Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Do the Do

Afrika Bambaataa is not universally admired on the frenetically competitive hip-hop scene. "What does he do?" skeptics ask, and not without reason. He's not much of a rapper or singer, although he's done both. He's not renowned as a writer or producer or arranger, although he has credits on some fine records. And although his deejaying has no equal for sheer catholicity of taste, he's not a premier scratcher or mixer.

But even those who don't admire Bam generally agree that they like him, and on the frenetically competitive hip-hop scene, that's an achievement. Polite, soft-spoken, even shy, he has a reputation for fairness. Through his involvement with the Roxy and the breakthrough hit "Planet Rock," the public-spiritedness at the heart of his Zulu Nation philosophy has multiplied. "Bambaataa's not so much a chief as a big man," is how one admirer described it. "Instead of centralizing wealth he recirculates it."

Though it may be true that Bambaataa doesn't do anything, it's worth remembering that the same charge has been leveled at one of his heroes, P-Funk's George Clinton. And auteurists should note that, almost alone among rap groups, the ones Bam works, with--Soul Sonic Force, Shango, Time Zone--avoid the male-bonded boasting that provides so much of the style's emotional energy. May his spirit prosper.

Village Voice, Jan. 3, 1984