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30 Years Ago: Afrika Bambaataa Creates a Club Classic With ‘Planet Rock: The Album’

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Before Afrika Bambaataa had even released his epochal “Planet Rock” single in 1982, his club audiences were already straining the limits of house capacity. But by the time Planet Rock: The Album came out in December 1986, the dance anthem had practically proved too massive for the club scene itself, smashing genre barriers and pop chart entrances, and birthing a number of critical subcultures that each tore lastingly into the mainstream.

The album, a collection of Bambaataa essentials stretching back to 1981, exclusively features those tracks he made with the most invaluable electro-funk hitmen in his Rolodex: the Soulsonic Force. Which, of course, only adds to the importance of the release. Commanding a presentation whose psychedelic spiritual imagery animated and intensified the songs’ pulsing aural textures, the Soulsonic Force delivered Afrika Bambaataa from revered DJ fixture to otherworldly sci-fi Sun God by simply living up to their name.

Jumping around a maze of New York City venues, showcasing his potent synthesis of sequential breakbeats, computerized funk motifs, and obscure samples, Bambaataa manned a Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Fairlight C.M.I. (the first-ever digital sampler and synthesizer workstation) as his primary weapons of choice. But it wasn’t until he incorporated a vocoder, enlisted the Soulsonic Force, and migrated to the “new wave” club stages where he unearthed what is arguably electro’s founding document: “Planet Rock.”

Inspired by the icy synth soundscapes of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan and the symphonic video-game glitchery of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Bambaataa tossed the hip-hop rulebook and allowed his alien aesthetic curiosities to govern his savvy street instincts. So prominent were his faraway muses that the strings in Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” were mimicked and slightly reworked (not technically sampled, contrary to popular belief) to feature as the track’s memorable hook. This motif, sweeping in between laser pulses, acrobatic MCing and an uptempo thrust, sealed the track’s fate as an instant club staple. What’s more, it also marked the first 808-based R&B track, and eventually, the first 12” single to be certified gold by the RIAA.

The mingling of George Clinton-inflected space-funk, breakbeat hip-hop, and back-of-the-crate synthpop that would eventually exist in the popular lexicon as “electro” would first be encapsulated on “Planet Rock.” But the title track isn’t the only one that sings the praises of enlightened musical integration. On “Go-Go Pop,” for example, the MC makes an explicit rallying cry to “hip-hoppers! / punk rockers! / go-go fans!” over menacing, after-hours R&B, complete with fluttering 808 cowbells and pounding synth convulsions.

“Looking for the Perfect Beat” takes its title literally and plays like a cadre of martians on an exploratory mission to capture the “perfect beat” that had escaped from a laboratory somewhere north of Cyadonia. By further exercising the nexus between hip-hop and electro, the collective infuses arpeggiated synths, robotic incantations, and air-tight 808 hits with turntable scratches and militant MCing. This theme is carried on “Renegades of Funk,” whose immoderate use of claps, clicks, and hissing hi-hats would become a staple for DJ musical breaks.

None of this is to say that traditional hip-hop was entirely spurned, however. One of the album highlights is a guest appearance from the legendary Melle Mel, of Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five, on the romping “Who Do You Think You’re Funkin’ With?” In typical Furious Five fashion, Mel professes his MC supremacy in the company of guttural bass warbles and wailing guitar solos, commanding his audience with call-and-response recitations.

1986’s Planet Rock: The Album marked the first time the classic title track had found a home on a full-length LP, but its club debut and seismic 1982 12” single release is what transformed Bambaataa from budding hip-hop dignitary to the omnipotent, genre-bending afrofuturist whose technology-centered songcraft is responsible for so much of modern music production. And with the body of elite Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force tracks in its company, it remains immortally bound to a harmonious chain of neighboring planets in the Soulsonic solar system.

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