Diary

For the Record

Left: Artist Elizabeth Peyton and dealer Gavin Brown. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Grand Wizard Theodore. (Photo: Boo_hooray)

LIKE SUN RA, George Clinton, and Lee “Scratch” Perry, hip-hop originator and DJ Afrika Bambaataa is a “brother from another planet” whose retrofuturist aesthetics conflate Garveyite motherland-yearning and outer-space science fiction. Despite his background as a prominent member of the Warriors-era Bronx gang the Black Spades, his 1980s stage outfits were “ancient alien” avant la lettre—Ming the Merciless robes and custom Viking helmets accessorized with wraparound New Wave shades and Egyptian ankhs. He was the most musically polyglot of the holy trinity of Bronx block-party DJs (Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Bambaataa), mixing in unlikely breaks and snippets from the Monkees, the Archies, Aerosmith, and Kraftwerk (Run-DMC’s “Mary, Mary” and “Walk This Way” directly honored Bam’s eclecticism). The pioneering German electronic quartet—“bad-ass, funky white boys,” according to Bam—were a pivotal influence.

Combing elements of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” with drum machines, DJ effects, a vocoder, and replayed “samples” from other artists’ material, Bam collaborated with producer Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie to create “Planet Rock,” released in 1982. “Seminal” is the most abused adjective in music criticism, but if anything truly deserves the term, it is “Planet Rock,” which planted seeds for electro, Latin freestyle, Miami bass, house, techno—electronic dance music generally. The track was a breakdancing favorite and still invokes the sound of early-’80s New York whenever it’s played. Despite the relentless, martial funk of its rhythm bed, “Planet Rock” has a distant, ethereal quality, as if it’s being beamed in from another dimension—which, in some ways, it is.

With his sartorial otherworldliness and omnivorous ear, Bam was the artiest of the early hip-hop DJs, so it didn’t feel (too) forced to have his massive vinyl collection on display in an art gallery on the occasion of its donation to the Hip-Hop Collection at Cornell University. Facilitated by gallerist and obscure music aficionado Johan Kugelberg, the thousands of LPs that once earned Bam the title “Master of Records” were arrayed in white boxes on top of long banquet tables in the back room of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise the Thursday before last, where the archive will be viewable to the public for one month while it’s alphabetically sorted by volunteers and played by guest DJs.

Left: Artist and White Columns director Matthew Higgs. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Kraftwerk's Computer World.

Two other shows (group exhibition “Made in Space” and Henry Codax’s “Shoot the Lobster”) were opening in the gallery on that scorching summer evening, so the space was crowded, but many of the young punters wandering through the Bam exhibit “didn’t know the time,” as they used to say on old rap records. Seeing me rifling through the boxes, pulling out eye-catching albums with notebook in hand, a surprising number of people asked me what was going on, whether the records were for sale, who Bambaataa was, etc. A bespectacled DJ spinning Disco Not Disco fare like Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” (source of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines”) and the endlessly sampled “UFO” by ESG did make the space seem like a chill-out lounge, separate from the serious business of viewing visual art, but it was still a bit dispiriting to realize that many of these kids would have given their eyeteeth and hipster eyewear to witness Jay-Z’s inane cooption of the Chelsea scene for his “Picasso Baby” video shoot at Pace Gallery and yet were completely ignorant of one of the architects of the art form.

I tuned out the gawkers and refocused my attention on the real story of the evening: the records, which were a crate-digger’s delight. Hinting at an organizing principle that had succumbed to entropy over the years, Bam had written on many of the older LP covers, “This album belongs to Bambaataa Khayan Aasim,” followed by a number (e.g., #1526). On the back cover, he gave handwritten star ratings (one to three stars) to individual tracks. Certain extremely weathered records referenced the prehistory of rap—a Sha Na Na album, for instance, from which early party MC Busy Bee probably copped his “Ba-diddy-ba-ba-dang-da-dang-diddy-diddy” routine, and forbiddingly monolithic white-label 12-inches with nothing but “ELECTRO FUNK” typed in all caps.

There were many test pressings and promo copies of Bam’s early singles (“Jazzy Sensation,” “Planet Rock,” “Looking for the Perfect Beat”) peppering the boxes, as well as promo 12-inches from other DJs and disco and rap artists of the time, some housed in a fetching generic hot pink cover dripping with period detail: cartoonish red female lips part as if to blow and issue forth the words “Disco Single.” Fresh. Bam’s musical tastes knew no boundaries, and this was more than confirmed as I tore through box after box.

Left: Curator Clarissa Dalrymple with Gavin Brown's Enterprise's Corinna Durland. (Photo: Frank Expósito) Right: Discovering a Kraftwerk album in the Afrika Bambaataa vinyl archive. (Photo: sueapfe)

Some samples: a Gary Glitter LP, Amazing Spider-man: A Rock-comic, a “Special Disco Version” of Cat Stevens’s “Was Dog a Doughnut,” an album called Kitsch by one Randy Pie, a dollar-bin Bohannon LP (“Also available on Ampex 8-track and cassette!”), Frampton Comes Alive!, Kiss Alive!, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, Iggy Pop’s Kill City, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, the proverbial Archies, a copy of Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle that appears to have been gnawed on by large lizards or feral cats, maybe both. I looked for the oldest, most beat-up records in the boxes, the ones most likely to have been played by Bam and his crew in the parks, jams, and clubs in the Bronx and elsewhere, and I stumbled upon a copy of Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the source of “Numbers” for “Planet Rock,” with his special handwriting and two copies of the LP inside, clearly for backspinning and extending the favored break during a set. I almost expected the record to start glowing in my hands. I sensed how it must feel to discover a storied ancient artifact at an archaeological dig.

Finally, I opened a box that looked like the others, but instead of records, there was a random cross-section of Bam’s “papers and effects,” you might call them: printed-out e-mails to and from Bam; “Statements” to be delivered God knows where; application forms for membership in the Universal Zulu Nation, a music, culture, and community activism organization Bam created back in the late ’70s as a way to give former gangbangers like himself a more positive outlet for their energies; and, somehow bringing it all down to earth, a Chinese take-out menu from Brooklyn. Kind of humanizing to discover that when the former Black Spades warlord and Grand Imperial Wizard of Intergalactic Funk takes a break from looking for the perfect beat, he’s looking for the perfect egg roll.

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