It is nearly impossible to trace back the beginnings of most genres of music to a single person, but for hip-hop doing so is not only simple but conventional wisdom. In the ’70s, early hip-hop can be traced back to a man from South Bronx who calls himself Afrika Bambaataa, after a rebellious South African Zulu chief. For the next three years, that same Afrika Bambaataa will be a visiting scholar at Cornell University. On Tuesday, he will deliver a lecture, “The Roots of Hip-Hop,” at 5 p.m. in G10 Biotechnology as well as perform with D.J. Rich Medina at 8 p.m. at The Haunt. The Sun spoke with Prof. Bambaataa about what he plans to teach, government censorship and the mixtape’s effect on hip-hop culture.
The Sun: You were just recently appointed as a visiting scholar to the university. How did that come about?
Afrika Bambaataa: That came from the great work of [librarians] Katherine [Reagan] and Ben Ortiz at Cornell University and [photographer] Joe Corzo and [author] Johan [Kugelberg] who’s also helped to make this happen.
Sun: When you come here you’re going to be doing some lectures. What topics do you want to have classes about?
A.B.: Basically, we’re supposed to be dealing with hip-hop culture, but it could go anywhere. Like what I do at other colleges where sometimes it even gets away from hip-hop and builds to this world. Depends on the students and where they want to take it. I’m not gonna just come and talk and hope the students write down what [I] say and there’s no correspondence. We will learn from each other. Each one teach one.
Sun: Were you surprised at all that Cornell University, some school in upstate New York, has such an extensive archive of hip-hop culture?
A.B.: I wasn’t surprised. I was glad there was some place in New York State that decided to take these archives of hip-hop. It’s a shame on New York City, the home of hip-hop, that [have] not one place yet to give respect to what brings a lot of money to their city.
Sun: Speaking of New York City, you just put in a bid for a museum of hip-hop in the Bronx. If that becomes a reality, what hip-hop artifacts would you want to put in there first?
A.B.: All the facts that they might have kept over the years, whether it be turntables or mixes or sound equipment, everything we were using. Recordings, movies.
Sun: How would you say that hip-hop has evolved in the 35-plus years since it started in the South Bronx?
A.B.: Well, it has evolved in that it has become all over the Earth and many respected countries. Cities and towns are using the languages that they speak to record or rap, as well as, of course, movement[s] within their [countries]; some politics, some dealing with just peace, unity, love and having fun, some dealing with the negative, and others dealing with the positive. [The people of these countries] have grabbed upon every different aspect of life on the Earth, but, through the rhythm of hip-hop, have brought more people together than many of the politicians on the planet of Earth.
Sun: Do you still keep in contact with members of the Soulsonic Force, the Jazzy 5 or the people in the original Zulu Nation?
A.B.: Yes, all the time. That’s why we have the Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture. That’s where all the new alums can meet each other. I still do shows with the Soulsonic Force here and there. Sometimes, they go out on their own and other times we meet up. Most people take us all together and put it on YouTube anyways, so there are YouTube videos where you see us all together in different places.
Sun: What current hip-hop artists would you say are representing hip-hop in the mentality that you started?
A.B.: I would definitely give it to the Grace Jones of hip-hop, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, who keeps it real with a lot of his things, and Outkast, who’s very progressive-minded. Cee-Lo, who’s singing and chilling with the talents that he got. I give it to those who are not scared to be progressive-minded and do things that they always wanted to do. They never tell a rockstar, “You can’t sing those soul songs.” [They] never told somebody else if they were playing country western or something, “You can’t go and add some R&B to your country western.” It’s the same with hip-hop artists. They should do whatever style of music that they want to incorporate into their sound.
Sun: What’s your opinion on mixtape culture? The idea that artists can make an album, release it and be famous without ever releasing anything commercially?
A.B.: I love that. I advise all those who want to [use the Internet] to hurry up and use the Internet, ’cause you’ve definitely got secret type of people who are studying how to take control of the Internet to take it back. And they definitely, in certain countries, are stopping YouTube and anything that tries to wake up people or give them a message.