Introduction to Interdisciplinary Computing and Arts for Music - Teaching Assistant Rachel Thompson - December 2007
The advent of technology has brought new advances into the realm of art. Music, in particular, embraces this progression with the intersection of music and technology. Yet, scholars argue that historical notions of art still prevail amidst the introduction and incorporation of these new tools. Afrika Bambaata, a leader and innovator of Hip-Hop culture in the 1980s, embodies the connection between art and technology while still preserving the link with the historical, traditional aspects of art.
There are several historical notions of art and music that represent the world prior to the multifaceted network of music and technology. In terms of communication, art was exhibited in a one-way movement from sender to receiver, or musician to listener. The “amateur and the professional pools did not mix,” as the common public did not have access to technology such as cameras, personal computers, voice recorders, or records” (Manovich, “Re-Mix”). Technologies of art were exhibited on a professional level, rather than a social one. In addition, music is historically known and revered for its “culture of spontaneity” (Lewis “Live”). Improvisation is a valued aspect of music and art form. In terms of African and African American music, the tenet of improvisation is essential. Music traveled historically with Africans to the Americas through the slave trade. To the ears of the white captors and slaveholders, black music was seen “primarily as noise—that is, strange, unfathomable, and incomprehensible” (Lewis, “Too Many”). The spontaneity was overshadowed by the foreign nature of the music, as were the characteristically multidominant rhythmic textures. Thus, African American music evolved into an aesthetic that “[articulated] political and social meaning” to address and reaffirm the culture of African Americans (Lewis, “Too Many”).
In many respects, Afrika Bambaata is consistent with these historical notions of music. He embodies the multiplicity of traditional African music through his diverse taste and fusing of different sounds. His musical preference ranged from styles such as rock, rhythm and blues, African, and classical. Bambaata attempted to blend uptown with downtown musical styles, creating a genre the mixed funk and hip hop (“On the Line With… Afrika Bambaata”). Historically, in different genres of music, it is where music comes together that signifies art. In blues music, it is “going to the crossroads,” and in jazz music it is the “call and response” style that brings together different kinds of music and different individual talents (Miller 120). Bambaata embodied this not only through his attempt to merge different genres of music, but also through his creation of the Zulu Nation, which was a group that included rappers, break dancers, deejays, and artists. Bambaata kept in line with the traditional notions of art. In the words of Bambaata himself, Hip-Hop “music itself comes from all types of sound […] You have different brands of Hip-Hop. You have hardcore, commercial type of Hip-Hop, you have the electro sound like the ‘Planet Rock’ sound” (“On the Line With… Afrika Bambaata”).
In addition to the multiplicity of music as a link back to historical African music, Afrika Bambaata also embodies the notion of using art as a means of political and social statement. With the name Zulu Nation (“peace nation”), Bambaata hoped, through art, to encourage peace and alternate forms of entertainment, besides gang violence. When Fab 5 Freddy, a Hip-Hop artist from the early 1980s, invited Bambaata to perform at a predominately white downtown Manhattan club, it was one of the first times Hip-Hop culture and white America came together (“Afrika Bambaata”). Bambaata uses music to bring social change and address several issues in America, much like the tradition of Africans dating back to the Atlantic slave trade. According to Bambaata, “Hip-Hop can deal with the past, the present and it can deal with the future. […] Some people get across messages. Other people talk about love. Some people talk about what’s happening in the Black or Hispanic community or world problems” (“On the Line With… Afrika Bambaata”).
Contingent with these historical notions of art, computer technology has aided art to develop new notions of music. In today’s world, technology facilitates the movement of information between people, bringing information into a personal space and allowing people to work together more easily. Examples of such technological paths include publishing, peer-to-peer networks, or Bluetooth (Manovich, “Re-Mix”). They allow for “collaborative remixability,” (Manovich, “Re-Mix”) the borrowing and modifying of information or art. This is what scholar and author Amiri Baraka referred to as “the changing same” (Miller 120). The reworking and creation of different versions that derive from one form. In music, sampling has become a popular way of remixing songs into a new sound. The technology of the multi-track mixers brought on the advent of remixes as a popular and standard practice. Prior, it was only the remixing and blending of different live music and instruments, not the merger of different technologically recorded sounds. Now, each aspect of a song can be individually maneuvered to remix a song by combining it with an old one, making the drums stand out, changing the volume, layering different rhythms, or substituting different sounds (Manovich, “What Comes”). With the arrival of this technology, digital sound recording became the main method of composition, allowing a broad scope of possibilities for musical creation.
Afrika Bambaata was consistent with many of these new notions of art, while simultaneously breaking radically from the historical thinking of music. In the 1980s, Kool Herc was the most successful DJ at the time. As Bambaata was just embarking on his musical career, he owned many of the same records as Kool Herc and started to deejay. In so doing, Bambaata breaks the polarity of the professional and the amateur, and Bambaata, the amateur, soon becomes the professional. He brings the professional into his own personal and social space through the technology available to him.
In addition, Bambaata also departs from the past thinking of music by breaking the notion of African art of being “noise.” When he plays for a predominately white audience with Fab 5 Freddy in 1982, he fuses Hip-Hop and white culture. Bambaata presents today’s underlying intent of Hip-Hop as an art that is universal, progressive, interracial, and collaborative (“On the Line With… Afrika Bambata”). Bambaata went on to release over twenty albums with successful sales and an audience that includes people from all different races, backgrounds, and cultures.
Finally, Afrika Bambaata splits from the historical idea of music through the “culture of spontaneity” representative of past music. In 1982, Bambaata dropped his live band, breaking with the idea of improvisation and live performance. Instead, he chose to complement his music with electronic “beat-box” rhythms, a keyboard, and synthesizers (“Afrika Bambaata- Biography”). In so doing, he departs from the improvisation that is characteristic of music from blues, jazz, traditional African music, and various other forms. However, Bambaata also shows the ubiquity of technology in connection to art through the merging of music and technology in his musical career.
Technology has brought new changes into the world of art. Technology and music now overlap in many different ways, offering many different possibilities. Afrika Bambaata, often considered the “father of Hip-Hop,” incorporates these different aspects into his own musical style. Nonetheless, certain historical notions of art, such as the fusion of styles and the use of music as a social mode remain constant through his music. Afrika Bambaata embraced the new ideas of music and technology while still maintaining some of the historical facets of art.
- “Afrika Bambaataa.” OldSchoolHipHop.Com. 20 Nov. 2007. 11 Dec.2007. <http://www.oldschoolhiphop.com/artists/deejays/afrika.htm>.
- “Afrika Bambaata- Biography.” Rolling Stone. 2007. 11 Dec. 2007. <http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/afrikabambaataa/biography>.
- Lewis, George E. “Live Algorithms and The Future of Music.” CTWatch Quarterly. May 2007. 11 Dec 2007. <http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/live-algorithms-and-the-future-of-music/>.
- Lewis, George E. “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity, and Culture in Voyager.” Leonardo Music Journal. 2000. 11 Dec 2007. <http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/leonardo_music_journal/v010/10.1lewis.html>.
- Manovich, Lev. “Re-Mix and Remixabiltiy.” Online posting. 16 Nov. 2005. Nettime. 11 Dec. 2007. <http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0511/msg00060.html>.
- Manovich, Lev. “What Comes After Remix?”. Remix Theory. 2007. 11 Dec. 2007. <http://remixtheory.net/?p=169>.
- Miller, Paul D. Rhythm Science. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 3-31 “side a.”
- “On the Line With…Afrika Bambaata.” Davey D.’s Hip Hop Corner. 2005. 11 Dec 2007. “<http://www.daveyd.com/baminterview.html>.