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Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force: 'Planet Rock'

Classic Tracks | Producer: Arthur Baker
Published November 2008
By Richard Buskin

For mixing Kraftwerk's synthetic beats and simple melodies with New York rap, 'Planet Rock' can be credited with creating an entirely new genre: hip-hop. This is how it happened...

Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force: 'Planet Rock'Photo: David Corio/RedfernsMan and machine, transporting rap to electro. That, within the historical context of popular music, was what the 1982 single 'Planet Rock' was all about, transforming rap by blending breakbeats, a vocoder and one of the first Fairlight synths in America, to create computerised, futuristic, robotic funk that paved the way for dance, trance, techno and house, whilst also being the first hip–hop/R&B track to utilise a Roland TR808 drum machine.

Three men were mainly responsible for breaking this new ground: Afrika Bambaataa, the pioneering South Bronx DJ who helped establish hip–hop during the early '80s with his Soulsonic Force ensemble; producer and dancefloor doyen Arthur Baker; and keyboard player John Robie. Inspired by the sounds of German electro–pop outfit Kraftwerk, Bambaataa and Baker recruited the services of Robie to help them take their music in a new direction, and on 'Planet Rock' they achieved this with the assistance of a couple of Kraftwerk numbers: 'Trans–Europe Express', from which they borrowed the melody, and 'Numbers', whose rhythm track they re–recorded.

The Dawn Of Hip–hop

A seminal figure on the New York breakdancing scene, Afrika Bambaataa had been a founding member of Bronx street gang the Savage Seven (later the Black Spades) before a life–changing trip to Africa encouraged him to form Zulu Nation and offer kids a streetwise form of music as an alternative to gang life. His entry onto the recording scene was as the producer of the Soulsonic Force's 'Zulu Nation Throwdown', and following several more production credits, utilising other groups such as the Cosmic Force and Jazzy 5, Bambaataa was then signed to Tommy Boy Records in early 1982 and debuted as an artist in his own right with the single 'Jazzy Sensation'. His next release was 'Planet Rock'.

"Back then, there was no such thing as hip–hop," says Arthur Baker. "It was basically just rapping over beats, and most of the beats that people used were either from disco tracks or funk tracks. There was no segregation between disco, funk and rap. It was called rhyming. People were just rhyming over breaks The first time I heard rappers was up in the Bronx, where people were in the park, talking over records. [Latin R&B artist] Joe Bataan had told me about them, and he was like, 'Man, someone's gonna make a million dollars on this.' I, myself, certainly thought it was interesting stuff. You know, I didn't laugh at it, because I was all about finding out what was happening on the streets."

Rock To Rap

A native of Boston, Baker grew up as a fan of mainstream rock by anyone from David Bowie and the Allman Brothers to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. At the same time, he also enjoyed the Jackson 5 and the Philadelphia soul productions of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. In 1973, while studying and adquainting himself with synths at Hampshire College in Amherst — an experimental liberal arts university known for its electronic music studio which, back then, had more toys than any pro facility — he began DJ'ing, using a mixer and two turntables to play a selection of early disco records. After returning to Boston, Baker then took an engineering course at Intermedia Studios (where the first Aerosmith album was recorded) and got into production, helming a number of records that helped raise his profile when they were played at legendary New York City club the Paradise Garage. Among them was Northend's 'Happy Days'.

Moving back and forth between Boston and New York during the late '70s and early '80s, Baker soon became involved in the burgeoning hip–hop scene and, after producing a number of unsuccessful singles, he finally enjoyed some success helming the rap novelty hit 'Rap–O–Clap–O' for Joe Bataan. Tom Silverman subsequently asked Baker if he wanted to head up a project on his new Tommy Boy Records label. This turned out to be Afrika Bambaataa's aforementioned 'Jazzy Sensation' (a cover of Gwen McCrae's 'Funky Sensation', recorded with the Jazzy 5), which featured an early remix by Shep Pettibone. Baker then took the solo production reins for 'Planet Rock'.

"On 'Jazzy Sensation', I went into the studio with the band that had played on Northend's 'Happy Days'. They were a crew of really good young musicians from Queens, including the keyboard player André Booth, the guitarist Charlie Street and drummer T–Funk, who played with James Brown for a while. Bambaataa and the Jazzy 5 had the choice of two records to rap over," Baker recalls. "These were Tom Tom Club's 'Genius of Love' and Gwen McCrae's 'Funky Sensation', and I decided that, since someone else would probably be doing 'Genius of Love', we should go with 'Funky Sensation' and call it 'Jazzy Sensation'. As things turned out, we actually cut two versions: a funky one, known as the 'Bronx version', and then more of a disco one, known as the 'Manhattan version', which my then–wife Tina B sang on. The group were really happy with the results, and so was Tom [Silverman], because we'd picked a very hot record to cover and it ended up selling 30,000 to 40,000 copies. A case of doing an 'answer record' in the R&B tradition and people buying it."


"At that point, no–one was using drum machines. We just went in with some fine musicians who cut a great track and the production was good — the record's call–and–response was really important, because from day one I thought it was vital to introduce some live element of seeing rappers live. Then, when Tom was happy with what we did, he said, 'Okay, next up is Soulsonic Force. They're next in line.'"

Arthur Baker today.Arthur Baker today.As with 'Jazzy Sensation', studio time for 'Planet Rock' was booked at Intergalactic, later made famous by the Beastie Boys. Located around the corner from where Tom Silverman lived, it housed a classic Neve console, Studer 24–track tape machine and Urei monitors, in addition to a Lexicon PCM41 digital delay, Sony reverb and the aforementioned Fairlight — which nobody else then had.

"It wasn't like they had walls of outboard gear and walls of keyboards," Baker remarks. "They only had a few things, and so we basically got all of our effects out of the Lexicon PCM41, including Bambaataa's electronic vocal vocoder sound. That came through a really, really tight delay, almost like a tight electronic phasing, and then there was the state–of–the–art Sony reverb. However, other than that, there weren't a whole load of effects on that record.

"Bambaataa wanted to use the keyboardist who had played on a record that he liked, and this turned out to be John Robie, who is now my oldest friend. John played everything by hand, nothing was sequenced on 'Planet Rock' — we didn't have a sequencer at that time. I was still working in Long Island City, sweeping the warehouse floors of a record distributor called Cardinal One–Stop, and when we went out for lunch and sat around the projects I'd always hear 'Trans–Europe Express'. Its melody was more eerie than usual in that setting, reverberating off the buildings. Then again, on Saturdays I also used to hang out on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, where I lived in those days, and I'd go into a record store called Music Factory with these brothers, Donnie and Dwight, to see what was selling. They were always playing 'Numbers' in there, also by Kraftwerk, which was really up–tempo, and so it was my idea to use a combination of those two numbers for Bambaataa's next record, because the beat on 'Trans–Europe Express' was too slow.

"Bambaataa suggested using the break from 'Super Sperm', and there were a few other elements — Tom definitely played an ideas cassette, which I think we totally ignored. Anyway, since we were basically trying to emulate the Kraftwerk sound, when we went into the studio we decided we needed a drum machine. What's more, after hearing an 808, we knew that was what we wanted, so I looked in the Village Voice and saw an ad stating, 'Man with drum machine, $30 a session.' His name was Joe and he had an 808, so we paid him to come in and do the beats.

Afrika Bambaataa in New York, early 1980s.Afrika Bambaataa in New York, early 1980s.Photo: Janette Beckman/Redferns"We played him 'Numbers' and asked him to copy the beat, and then Bambaataa asked him to copy the beat from 'Super Sperm', so that's what we did first. Intergalactic was on the eighth floor of this building, and on the day of the session the elevator wasn't working. So John Robie and I had to walk up eight flights of stairs with his keyboards — a Micromoog and a Prophet 5 — and once there we bonded really quickly. In fact, we realised we might get sued by Kraftwerk if we used the 'Trans–Europe Express' melody, so John performed a different string melody just in case — it was on one of the tracks on the same tape — and that was what we ended up using for 'Play At Your Own Risk'."

Happy Accidents

"We did all of the music for 'Planet Rock' and 'Play At Your Own Risk' in one session and on the same piece of tape. Not later on the tape — we actually used the same drums and everything. The rappers weren't there that first night, so there was no rap, but afterwards, when I took 'Planet Rock' home and played it for my wife, I told her, 'We've made musical history tonight.' I knew it. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. From the start, I was definitely into the record being a merging of cultures, and I said, 'We've done what Talking Heads have been trying to do, but our record is going to sell uptown and downtown.' Working in a record warehouse, I was really educated as to what people on the streets were buying, and whenever I heard 'Numbers' being played at the Music Factory in Brooklyn I saw black guys in their twenties and thirties asking, 'What's that beat?' So I knew that if we used that beat and added an element of the street, it was going to work.

"In trying to copy what Kraftwerk did, I totally got it wrong due to the odd way that I hear things, but it still turned out to be right. You know, like having the bass locked in with the kick drum — I had Robie play the bass with the kick all the way through the record, and since we couldn't program it we slowed the tape down so that it would be really tight. Then there was the idea of removing the snare and just having the kick and the handclaps. No one had done that, and the same applied to a number of things on that record. Twenty–six years later, the kick–and–handclap thing is still being used on hip–hop records — it creates a vibe — but that just came about when I was mixing.

"There were a lot of happy accidents when we were making these kinds of records. Like the orchestra hit. We were going through the sounds on the Fairlight, which, although it was worth over a hundred thousand dollars back then, probably only had what a thousand–dollar computer can do these days. You couldn't sample on the Fairlight, it was all pre–sampled sounds, so we used an explosion, the handclaps and the orchestra. Once we heard the orchestra, which I think Tom hit, we thought, 'Oh, that's amazing. We've got to use that.' None of those things were planned, we just discovered or came up with them as we went along. But after I'd hopped on the subway to Brooklyn that first night, I knew we had done something special, and that was even before the rappers had done their thing."

MC Popping

As it happens, the rappers absolutely hated 'Planet Rock'. Indeed, the main reason for them wanting to work with Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker was that they had been responsible for 'Jazzy Sensation'. This was totally different, boasting a weird beat that they just couldn't get to grips with. That was, until MC G.L.O.B.E. came to the rescue.

The original track sheet for 'Planet Rock' and 'Play At Your Own Risk', which were recorded together on the same section of tape.The original track sheet for 'Planet Rock' and 'Play At Your Own Risk', which were recorded together on the same section of tape."He was the genius of the group," Baker asserts, "and he worked out that they should do the track half–time as opposed to a regular rap that would be right on the beat. The beat was so fast, it would have been difficult for them to rap right on the beat, so he created a new style which he called 'MC Popping'. He'd say, 'We don't rap, we MC Pop.' So, they MC Popped their way around the beat, and what with the fantastic lyrics, the whole thing really took shape. To this day, I don't know where the title 'Planet Rock' came from, but what I do know for a fact is that G.L.O.B.E. wrote all of the lyrics except for the choruses, which I wrote: 'Rock rock to the Planet Rock, don't stop.' And the reason I'm so sure about it is that I stole the idea from another record, 'Body Music' by the Strikers, which was a great dance track and had the line 'Punk rock to the punk rock, don't stop.'"

'Looking For The Perfect Beat'

In all, with Bob Rosa taking care of some overdubbing, about 30 hours were spent recording and mixing 'Planet Rock' before the single was mastered and then remastered. Arthur Baker took the acetate into the Music Factory record shop in Brooklyn and quite literally blew up the speakers there, due to excessive low–end. Still, all's well that ends well. In return for a $900 outlay, 'Planet Rock' helped establish the Tommy Boy label and projected hip–hop into the mainstream, while opening the doors to a flood of electro hits and the related dance genres that followed in their wake.

Released in June 1982, the single didn't make the Top 40 but did reach number four on the R&B chart, certifying it as a true hip–hop classic alongside Afrika Bambaataa's next release, 'Looking For The Perfect Beat', which Baker now describes as being "just as good and totally original."

"Nothing on that record was borrowed from anyone," he says. "After 'Planet Rock' came out, there were a hundred other records sounding just like it, and we even put out 'Play At Your Own Risk' after adding the vocals and some more music. It was basically our second 'Planet Rock' and it sold about 300,000 copies. But then, sitting around in Robie's apartment, we were saying, 'What are we going to do?' There was a lot of pressure on us to keep delivering, not only from Tom but also ourselves and everyone else. All eyes were on us, and I remember saying, 'Man, we're looking for the perfect beat and we've already found it.' It quickly dawned on me that this was a good song title, and so I again handed G.L.O.B.E. the task of writing the lyrics, and he nailed it, while I added some of the incidental things like the barking, 'beat this' and 'looking for the perfect beat.' Instead of having Jay Burnett do it [see 'Shout Out' box], I made a jerk out of myself.

"John basically co–produced 'Perfect Beat' with me, and going from the mega high–point of 'Planet Rock' and doing something that, to me, was creatively even more interesting and yet not a flop was quite an achievement. Often, after people enjoy a high point, they go back into their cage and come up with something that's unlistenable. However, we did something that was really experimental and yet commercially still successful."

After Afrika

In the wake of his success at Tommy Boy, Arthur Baker formed his own Streetwise Records label and, in 1982, signed New Edition. The following year, he then scored a club hit with New Order's 'Confusion', and continued working in the rock mainstream as a producer and/or remixer with artists such as Diana Ross, Jeff Beck, Hall & Oates, Debbie Harry, David Bowie, the Pet Shop Boys, Cyndi Lauper and Al Green through the mid–1990s. Thereafter, since relocating to the UK he has worked on projects by an eclectic array of artists, ranging from Babylon Zoo to Robbie Williams, while among his most recent assignments has been a compilation for the Ministry Of Sound label as part of its Masterpiece series, writing the script for a film entitled Paintbox, and DJ'ing in the US this October.

"As dance music took off, I basically got remix gigs that paid me loads of money and meant that I didn't have to deal with rappers," he says, half–jokingly. "I remember when I asked MC G.L.O.B.E. if he could write a rhyme about 'Renegades Of Funk', he was like, 'Artie, I ain't writing no rap about a renegade.' I said, 'Well, wait a minute. Malcolm X was a renegade, Martin Luther King was a renegade.' I put him in that direction and he came up with really great lyrics. John and I co–produced 'Renegades Of Funk' [1984] and it was one of the last things we did with Bambaataa. After that, we did 'Frantic Situation', which pretty much sucks, but among all the records I've made I'd have to say that 'Planet Rock', 'Looking For The Perfect Beat' and 'Renegades Of Funk' are the three I'm most proud of."

Shout Out

A list of places to be name-checked in 'Planet Rock' were jotted on the back of the track sheet.A list of places to be name-checked in 'Planet Rock' were jotted on the back of the track sheet."The idea of naming different cities was adapted from James Brown who'd always say things like, 'Yo, Atlanta,' or whatever. I figured this was going to be an international record, and so if we're talking about the planet then let's write down all of these cities, and not just in America, which is why we ended up using Berlin, Lisbon, London and so on. Still, we had to have somewhere on the record that featured Bambaataa, and it was my idea to have the call-and-response. We did that on the first three records with Soulsonic, because I just felt that people would relate better.

"Without the rap I think the track would have been groundbreaking, changing the direction of music, but an element would have been missing and it wouldn't have been a hit. As it is, everything on the record played a part, as did everyone who was involved in its making, including Jay Burnett, who did a great job of engineering and whose voice is the one going 'rock rock to the planet rock, don't stop.' He actually begged me, 'Can I do it? Can I do the voice?' I said, 'Oh, sure,' and then a couple of months later he wanted points on the record! He didn't come up with the idea, so on Bambaataa's next record, 'Perfect Beat', I did those little vocal parts to ensure nobody came after me for points."

Machine Music

"In the end, dance music became a sort of socialist art form", explains Arthur Baker. "Everyone now has the same equipment, and so they just use their creativity and see what they can come up with. You know, someone was going to make the first record that heavily used machines, and it just happened to be us by virtue of the sound and the drum machine. If it hadn't been us, at some point someone else would have inspired people to go out and buy drum machines and synths. When we used them, we didn't try to make them sound like real instruments, whereas the likes of Human League were trying to get a machine–oriented record such as 'Don't You Want Me Baby' to sound like a real band. That's not what we were aiming to do.

"When we did 'Planet Rock', we weren't trying to be different. It just turned out that way and initially we decided to keep going with it. However, we then went in another direction with 'Looking For The Perfect Beat', going for that crazy, mad professor vibe while others were busy making rap records. That's what I meant by 'beat this'. We were definitely laying down a challenge to Sugarhill, Def Jam and all the other labels — 'You won't be able to figure out what we're doing here.' Sure, it was an ego thing, but at the end of the day, when I listen to 'Perfect Beat' I think I get even more chills than when I listen to 'Planet Rock'."

Published November 2008

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