“It’s not about the old school, it’s not about the new school — it’s about the true school,” declared frontman ‘Dr. Shaka Zulu’ as Afrika Bambaataa wiped the sweat from his brow, stared back into his computer screen and swore he was king.
Bambaataa, respectfully regarded as the “father of the electro-funk sound,” stooped from his throne amongst hip-hop history to play a humble show at Cornell’s Theta Delta Chi (‘Thumpty’) fraternity on Thursday night. At 53, Bambaataa is something of a symbol for his generation — a catalyst for the evolution of hip-hop culture and a politically aware voice in the Bronx of the 70s and 80s. His greatest legacy, though, survives in the persisting hip-hop sound. On the continuum of musical evolution, Bambaataa’s inventiveness landed his sound at a sufficient distance from that of his contemporaries, and he was thus credited with the birth of a genre. “Electro-funk” is a hip-hop subtype that remixes samples of funk tunes with breakbeats and overlays with synthesized electronic melody.
For a reviewer thoroughly steeped in close-minded principles of admirable musicianship, appreciation for a D.J. took focused effort, and unfortunately it seems as though Thumpty’s Bambaataa show may have to bear the burden of my hip-hop naïveté. However, as a general point, most of the elements that compose a concert’s appeal translate between even the most polarized of genres. The appeal of the electro-funk hip-hop show hinges on the relationship between predictability and diversity in the sound. In two hours of continuous sound there must be sufficient cohesion so that the listener can ‘lose themselves’ in the music, but the D.J. simultaneously needs to keep his sound from going stale. He mustn’t intrude on your mind’s trance, only guide it toward a climax unachievable by its usual wandering, creating the illusion of an internally spawned euphoria — one that crawled from your own heart rather than the D.J.’s speakers to raise the goose bumps on your skin.
However, continuous sound can be exhausting, and Bambaataa’s show sometimes fell victim to monotony. Restless ears led to restless eyes, and I found myself committing a concert taboo to find amusement — turning to hearing’s neglected step-cousin: sight. The 53-year-old, expressionless Bambaataa wasn’t much of a viewing experience. Aware that an unenthused face illuminated by a computer screen’s dull glow would be an unsatisfying target for his audience’s wandering eyes, Bambaataa hired a frontman. Dr. Shaka Zulu’s charisma was entertaining for a song or two, but with no creative comments or sense of rhythm, his input started detracting from the sound after the ninth or tenth “ohhhhhhhhhh yeah.”
But there were moments. Bambaataa’s sound is undeniably fun, even if he doesn’t seem to be enjoying it. The breakbeat style is very danceable, and in an era where party music’s positivity is often limited to “chains and whips,” outdated samples like Kriss Kross’s ‘Jump,’ and the Jackson Five’s ‘ABC’ were refreshingly carefree. My favorite came late in the show — a marginally altered remix of the oft-covered ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ by Sly and the Family Stone. Coming at the perfect time late in the show, just as my calf started to cramp, the famously catchy sax line forced my legs back into motion.
After a stressful week of tests and pre-enrollment drama, it was too tempting to cynically fixate on the show’s faults, and even Bambaataa’s inventive tuneage couldn’t redeem the obnoxiousness of his shit-shooting frontman. An occasional reference to hip-hop legacy wouldn’t have detracted from the show, but when the frontman wouldn’t let it go, it seemed as though they were unwilling to let the sound of Afrika Bambaataa speak for itself. I get it — he’s the king; now let me listen.