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Legendary DJ Afrika Bambaataa brings his b-boy esoterica to town

Wednesday, Nov 27 2002
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In the first hours after Run-D.M.C.'s DJ Jam Master Jay passed away last month, mourners huddled in front of the studio where he was shot, trying to put the tragic event into perspective. Public Enemy's Chuck D, whose greatest skill these days is his knack for soundbiting, stated it most succinctly when he told the New York Times, "Run-D.M.C. was our Beatles." If that's the case, then Afrika Bambaataa would be hip hop's Chuck Berry -- the man who cleared the brush for the pioneers, the fountainhead to the founders.

But as with most groundbreaking artists, there's a cloud of mythology that partially obscures Bambaataa's legacy. He's commonly credited, for instance, with co-writing the colossally important electro anthem "Planet Rock," when, in fact, synthesizer player John Robie remembers Bam having almost no creative input on the track, save for his much-sampled incantation, "Party peee-ople." Rather, Bambaataa's contribution to the recording was akin to being a relay station between long-distance calls: He might have been the only person alive in 1982 who could bring together talents as divergent as Robie (a gearhead who lurked in academic music departments in order to fiddle with synths), producer Arthur Baker (who made uptown disco remixes), and the Soulsonic Force (rappers from Bam's post-apocalyptic neighborhood, the South Bronx). From his collaboration with the Sex Pistols' John Lydon as Time Zone to his genre-ridiculing DJ sets (jumbling The Andy Griffith Show theme with James Brown and the Rolling Stones), Bambaataa has always been more conceptualist, translator, and cross-racial go-between than artist per se.

Bam's exceedingly inclusive approach to record collecting has made his gigs legendary, while also leading him down some questionable alleyways. Whereas his excursions outside the chain-link confines of old-school rap used to take him to exotic locales like soca and go-go, he now seems happier in the breakbeat-oriented rave camp, which has risen by watering down his original ideas. In the late '90s, Bam embraced the "big beat" thing, teaming with such kiddie-pandering characters as L.A.'s Überzone and selecting lots of bland Florida breaks for his mix CDs. At the same time, he also hosted a timeless funk radio show called, appropriately enough, True Skool, on New York's Hot 97 (WQHT-FM). For this week's gig, the chances are good that he'll play to his audience, holding the cheese in favor of the b-boy esoterica that earned him the title of Master of Records.

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Darren Keast

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