Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates
Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates [Interview + Playlist]

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates

Photos by Eddie Pearson for Okayplayer.

Afrika Bamabaataa's record collection has long been regarded as one of the most comprehensive and expansive archives of hip-hop's formative stages that exists in the world today. That bold and well-reasoned statement never rang more true than it did last week, when the duo of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist took on the immense task of presenting some the most foundational and iconic cuts of that cratedigger's master document into one fluid and masterful exposition on the ones and twos. Casual observers, funky fanatics, collectors, hoarders, b-boys and b-girls were all able to bear witness to a turntable orchestra, less an homage and more a reeducation in the art of the break.

All of this unfolded under the watchful and warm eye of the renegade of funk himself, sitting on the balcony bobbing his head as he was worshipped like the DJ deity that he is. His records, of course, being the holy sacrament. We had the privilege of speaking to the evening's sonic architect and the curators of his legacy, getting a crate by crate account of the proceedings from the fellas that had the honor (and the audacity, really) to turn NYC's Irving Plaza into a true, blue installation, covering all corners of the culture in one outrageous display of devotion to the craft and its tradition.

Things get properly cosmic, though. So be warned, the words below could either go way over your head or manage to pull you up into the stars along with them. Read along and find out what Bam's very first record was, the depths of James Brown's influence, how Sly Stone changed the game and if he's still in search of the perfect beat. You'll quickly find out that 15 minutes with Bam is worth a lifetime of funk.

You can also listen to a special OKP curated list of cuts from the Zulu leader's personal collection in the player on third and final page of our lengthy discussion. Click through for that and hit the link below for your chance to win tickets to see and hear Bam's legendary collection come out to play with DJ Shadow x Cut Chemist when the Renegades of Rhythm comes to a discotheque near you:

>>>Catch The Renegades Of Rhythm Tour

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

OKP: [to Afrika Bambaataa] What's the first record you ever bought?

Bambaataa: Well, the first we ever had in the household was The Marvelletes.

OKP: Did that ever get any spins in a set? Was that just for you?

AB: Well, we would always play “Mr. Postman” or something like that. Everybody would always go crazy for that. However, if I decided to take em’ back to the oldies but goodies; like Motown sound. Back in the days, I used to tell people to “dance like your mama and papa used to do.” And people would start doing all types of stuff. That was the fun part of the parties. Play certain types of song that people would remember or from a TV show or a cartoon or something.

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

 OKP: What’s your personal favorite record to spin?

AB: Anything by James Brown and Sly [Stone]. I mean James Brown is like the ultimate of everything. Without James Brown the party is just boring.

OKP: Did you happen to see Get On Up?

AB: Yup.

OKP: And what did you think?

AB: I think the guy that played him (Chadwick Boseman - ed.) deserves an Oscar.

OKP: Have your seen or heard about the Alex Gibney doc that’s coming out about JB?

AB: I know there’s many that they had put out. But you can’t really put James in documentary. That’s like when they were trying to do something with me. I said well you’d have to make it like the Lord of The Ring movies, you know, all three of them. That’s exactly how James would have to be.

 You could start with just his history, but then following that influence all the way around the world, 'til it hits someone like me. They need to do one on Sly Stone. Listen, there’s music before Sly and then there’s music after Sly. He changed the whole industry.

OKP: Is there anybody right now that’s particularly impressive to you? Anyone these days changing the game like that?

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

AB: These brothers I’ve seen here tonight. They’re crazy man. I respect all them DJs and MCs that are doing something other than the usual.

OKP: When did you brothers [to DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist] become aware of Afrika Bambaataa?

Chemist:  The first record I heard was “Renegades of Funk.” I had heard “Planet Rock” but I didn’t know it was him, I just heard the song in a mix. But “Renegades of Funk” I saw the video for before I heard the record and it had a huge impact on me. Just seeing all the graffiti and break dancing, it had all the elements of hip-hop in one video, and obviously I was enamored with all of that. At 12 years old, in 84 it had crossed over. I wanted to be a part of all of it, I did graffiti, I break danced, I didn’t really rap, I DJ’d.

That video was a big deal, and plus the sci-fi element and the psychedelic nature of them wearing headdresses in a spaceship, and then just shooting to the Bronx and the people on the street—I hadn’t seen anything like it. I went immediately to a Music Plus to buy the record and I saw the cover, that busting through the wall, it looked like a comic book. I was sold right from there.

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

Shadow:  I was 10 years old when I heard “Planet Rock.” I grew up in the Central Valley in northern California and it was a classic rock wasteland for the most part. But I had an AM radio and on that AM radio I was able to dial in a soul station, and the first two real rap songs I heard were “The Message” and then a few months later “Planet Rock.”

I only heard them because they were minor hits on the radio—they charted. It wasn’t like that station was triyng to make inroads or had a mix show, I just heard it as new music. But to me it just didn’t sound like anything else. It didn’t sound like the Kool & The Gang records that were coming out at that time. It didn’t sound like The Gap Band, it didn’t sound like Lakeside. It sounded like something completely new and different, and I didn’t know it, but that’s what I was looking for.

 OKP: So as far as the sounds in this record collection that you guys have pulled for the sets, it's safe to say you were introduced to by Bambaataa's music?

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

 CC: Yes. I realized later that he was pulling from George Clinton and the whole Mothership Connection thing and Sun Ra, but at the time I thought it was completely him. I had never heard of George Clinton or Sun Ra when I was twelve years old. I didn’t know that he was pulling from those ideologies until later when I realized “Oh wow, these are the people that he looked up to and the people that he listened to” and I started to get a sense of what his own influences were.

Shadow: You can find keys to the way he styled himself in his collection. His heroes—James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton—they were all restless in the sense that they were constantly looking for new things and breaking barriers. They were progressive, and if there’s one word to define Bam as a DJ and a recording artist, in that era, it’s “progressive.” Everything he was doing was progressive. He wanted to reach for something different

Cut Chemist: It wasn’t until about ’87 that I started to put it all together. Probably when I heard Jungle Brothers and they were making a lot of connections to Zulu Nation and Afrika Bambaataa. If it weren’t for the Jungle Brothers I probably wouldn’t be producing records. That was the record that made me want to graduate from DJing to producing. So, essentially, Bambaataa was a big influence on them, and they were a big influence on me and my group.

And also Prince Paul. I found out on this tour that Bambaataa was a huge influence on him with all his dialogue and quirky styles; he picked those up from Bam directly and that had a huge impact on me as well. So I’m finding out all this stuff just doing this tour—how Bambaataa again and again has inspired my style. Not just for wanting to play world music and African records and mixing them all together like he did, but his style of quirkiness. We were going through his record collection and finding really, really weird stuff.

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

OKP: At what point for you guys did you get the chance to meet Bam for the first time?

 Chemist: I met him one other time, in L.A. With Kool Herc and Jazzy Jay. They came out for an event for a friend of ours that had passed away, a DJ. He went by the name of DJ Dusk; he had participated in Shadow and I’s past events. When I mentioned it to Bam he said “Oh yeah, brother DJ Dusk.” He totally remembered him.

Shadow: I encountered him in an airport in the Midwest, around ’97. I was trying to fly from somewhere to somewhere and was walking down the concourse and there he was. Maybe with Ahmed, I’m not sure, I don’t remember who was with him. But I just sort of steeled myself and said “Peace Bambaataa” as he walked by. He looked a little bit surprised as he walked by. But he just looked back at me and said “Peace to you, too.” I wasn’t going to bother him or anything. That was the only other time before now.

OKP: What was the process of selecting the set for the tour like? Did you meet him, and then meet the records?

Master Of Records: Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow + Cut Chemist Guide Us Through The Master Crates - photos by Eddie Pearson

 Chemist: We met the records first. We came out here twice last year just to see what we were dealing with before we committed to the project. Just to see what exactly would be involved. You [Shadow] remember more than I do.

Shadow: There were two caveats before doing this set. The first was his blessing—we weren’t going to do it without his blessing and participation. The second was we wanted to make sure his collection was intact. We’re very familiar with the sad stories of a lot of pioneers losing their collections or their collections being compromised over the years or parceled out or cherry-picked. We had to make sure the collection was what we were hoping it was going to be and we quickly realized that it was.

We had a quick kind of survey of the collection, and then about a month later we went back and had two and a half days to pull everything. When it started, our heads were really into making sure that we got hisclassic records as an artist, and also the classic breaks. But within the first half hour, we started to have conversations like “Should we reflect Motown? We should pull some dancehall, we should pull some dub, we should pull calypso, we should pull…” We wanted to be representational of his tastes, not just our perception of his taste. His collection had salsa, a lot of it. It had a lot of drum n bass. And that was very inspiring. One of the things I had presupposed about his collection would that it would be far-reaching and reflective of his continuous search for inspiration. It didn’t just stop at a certain time. It wasn’t just breaks and raps—if anything there was probably less rap in his collection than I imagined there would be.

OKP: How recent does the collection go? What’s the newest record that you guys pulled?

Shadow: Well I know he’s still collecting stuff, but I think based on the where the records were kept, I think it stopped around 2004.

OKP: A lot of these breaks are now iconic records, but are there records in these crates that you guys discovered in the process of pulling things? Stuff you'd never encountered before?

Chemist: Absolutely.

Shadow: There were a lot of sure shots that were covered up that we didn’t know what they were just because they were so covered up, so we had to pull a lot of stuff just to listen to. In terms of things directly in our wheelhouse, there was unreleased Funky 4 + 1, there was unreleased Grandmixer D. ST. & The Infinity Rappers. And then there were, crucially, unreleased Bambaataa demos.

OKP: Unreleased vinyl?

 Shadow: Yeah. Acetates and test pressings. He had a copy of unreleased Tommy Boy records from ’86. Stuff that we ought to know about, that the world should really know about and was just hidden in his collectio 

Chemist: I saw Jungle Brothers right next to Jurassic 5. It was the most amazing moment of my life because here’s my favorite record next to mine! People ask me “Were you surprised to see anything in that collection?” and I say “Yeah, my own record.”

OKP: Did you take a picture of that?

Chemist: I sure did! I sent it to everybody in Jurassic 5. We’re official, man!

Shadow: Every night we make sure people understand, before we get started, that these are not just any copies of these records, these are his copies of these records. To me that’s huge. That was an epiphany I had when I was looking at Jimmy Castor Bunch and Apache and all these classic records. We’ve been looking at records a long time and it’s easy to get jaded—oh look, here’s a copy of “It’s Just Begun”—but then you look at it and you think “Wait. This is the copy.”

Chemist: It’s now an artifact, it’s not just a record anymore.

Shadow: So we made sure people understand. It isn’t that if we didn’t find it in his collection, we just borrowed from our own collection. We established ground rules right from the beginning that we were only going to play his records. Somebody at one point suggested “Just use your own.” And we were like “No, you don’t get it.” And in a lot of cases he had totally different versions of the records people know. He had a completely different version of “Gangster Boogie” from the one everybody knows, and I sort of reached out to a few collector friends saying “Do you know about this?” Everyone just chuckled and said “Nope.”

OKP: How many records are on the total set for the night?

Chemist: Probably 250.

OKP: [to Bambaataa]: Is there an ultimate break? One that tops them all?

AB: Just goes back to James Brown, you know. It’s hard to pick any one of his though. “Funky Drummer” is the main king that everyone plays. Then “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved”; “Sex Machine.” I mean  you could go on for days. It’s hard to pick an ultimate break. Anything that gets in your bones and makes you go crazy.

OKP: Understood. I guess the last question has to be: Are you still searching for the perfect beat?

AB: I’m looking for the crazy, wild intergalactic beat now. That’s why we’re universal. As we become intergalactic humans--which is not farfetched now--I’ve been looking for what’s happening on these other planets. In their dimension, in their star system, in their galaxies. As well as our subterranean worlds and on different planets.

A Curated List Of Cuts From Afrika Bambaataa's Personal Collection from OKAYPLAYER on 8tracks Radio.