Published Nov 21, 2014Considered by many as an innovator and visionary that connected the dots between genres, New York's Afrika Bambaataa has had a profound impact on modern music. His all-embracing DJ sets at block parties in the South Bronx not only helped define the culture of the Big Apple during the '70s, but established the pathways for early hip-hop and electronic music. Now, over 40,000 of his records are being held in Cornell University's permanent collection (stored in the same area as the Gettysburg Address, our hosts were quick to point out), and devoted turntablists like DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist were given the chance to go digging through these historical artefacts to then hit the road and provide a glimpse into Bambaataa's influence.
Presenting the fast-paced set in a somewhat chronological timeline through the Zulu Nation chief's career, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist started out creating a neighbourhood jam, borrowing beats and building breaks from Bambaataa's immense collection. Using James Brown as the foundation, the duo quickly scratched and juggled tracks across six turntables with an effortlessness that was mesmerizing at times. While snippets of samples and drums breaks would be recognizable, by the time you zeroed in on it, they had already moved on to the next track.
Recreating the sounds of New York's boroughs, the early portion of their eclectic set had moments of funk, Latin, soul and early hip-hop as they moved through the decade and began to introduce the disco era. Like Bambaataa, the duo avoided mainstream disco, instead diving into the spaced-out sounds found deep in the Master of Records' crates.
While the duo's synchronized DJing throughout the night was impressive, the real showstopper came when Cut Chemist brought out Bambaataa's 1967 Percussion King drum machine and DJ Shadow used a set of electronic drums to create breaks and beats on the fly. Seeing both of the DJs bang away on these machines, it was obvious to everyone in the crowd just how deep an understanding of Bambaataa's influence Shadow and Chemist had.
The second part of the set focused more on the esoteric records in Bambaataa's collection, and the duo embraced the role of educators as much as entertainers, dropping echo-drenched dub and otherworldly sounds that provided a bridge into his own tracks.
The last portion of the set concentrated mainly on Bambaataa the producer, illustrating how so many of his productions became the DNA running through other genres. Dropping the original demo acetate of "Looking for the Perfect Beat" from 1983, Chemist made it crystal clear this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for those in the crowd, and we would likely never hear that version of the song again. Dedicating the next few records to the B-boys and B-girls who had taken over the front of the stage, Shadow and Chemist showed off their turntable prowess and knowledge of classic drum breaks before cutting and juggling one of Bambaataa's best known tracks, "Planet Rock," to the unrelenting cheers of the appreciative crowd.
Outside of the impact of Bambaataa's own singles and albums, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's journey through the genres demonstrated just how significant the New York icon's influence has been on the last 40 years of music. Bambaataa's taste showed no boundaries and helped set the stage for nearly every DJ that came after him.