The godfather of hip hop Afrika Bambaataa may have been famously born in the Bronx, but the last few years have seen the legendary DJ make Ithaca something of a home away from home. In November, Bambaataa began his three-year term as Cornell University’s first visiting hip hop scholar. But back in 2008 the originator of “break-beat” DJ-ing stopped by the Southside Community Center as part of a two-day conference at Cornell, and he has returned to speak and perform many times since. On Thursday, April 4, at 9 p.m. he will return to the Haunt for a concert with founding figures in the art form: Grandmaster Caz and JDL of the Cold Crush Brothers, and DJ Breakbeat Lou.
Though perhaps best known for 1982’s futuristic hip hop and funk fusion track “Planet Rock,” Bambaataa had risen to prominence over the course of the decade leading up to that recorded track through his live performance art. He is now generally recognized as one of the founding innovators of the movement. The decisive moment in hip hop’s popularity may have come in September 1979 with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” But long before major record labels introduced Run DMC and Public Enemy to mainstream audiences, the Bronx birthed a spontaneous, progressive musical culture that led to a renaissance of poetry, music, politics, and fashion.
Commonly misunderstood simply as rap music, hip hop is a cultural movement that includes emceeing (popularly known as rapping), DJing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing. It traces its roots to 1973 and Sedgwick Avenue in the west Bronx, where two locals named DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock jammed for a group of kids. Unable to afford instruments, the pair—influenced in part by Jamaican traditions—rhymed over records.
Bambaataa pioneered the early use of drum machines and computer sounds, changing the way R&B and other forms of traditionally black music were presented and recorded. He also has contributed to myriad sub-genres and classifications: house, Latin Freestyle, even techno. Growing up in the 1960s in the Bronx, Bambaata co-founded a gang named the Black Spades. Inspired by the Zulu people and their chief Bhambatha, native New Yorker Kevin Donovan took the name Bambaataa and led his gang in a positive direction, ultimately establishing a hip hop awareness group called the Universal Zulu Nation.
Bambaataa’s performance will coincide with a weeklong series of events occurring around town. Though there is no single point person, the Tompkins County Public Library’s Sally Grubb anticipates welcoming artists from Montreal, New York, London, Philadelphia, and even Sweden. “It is just mind blowing,” Grubb reported by phone.
For many years, Cornell has been quietly amassing an archive of 7,000 pieces and growing, considered the largest collection of artifacts documenting the birth and early years of hip hop. “Hip hop archives itself, in some respects,” said Sean Eversley-Bradwell, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, back in 2008 during the inaugural celebration of the collection. “There’s something about this art form that is beautiful, that’s about agency and activism, within the context of struggle. I see hip hop as a form of active resistance that speaks back to power.”
And there may be no better way to participate in that history than to witness the great godfather of hip hop himself perform here in Ithaca.