Last fall, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist embarked on the Renegades of Rhythm tour, a five-week, North American engagement, performing sets with vinyl borrowed from hip-hop’s most significant archive: Afrika Bambaataa’s forty-thousand-plus record collection. Johan Kugelberg—founder of Boo-Hooray, an organization that focuses on the preservation and documentation of modern counterculture, producing books, exhibitions, and shows—had already begun, in 1999, to gather materials to create what is now the Hip Hop Collection at Cornell University. In 2013, he acquired Bambaataa’s archive, which he cataloged at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, a gallery where the public were welcome to stop by, listen to some music, and perhaps run into the Godfather himself. Before the finished project was transferred to Cornell (where Bambaataa is currently a visiting scholar), Kugelberg suggested the tour idea to DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, inviting them to pull directly from the collection and play to live audiences.
Growing up in the South Bronx, Bambaataa, né Kevin Donovan, began DJing at block parties in the late 1970s as a proactive way of countering the violence and drug wars that were corroding his community. His natural ability to find unlikely pairings in funk, rap, soul, calypso, and electro—not to mention his exuberant stage presence and persona—ignited the hip-hop movement alongside Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc. He formed Universal Zulu Nation, a group of socially conscious musicians, artists, and rappers who, like him, believed in the liberating influence of dance and music. With the Soulsonic Force, he released “Planet Rock” in 1982, the defining track of the era. While DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist had in their hands the very artifacts that Bambaataa used, they were keen to avoid nostalgia, mixing in new songs alongside the old. This book commemorates both the tour and the culmination of the archive project, with images of the original records and flyers, and reminiscences from Bambaataa himself: “The wilder we was onstage, the wilder the crowd was and the more the different races started coming to see us. And it did its job, a little peace, unity, love, and having fun, and one nation under groove.”
—Alex Zafiris for Guernica
“I was looking for beats all over the place. You know, I even had people who used to follow me in the stores, because a lot of times we had spies from other DJ groups. You know, you could be playing records you dig. Your group is there with other people sneaking up, getting up to the…you know, trying to get next to you, see what you was doing. So I used to peel the records off or put water on there and take the cover off where they couldn’t see.”—Afrika Bambaataa
“I might just be slamming the people, sweating, breaking everything. And I would just stop in the middle of the thing and throw on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’ then everybody’d just start doing that basketball-type dance. So I tell you, I want you to take it back to the day when your mama and papa used to dance, started playing a lot of the ‘60s records, and you see people trying to do the Monkey, the Jerk, the Twist, and all these other type of dances. So, you know, when you came to an Afrika Bambaataa party, you had to be progressive-minded and knew that you was going to hear some weird kind of stuff.”—Afrika Bambaataa
“…When I started playing on the downtown scene, a lot of people was nervous for us, saying, ‘Well what’s going to happen when these blacks and Latinos start mixing with the whites downtown on the scene?’ So the media was pushing a hype like there was going to be racial violence and all this type of crap. But when I got down there and I started playing all that funky music, you seen them punk people started going crazy! Slam-banging, jumping crazy, and then the hip-hop people looking at them like, ‘What’s this?’”—Afrika Bambaataa
Renegades of Rhythm: DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist play Afrika Bambaataa is out now from Boo-Hooray.