COMMEMORATING THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF A CLASSIC
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock
Exactly a quarter of a century ago, in May 1982, I bought a record that would become truly historic, the type of record which splits the musical atom, provoking either love or hate but never indifference. This was the seminal ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force, hot out of New York as an import on the now legendary Tommy Boy label. My first thought on hearing it was the obvious one, it sounded remarkably like a speeded-up cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (it had also drawn its inspiration from another Kraftwerk track, ‘Numbers’, as well as Captain Sky’s ‘Super Sporm’). The haunting keyboard line was definitely there, but instead of a monotone Germanic voice this had a rap over the top of it, enticing us with its now immortal call ‘party people, party people, can y’all get funky?’, before the full weight of this electronic oddity kicked-in.
We had no real conception of what was going on in the Bronx at the time, and how the Hip-Hop scene was beginning to gain recognition within the wider New York community – it would be another six months before the penny finally began to drop once all was revealed in Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gal’s’ video. We could only view this track in complete isolation, and pretty much everyone who was anyone on the black music scene instantly dismissed it as the worst possible kind of junk. I could almost feel the laughter behind my back as I walked out of Spin Inn in Manchester having purchased a copy. A fool wasting his money, or so they must have mused.
‘Planet Rock’ sounded amazing over the big systems at the venues in which I worked, The Pier in Wigan and Legend in Manchester, but it outraged some of the old Jazz-Funk crowd who’d been regulars at the Pier for as long as I could remember – the Peech Boys might have eventually filtered through with the old guard, but this was all a step too far and it was worrying when I became aware that a number of them were beginning to drift away around this time. However, it was a case of swings and roundabouts, with an increasing amount of travellers heading in, most notably from the Midlands and West Yorkshire, and also for the first time, in force, from Manchester. What was particularly noticeable was that the new faces were mainly black, replacing the absent white ones. Electro, on its arrival, found its audience in the black community – it almost always happened to be white people making the now thoroughly preposterous pronouncement that this ‘wasn’t black music’.
Despite the initial ridicule, I continued play the dreaded ‘Planet Rock’ and, whilst I was berated behind my back and even sometimes to my face for what they perceived to be my extreme bad taste, the kids danced on and, as George Clinton would later observe in his single ‘Loopzilla’, it drove people nuts! Clinton must have been having a wry smile at all the kafuffle surrounding this record, a million seller in the US, for it was he and his P Funkonauts who’d first launched black music into space some years earlier. Electro-Funk was the natural successor to P Funk, and having been inspired by this Bambaataa would, in turn, inspire Clinton to create some Electro-Funk gems of his own, most notably ‘Loopzilla’ and ‘Atomic Dog’.
Apart from confirming Bambaataa’s phenomenal arrival, ‘Planet Rock’ would also be the 12” that provided the big breakthrough for Electro-Funk’s greatest producer, Arthur Baker. Its use of the now legendary Roland TR-808 drum machine would instigate a whole new approach to rhythm, heralding the age of the beatbox. Along with Arthur Baker and Soul Sonic Force, the track was written by John Robie, whose pioneering use of the first digital samplers, the Emulator and Fairlight, would ensure he was in great demand during the years to come, including a number of co-production credits on subsequent Baker projects.
‘Planet Rock’ marks the end of one era in the history of dance music and the beginning of another – it well and truly lit the blue touch paper for what was to follow, with Hip-Hop, House, and Techno all indebted to this electronic wonder. It’s difficult now, with two and a half further decades of dance behind us, to fully appreciate just how radically different this record was back then, it might as well have come from Mars – that was how they wanted it to sound and that’s exactly how it sounded, hole in one and a quantum leap in the evolution of dance music.
* for the full lowdown on ‘Planet Rock’ I highly recommend Mark McCords feature on the record in Wax Poetics #21: http://waxpoetics.com
© Greg Wilson, May 2007