what was happening down there.

"There were copies made, a cab company even had tapes of hip hop which they would play to passengers young adults who would rather hear that than the radio."

To continue reading this article and to discover many more (over 140,000 words-worth!), purchase Mick Sinclair’s Adjusting the Stars: Music journalism from post-punk London. 


mick sinclair

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