Afrika Bambaataa,born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx to black activist Barbados immigrants,was at one point a lieutenant in the NYC borough’s most powerful gang-known as the Black Spades. Interestingly enough,he often used the idea of unity and brotherhood to promote recruitment into the gang. It was also a gang known for clearing the streets of drug dealers and assisting in community health care projects. When he won an essay contest and a trip to Africa,his life changed around. He left the Black Spades behind. And began to promote pro black unity through music.
That music was the burgeoning hip-hop scene of the mid/late 70’s. By 1982,he and the Soul Sonic Force,inspired by Bambaataa’s love of Kraftwerk,released their iconic song “Planet Rock”-a reworking of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Trans Europe Express” credited as the beginning of the electro funk sound. In 1984,Bambaataa helped revive the recording career of funk innovator and hip-hop icon James Brown. That 12″ inch single Unity has been a mainstay in my family’s vinyl collection since it first came out. And its first part alone is a wonderful cornerstone of funk onto early recorded hip-hop.
JB and Bambaataa begin the tune with a similar call and response acapella exchange as JB did on “Get Up,Get Into It And Get Involved” 13 years earlier. Keith LeBlanc comes in with the funky drum-with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald providing some classic spiraling bass/chicken scratch guitar interaction play along with some round synth bass washes. On the refrain of the song,that same bass and guitar do their business with the horn section known as Chops. After several exchanges between the chorus and refrain,the song outro’s to the next segment of the suite with the same drum rhythm.
“Unity Part 1” is a straight up JB style funk jam. Using then contemporary musicians, everyone involved really gets the flavor of what the classic JB’s lineup achieved as they built the genre of funk from the ground up. With Bambaatta acting as something of a new Bobby Byrd for JB on this record,the lyrics of the groove state that the solution to the self hate and violence within the black community during the 1980’s would be “peace,unity,love and having fun”. Its an amazingly funky collaboration between funk and hip-hop’s earliest icons. And musically bridges two generations of funk.
Kraftwerk (German for “power plant”) were a group who came to my attention through a PBS documentary talking about electro funk pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. He was explaining how when he first heard the German groups album Trans Europe Express,he was convinced this would be the music for the future. Thanks to Bambaataa’s parties for his proto hip-hop collective Zulu Nation,late 70’s Kraftwerk records became major fixtures at black and Latino dance parties throughout the Bronx and Brooklyn. As krautrock’s prototype for what became today’s EDM sound,Krafwerk had an origin point all it’s own within their native country.
The group’s founders in keyboardist/guitarist Ralf Hutter and flutist/percussionist Florian Schneider,whose celebrating his 69th birthday today,came together at the very end of the 60’s in a psychedelic fusion oriented band known as the Organisation. After that bands first and only album, Ralf and Florian formed their first addition of Kraftwerk along with drummers Andreas Hohmaan and Klaus Dinger for their self titled debut. Released in 1970,it was produced by the iconic krautrock producer Konrad “Conny” Plank. Upon first hearing the album,the opening song stood out to me with heavy familiarity about it. The name of the song was “Ruckzuck”.
Florian begins the song with a double tracked flute solo playing very Arabic style scales. He then brings a very whisper,brittle violin solo which instantly kicks into the song itself. Hohmann’s hi hat heavy,rolling 2 by 2 beat snare drum pushes along at a hard grooving tempo with Hutter’s high pitched organ providing the main melody. Florian’s flute flows in and out of the mix. As Hutter’s organ grows more atonal and higher in the mix,the main melody of the song suddenly returns at an accelerated tempo. Then the whole disappears into a sea of tribal,very aboriginal African sounding percussion before that accelerated main theme fades back in to officially close out the song.
Henrique Hopkins and myself have had a number of discussions on Kraftwerk providing more raw instrumental material than strong melodic song content to those influenced by them. The Kraftwerk on this song are very different. Later member Karl Bartos said once that one the groups main key influences was James Brown. That can be heard on this song having such a complete relationship to rhythm-even the violin soloing. Because everything in this song is mixed in such close proximity,I cannot tell my next point for sure. But it does sound as if the rhythm is deeply locked into the Afro-Latin clave as well. That plus the very tribal pulse in the middle of the groove brings that out as well.
It was a few years ago that the songs familiarity came to me via YouTube. In the late 80’s and early 90’s,about 30 seconds of this song was used as the theme song to the PBS science program Newton’s Apple. The use of the song was apparently unauthorized and was replaced by a cover version during the shows later years. Part of the reasoning for this had to due with Ralf and Florian seemingly disowning this and Kraftwerk’s next two albums after the late 70’s-with Florian himself referring to them as “archaeology”. Even still,hearing Kraftwerk’s first song from their first album in such a progressive jazz-funk context showcases what their musical core has remained over the years.
Filed under 1970's, Afrika Bambaataa, Afro-Latin jazz, Andreas Hohmaan, clave, Conny Plank, drums, Florian Schneider, flute, Germany, James Brown, jazz funk, Kraftwerk, krautrock, organ, progressive music, Ralf Hutter, Uncategorized, violin