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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, "Planet Rock: The Album"

Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force
"Planet Rock: The Album"
Tommy Boy (1986)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

The first listen to "Planet Rock: The Album" by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force will probably draw up one thought: This is the most '80s hip-hop album ever. In many ways, this sentiment is exactly correct. But what few know is that Bambaataa and his crew are exactly why you perceive '80s hip-hop to sound like that. The group didn't just alter the fabric of hip-hop; Multiple genres owe a debt to Soulsonic Force's inspiration.

First, we'll look at the group's influence solely on hip-hop music. The percussion you hear during "Planet Rock" and the other tracks on this album is a Roland TR-808 drum machine, a common sound for a hip-hop record. Bambaataa however, was the first to incorporate the device into hip-hop music, and the rest is history. The 808 has been implemented into hundreds of hip-hop songs, and even made the title of Kanye West's "808s and Heartbreak." It should be noted however that Bambaataa got the idea from Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra, and used a beat he heard on one of the group's songs. That wouldn't be the last major sample Bambaataa incorporated into "Planet Rock."

The emcee also borrowed keyboard melodies from Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers," a touch that, along with vocoder and other vocal effects, gives the album it's electro feel. It should be noted that Bambaataa did not simply sample the various instrumental parts, but rerecorded them himself using his own equipment, and he also cited the other groups' work in the credits for the song. The sound he and the group created (including the concept of artistic borrowing) helped inspire electronic dance movements such as house and trance, and Bambaataa is considered the "grandfather of electro funk."

One genre that the Soulsonic Force doesn't get any credit for influencing in these two books, but I feel is worth mentioning is industrial. Sure, the "party rock" attitude of the Force doesn't mesh at all with the gritty cynicism of industrial, but the genre of Nine Inch Nails and others was just developing during the '80s, and darker sounding electronic tracks like "Frantic Situation" would have gotten enough airplay to reach the ears of those who would popularize the industrial movement.

As I mentioned, most of these tracks aren't worth hearing from a strictly lyrical perspective. The lyrics are an afterthought, and it is rare for the group to even bother rhyming. A typical bar features some catcall about partying or the group trying to be risqué by subbing the word "funk" for the F-bomb, and it's best to just let the instrumentals do the talking for themselves. "Renegades of Funk" does have a vaguely political message, but it would go on to be more recognized as a Rage Against The Machine cover.

Yes, listening to the earliest stages of electro in hip-hop might seem a little silly in the 21st century. Look at all of the genres that this music inspired however, and you know it can't be wrong. At any rate, get your nose out of the air. This track is still plenty funky to make a sophisticated hip-hop fan move 30 years later.

INTERESTING FACT: Back in the day, people used to not only buy albums, but singles as well. "Planet Rock" was the first 12-inch single to be certified gold, most likely because it wouldn't be released on a full album until four years later in 1986.

Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa on Grooveshark

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