Bronx DJ-turned-hip-hop-godfather Bambaataa not only created the record that thrust beatbox electro-funk into the ’80s and brought Kraftwerk onto the dancefloor, he has made pioneering sides with numerous performers and established himself as a major figure in contemporary music. Working mainly in the 12-inch format, Bam’s ascent began with a routine boast rap, “Jazzy Sensation,” but got into gear with “Planet Rock,” the Arthur Baker-produced (and co-written, with the band and John Robie) explosion of scratch cuts, electronic gimmickry, processed vocals and solid-state rhythms. (Both tracks were later compiled on the Tommy Boy label retrospective, Greatest Beats.) “Looking for the Perfect Beat” is even better, with Baker mostly soft-pedaling the monolithic pounding in favor of a skittish electronic metronome and tacking on fancier effects, vocals and mix tricks to create an ultra-busy urban symphony. The mega-rhythmic “Renegades of Funk” adds social/historical/political lyrics to the dance-floor dynamism and delivers a really bizarre blend of rap, synthesizers and oppressive electronic percussion.
As a precursor to a long-promised album (which ultimately included it), Bambaataa released “Funk You!,” a corny rap idea stretched out over a 12-inch in four very different mixes, with borrowings from James Brown and Queen. When it finally appeared, Beware proved that the LP format presents no obstacle to the imposing Overseer: variety and invention make it an exciting electro-beat vision of a freewheeling stylistic future. “Funk Jam Party” is exactly that; “Tension” sounds like Bowie comes to Harlem; “Rock America” incorporates howling electric guitars, a munchkin chorus and chintzy organ without ever losing the funk. Easily the highlight, and another amazing cross-cultural accomplishment by Bambaataa, is Bill Laswell’s earthy, energized production of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
In a fascinating cross-generational culture mix, Bambaataa teamed with the Godfather of Soul to record “Unity,” a positive political message released in six alternate versions (connected by studio patter) on one disc. Hitting a funky compromise between classic soul and modern hip-hop, the record works on a number of levels and is certainly a significant milestone in rap. Taking another startling detour, Bambaataa wrote and recorded “World Destruction” with Bill Laswell, sharing the vocals with John Lydon, jump-cutting the Englishman’s no-wave keen into an intense, ominous funk-rock maelstrom for one of the most remarkable dance singles in recent memory.
Bambaataa also records as a member of Shango, a vocal trio that is supported by Material (for this purpose, Laswell and Michael Beinhorn). The album-length Funk Theology offers five sophisticated party creations that also feature guitarist Nicky Skopelitis. The originals get no heavier, lyrically, than “Let’s Party Down”; a version of Sly Stone’s “Thank You” is utterly appropriate. Good for dancing but a bit dull for listening.
Extending the Family way out there, The Light features UB40, Nona Hendryx, Boy George, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Yellowman and others. At times, the appealing and diverse pan-ethnic album involves Bam only tangentially, like a brief rap on UB40’s “Reckless” track, or a few interjections on the Hendryx/George rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Something He Can Feel.” The only credit he takes on “Shout It Out” is as co-publisher of the composition. The individual tracks are fine, but the lack of focus leaves this plainly commercial effort more a various artists sampler than a cohesive Bambaataa creation.
Planet Rock — The Album is a compilation of the three classic Soulsonic Force 12-inches plus previously unreleased tracks featuring Melle Mel and Trouble Funk.