The International House of Bamcakes

The introduction and first volume in a continuing series on pro-black ideology in rap music - transcribed mostly unaltered from an academic paper I've spent the first third of the year researching. I've taken out citations - which is unfair, but otherwise would've been distracting. Besides, almost all of the stuff I cite is terrible. I recommend only David Toop's comprehensive Rap Attack and Jeff Chang's astonishing Can't Stop, Won't Stop... Here, we start at the beginning. 

A fair number of scholars who study rap music - specifically black self-expression in rap - incite what I’d like to call various “golden age” abstractions. For instance: that rap owes its black nationalism to the golden age of black nationalism; or the golden age of rap music occurred roughly between 1988 and 1993; or afrofuturism presupposes a golden age, and rap as an aesthetic happening invokes that promise, whatever it looks like. I start here not because I find these positions compelling (point of fact, a lot of it is lazy cultural historicism) but to incite my own golden age abstraction, one at a remove: the golden age of academic writing about rap music definitely occurred between 1989 and 1994 - and what remains of serious rap study today is unfortunately beholden to that era.

It’s unfortunate because golden age rap criticism bears all the traces of disruptive anxiety rap fans and workaday pop critics have long outgrown - and for good reason. No, hip hop wasn’t merely a fad, it was not altogether suppressed by the forces that be, it did not (for the most part) ignite a violent culture war. Rightly, historicizing hip hop’s moment and all the attendant political, social, economic, and technological accouterments is now a drink best served cold. “Pass that Versace.”

Whether or not rap is a momentary accident of funk, if it’s a decidedly postmodern or pre-modern Afrodiaspora orality, if sampling constitutes hegemonic subversion, homage, double code, or a Foucaultian “insurrection of subjugated knowledge,” or if the emphasis of rhythm over melody harkens aesthetic primitivism - these questions are by now not simply redundant but quibble with distinctions not cost effective.

I’m suggesting a few things here: one, no serious scholar should ever write ‘sampling’ in quotations again, and hip hop hasn’t been Hip Hop in almost twenty years. Two, understanding rap music is less and less about situating it in aesthetic traditions both real (James Brown, 1950s disc jockeys, Marley, toasting) and attenuated (Savannah griotism). It’s too old, too established, and far too big. Instead, understanding rap - in its current and even historical instantiations - means acknowledging rap as a category unto itself: which is to say, its billion dollar cultural capital, and its malleability as prefab production material in all contemporary musical genres. In admitting this, I find that targeted (yes: limited) content analysis is the best way to uncover anything revelatory in all this mess.

Accordingly, I’d prefer to go old school with some New Criticism - a device even self-styled formalists like James B Stewart leave at the door to chart, for instance, rap’s deep historical correlative with R&B. What concerns me about black self-expression in rap is certainly not the What of the question (What does sampling signify broadly? What does it mean to speak from the margins on the radio? What is the phenomenon of rapping?) but the Who, Why, and How.

Who does this sample invoke, and why is it arranged in this way? How is Public Enemy reviving the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, and is their project consistent? Why this particular track order in The College Dropout, and who’s in the booth pulling the strings? And so on: very specific close-readings of songs, albums, and visual media.

So, aside from an essential gloss of the socioeconomic conditions that rocketed Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation machine out of the Bronx at the turn of the 1980s (for my money, the only historical figuration we can affix with certainty to the broader phenomenon of rap), cultural critique is kept to a minimum - not to deny the importance of rap’s broader social context so much as to treat the works of Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and Kanye West as the artistic statements they’re intended to be.

Yes, my approach sacrifices probably the most crucial dynamic in any conversation about black music: its behind-the-scenes relationship with the inevitable and paternalistic white suits at the helm of the record industry and elsewhere. But that’s largely why I elected to interpret these three acts: howsoever they met institutional (read: racist) resistance, and to what extent, is a question rendered - frankly - immaterial when you take a look at the charts. These acts sold, and in selling spread distinct brands of black expression to a massive, hysterical audience wanting more. Before I go any further, let me say these artists should register as global treasures on that condition alone.

I Would Like To Say That Everyone Had His Own Negritude

While there’s surely nothing incidental about the Nation of Islam, Jesse Jackson, Amiri Baraka, select luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, the NAACP, etc. (prominent, household figures of twentieth century pro-black ideology), their specific relationships to the three acts in question have far more to do with form than content. It is offensive and frankly incorrect to reduce, as some scholars have, Chuck D to a modern instance of the classic Black Panther soldier (even if Chuck has at times made such claims himself), just as his troubled counterpart, Professor Griff, isn’t merely a radical anti-Semite. No: Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and Kanye West tend in their music and public images to animate and dismiss political and social movements (and their figureheads) wholesale, as if on a whim. To casual observers (which isn’t necessarily to say journalists) this might qualify as some kind of malfeasance. Chuck D resists:

“I’m not a politician, I’m a dispatcher of information,” [he] complained to John Leland. “People are always looking to catch me in fucking doubletalk and loopholes. They’re looking to say, ‘Damn, in this interview he said that, and in this interview he said that.’ They treat me like I’m Jesse Jackson.”

Chuck fashioned a new soundbite, describing a role he felt… capable of fulfilling. “In five years,” he would say, “we intend to have cultivated five thousand Black leaders. Maybe another Marley or a Jesse Jackson, a Marcus Garvey or another Louis Farrakhan.”

It’s tempting here to call Chuck a philistine - for name-dropping such a cumbersome heap of ideologically charged and fundamentally dissimilar black activists. But on the contrary I argue it places him in intimate dialogue with black theorists whose intellectual (not to mention literary) acumen is unassailable. Consider Aimé Césaire, who says much the same while addressing the philosophy of his own invention, negritude, in an interview attending his landmark Discourse on Colonialism:

[Rene Depestre]: To sum up, do you think that the concept of Negritude was formed on the basis of shared ideological and political beliefs on the part of its proponents? Your comrades in Negritude, the first militants of Negritude, have followed a different path from you. There is, for example, Senghor, a brilliant intellect and a fiery poet, but full of, contradictions on the subject of Negritude.

A.C.: Our affinities were above all a matter of feeling. You either felt black or did not feel black. But there was also the political aspect. Negritude was, after all, part of the left. I never thought for a moment that our emancipation would come from the right - that’s impossible. We both felt, Senghor and I, that our liberation [from colonial rule in Senegal and Martinique] placed us on the left, but both of us refused to see the black question as simply a social question…. I would like to say that everyone has his own Negritude. There has been too much theorizing about Negritude. But if someone asks me what my conception of Negritude is, I answer that above all it is a concrete rather than an abstract coming to consciousness.

It’s this somewhat baffling admission of dogmatic relativity that undergirds the whole paper’s analysis: I insist that golden age rap scholars were frustrated and ultimately defeated by their own ideological machinations. There’s simply no successful way to impose a school of thought (and good luck locating the whole genre in any postmodern, modern or pre-modern dialectic) when the force banding artist-to-artist, album-to-album, song-to-song is perhaps nothing more than an incumbent sense of left blackness and general camaraderie. Chuck D was right to say he’s no politician, and, I say, his band no party:

So Public Enemy’s worldview did not adhere to traditional politics. Stephney, for instance, worked closely with civil rights organizations, and closely watched mainstream politics, but refused to join any political party. As Minister of Information, Griff told reporters Public Enemy was drawing on the thinking of Malcolm X, Mao Zedong, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Moammar Khaddafi, Winnie and Nelson Mandela and Minister Farrakhan.19 As for Chuck, a self-declared communist captivated by Farrakhan, he says now, “I don’t know what I was. I definitely wasn’t a capitalist. And I definitely wasn’t American.

Again, none of this is to say these artists are indifferent to the particular details of organized pro-black struggle and advocacy. The point is that the most resonant analysis is to be conducted where Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and Kanye West cross paths with old school black humanist philosophers: Césaire of course, Frantz Fanon especially, Senghor to a lesser extent, and W.E.B. Du Bois (certainly not a name in the negritude tradition, but one of inescapable magnitude). The reason is simple: their tracts are substantially less categorical than, say, the Black Panther Platform and Program, or the varied polemics of Farrakhan.

In summary, then, the aim of this paper is to identify conscious (and unconscious) displays of black self-expression - displays that array the artists with specific pro-black theory. In turn, I’ll investigate with close-reading how Bambaataa, Public Enemy, and Kanye may echo (or not) these foundational texts I’ve placed alongside them. And while I am heedlessly borrowing the term from its Francophonie origins, ‘negritude’ – as it was explained and practiced by late Césaire himself – provides exactly the degree of inclusion I need to house these expressions, however they’re rendered.

Stopping Bullets With Two Turntables

While Afrika Bambaataa, as a man and as an artist, reinforces the framework of my thesis, his method poses problems. Like Chuck D, Bambaataa’s brand of negritude is unquestionably a patchwork of diffuse (some argue irreconcilable) ideologies. But little of that comes out distinctly on record, especially if lyrical content is your game. I’m forced to break from my introduction some here, and qualify that Bambaataa is a study in practice over theory. For him, negritude means doing and saying whatever it takes to get kids funky in a parking lot instead of killed in the streets.

There’s no separating the emergence of Bambaataa, his Zulu Nation, or any other early hip hop phenomenon from the living conditions of the Bronx in the early 1970s. In existing literature, much has been made of Robert Moses’ insidious vision the Cross-Bronx Expressway - mid-century infrastructure designed to shuttle affluence between Manhattan and New Jersey at record speed, buttressed by the well-anticipated obliteration of the Bronx’s socioeconomic standing:

[B]y 1959, Robert Moses, Park Commissioner, order than an expressway be built through the Bronx. Accordingly, “the middle-class Italian, German and Jewish neighborhoods disappeared overnight. Impoverished black and Hispanic families, who dominated the southern end of the borough, drifted north. Along with the poor came their perennial problems: crime, drug addiction, [and] unemployment” (ibid:2-3). As a result of the expressway, property owners sold apartments at lower rates to slumlords who neglected apartment upkeep, yet charged exorbitant rent. African American and Hispanic residents were forced to live in dilapidated housing and rodent-infested conditions. Exacerbating matters, some slumlords ceased paying taxes by hiring someone to force residents out by burning down the apartments hoping to receive, in return, insurance payoffs."

As conditions worsened, crime escalated. Some youth felt the need to form neighborhood groups or gangs to police their apartments, housing projects, streets and neighborhoods from outside invaders. As soon as sone gang formed, so did others, eventually leading to fierce territory rivalry.

Conservative estimates suggest, by 1974, the high watermark of the territory wars, the Bronx was host to more than a hundred gangs, claiming between them over 11,000 members. Bambaataa, despite his modern reputation as a non-violent peacemaker, was initially no exception. To no one’s surprise, he’s chosen in reflection to emphasize the communal aspects of his affiliation with the region’s biggest gang, the Black Spades:

To me, the gangs was educational - it got me to learn about the streets, and The Black Spades [sic] they had a unity that I couldn’t find elsewhere. I’ve been in a lot of different gang groups but The Black Spades has a unity among each other. The gang was like your family. You learned about how to travel around the New York streets. A lot of times when there were no jobs for youth, no trips happening in the Community Centres so the gangs got them there. If the gangs, ‘scuse the expression, tore shit up, the government would start sending people to speak to you, throwing in money to calm the gang down. America is raised on violence. Only time America really listens is when somebody starts getting violent back.

His word choice is significant, indicates genuine difference. “I’ve been in a lot of different gang groups but…” is a regional anomaly. Unless a gang petered out, or its leadership agreed to a merger, there was no protocol for transfer. In fact, in the early 1970s, crossing imaginary lines marking gang territory was insult enough to excuse immediate violence, occasionally murder.

But even once he settled as a Spade, Bambaataa operated without prejudice:

As a Spade, Bambaataa made his rep by being unafraid to cross turfs to forge relationships with other gangs. He says, “I was a person who was always in other areas. So if I was a Spade, I still was with the Nomads. If I was with the Nomads, I was hanging with the Javelins. When I came into any group, I had the power, the backing of the other group I was with. Although I was a Spade, I still had power and control of some of the Nomads, some of the Javelins. “Soon, Bambaataa’s ability to move between gangs did not look like a weakness, but a strength. “I was the person that if you had problems, I could rally up three to four hundred at one time and move on you,” he says.

This mystifying success as an inter-gang liaison strikes me as a symptom of Bambaataa’s own good nature, one tinted by an uncommon predilection for indiscriminate inclusion. And though this temperament has opened the artist up to charges of inconsistency, I argue that his music, organizational prowess, social standing and, ultimately, his negritude betray a radical harmony.

Propelled by a life-affirming trip to Africa and the dissolution of the Spades, Bambaataa set out to organize a new kind of Bronx. When he began touring the city as both DJ and leader of a new outfit of early hip hoppers called Zulu Nation, it was with the express intent of unifying a Bronx suffering a second wave of shambling, the chaotic wane of heavy gang influence. DJ Kool Herc had already demonstrated by accident (his habit, it seems) that huge speakers and an intended sequence of breaks could draw a diverse crowd to party without too much violence – even if goers had to cross the ever-roaming turf lines. Bambaataa flashed the genius to grant this accident both a narrative and organizing principle. Wherever he played, he recruited.

Just how he recruited is fairly astonishing. True to form, and in remarkable support of my thesis, Bambaataa culled together an unwieldy assortment of philosophies both theological and agnostic to produce a set of tenets for the new Bronx to abide, the Zulu “way of life.” He called them the Seven Infinity Lessons.

[T]he Infinity Lessons followed a ranging eclecticism, mixed a bit of the familiar with a lot of the arcane. They touched on the origins of Universal Zulu Nation and its South African antecedents, and offered a Bronx River view of the origins of hip-hop. They highlighted esoterica like Elijah Muhammad’s dietary pronouncements and Dr. Malachi Z. York’s racial interpretations of Biblical history. They were presented in the same question-and-answer studies and keyword glossary forms used by the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths, better known as the Five Percenters.

The Infinity Lessons drew on the Black Muslims’ evocation of a glorious, original African past, but not their impulse to racial separation. “The Lessons picked up the Black Panthers’ call for self-defense, but they dropped the programmatic demands for housing and employment.

Most important, the Lessons were an evolving document. They would expand and change as more members came into the fold. By definition, they were open-ended, infinite.

To the ministers and ideologues moving in the Bronx, the Zulus presented a question mark: they were agnostic devotees, skeptical true-believers, noncommittal revolutionaries. The Infinity Lessons seemed a quasi-theological mess, an autodidactic crazy-quilt, a political road map to a nowhere. But to Bambaataa the ideas were less important than the process.

Although there’s no mistaking Césaire for a mystic, his call for an open negritude – unwound from the urgency of dogma – is skittered here in Zulu Nation’s “crazy-quilt” of theory.

But Bambaataa is not a straight Césaire sample. While his polemical side resembles the French tradition (erecting a “nation” with a constitution as hysterical as the Seven Infinity Lessons is something Fanon might call a neurotic’s rejection of white alterity), his music would arouse the ghost of W.E.B. Du Bois.

I do not mean to say that “Planet Rock,” “Looking for the Perfect Beat” and the remainder of Bambaataa’s too-small yet essential songbook are to be found behind the veil, operating with an obvious double consciousness. In fact, just the opposite. Bambaataa’s mixes, pastiches no less complicated than his negritude, call out well beyond the veil – have never even acknowledged the veil. To hear his music is to hear an artist living and playing, as Du Bois had hoped, as “both a Negro and an American” without regard for the “contradiction of double aims." In this way, he is a pioneer – both socially and sonically: 

When I came on the scene after [DJ Kool Herc] I built in other types of records and I started getting a name for master of records. I started playing all forms of music. Myself, I used to play the weirdest stuff at a party. Everybody just thought I was crazy. …I would play ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by The Rolling Stones and just keep that beat going. I’d play something from metal rock records like Grand Funk Railroad. …I’d used to like to catch the people who’d say, “I don’t like rock. I don’t like Latin.’ I’d throw on Mick Jagger – you’d see blacks and Spanish just throwing down, dancing crazy. I’d say, “I thought you said you didn’t like rock.” They’d say, “Get out of here. “I’d say, ‘Well, you just danced to The Rolling Stones.’ ‘You’re kidding!’ 

This strange admixture of identity – an all-inclusive aesthetic principle refracted through a radical pro-black prophet – recalls the kind of tension central (yet often ignored) to The Souls of Black Folk, wherein Du Bois outlines in nine chapters a path to national assimilation but uses the tenth to elect the black sorrow song as fundamental American canon: ““Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

Except here, the tension is inflected: though self-styled as a new fixture in the practice of James Brown and George Clinton, and actively seeking a politics of (as Fanon and Césaire would say) disalienation, Bambaataa draws in equal measure from the well of white music. And not just from the classic British Invasion crowd (who, frankly, owe most of their sound to black rhythm and blues anyway) but also from acts rooted firmly in the Classical Western tradition. This is nowhere more apparent than in his immortal single, “Planet Rock.”

With a melody snatched from Euro club hit “Trans-Europe Express” by German (and very much white) electronic forefathers Kraftwerk, and a drum pattern mimicking the same band’s more obscure song “Numbers” – the world’s second taste of new Bronx funk traced decidedly unfunky origins. Add to the mix strains of British synth-rocker Gary Numan, Japanese avant-garde Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the last-minute backing vocals by the pop folk quartet Washington Squares – and “Planet Rock” would’ve indistinguishable as black music save for a heavily vocodered MC Globe repping the Soul Sonic Force, Zulu Nation, and (presumably George Clinton’s) house of funk.

Which is why we register surprise as Bambaataa’s surprise at the single’s wide-ranging popularity: “I really made it for the Blacks, Latinos and the punk rockers, but I didn’t know the next day that everybody was all into it and dancing. I said, ‘Whoa! This is interesting.'" Though, of course, he ultimately shifted his position to one more in line with his famous eclecticism (not to mention ego): “Bambaataa himself immodestly claims at least six genres of dance music were both when ‘Planet Rock’ launched the style that he called ‘Electro-Funk’, and which would be known simply as ‘electro’: the Miami Bass to the Latin freestyle, Latin hip-hop, to the house music, hip-house, [and] techno.'".

Note that Bambaataa does not assume responsibility for rap music – even when academics and public intellectuals alike situate “Planet Rock” alongside “Rapper’s Delight” as earliest canon. In fact, not a one of these six genres could be called distinctly black.

What do we make of this? Principally, that Afrika Bambaataa is not quite the first hip hop nationalist, a title scholars like Jeffrey Louis Decker are quick to confer. In fact, I’m skeptical Bambaataa would himself claim black nationalism or hip hop, in their strict definitions. His Zulu Nation – whatever it owes to the NOI, the Black Panthers, and civil rights luminaries – was conceived in the service of Bronx youth (70% Puerto Rican at the time) and by the influence of literally anything with a break.

Which is why I depart from another golden age hip hop theorist, Elizabeth Wheeler, who fashions a clever but reductive pun when she suggests the Zulu Nation is the sequel of mass resistance to One Nation Under A Groove. While it is true that Bambaataa borrowed P-Funk’s famous salute, George Clinton’s outrageous wardrobe, and the man’s sense of rhythm – it is categorically untrue to suggest Bambaataa raged against a white machine. His enemies were exclusion and street violence. Besides, Kraftwerk is a white machine.

No, taken together – the unwieldy polemics and schizophrenic sample habits – Zulu Nation is more appropriately linked to The International House of Pancakes: a local joint, cheap and easy, where all kinds are welcome.

Technically, then, Afrika Bambaataa could be said to brand no manner of negritude, or – with the very softest of interpretations – a modest vision of the same Senghor issued to New Delhi’s sahitya akademi in May of 1974:

Our respective civilisations – the Indian and the African civilisations – are, once again, symbiosis between North and South. It is now high time that we should supplement them with yet more enriching symbiosis between East and West, between Asia and Africa. In order to create a large harmonious symphony that would spread all over our planet Earth.

Or, you know, planet Rock.