Moonwalk To Afrika

Leftfield. I'm a bit at a loss for words about these guys. The Afrika Bambaataa track, "Afrika Shox," a hit in England about which I've got plenty to say (see below), is something of an anomaly—the rest of the new album is beats and textures, atmosphere and dubbery. It took a while for the more atmosphery-ambient tracks to click in; now that they have, my basic feeling is that Leftfield could make a leaking faucet sound dramatic. Hard to define the weight that moves this music forward, though. And there, my metaphors don't even seem to match—"weight"? "forward"? How about if I say, "Leftfield's music has gravity, which gives it presence, and the presence gives it a sense of moving forward purposefully even in the absence of song structure, even when it's simply beats and tones transmogrifying slowly into slightly different beats and tones"? And so by gravity I really mean "forward momentum" (momentum equals mass times velocity, if I'm remembering my high-school physics correctly) rather than, say, dropping a piano on your foot.

In all the books about the influence of science fiction on dance music . . .well, I'm not sure if there are any such books, but if there were one, it would say that one of the most momentous events in the history of dance music . . . well, not "momentous," because it wasn't a moment and maybe wasn't all that important. Anyway, a nonmomentary event of some significance, maybe, which occurred over a matter of years and decades (sort of long for an "event," but no matter) was the decision—the practice—of movie and video-game makers to work on the principle that space guns and laser rays would sound real cool if they went "zip" and "whoosh" (even if actually, in outer space, no one can hear you shoot) and that space invaders should come down on you with a Doppler "whoooo," and that computers and robots and aliens—when not going blip-blip—should talk in staticky metallic voices. These science-fiction devices had their first dance-music payoff in the late '70s when, for instance, whoever put together Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" decided that funny little space-invader "whoooos" would sound real cool as orgasms and vice versa. And in Germany Kraftwerk did "Trans-Europe Express," which I know is supposed to be a train not a spaceship, but it sounds all spacy with ethereal melodies and robot voices (and in 1977 I kept confusing it with two other songs on the radio: the Star Wars theme and Donna Summer's electro-spacy "I Feel Love," the latter of which sounded as if Donna and her supposed feelings of love were calling to us across a light-year void that she had no interest in crossing).

"Trans-Europe Express" must have sounded sufficiently interplanetary in the South Bronx, where DJ Afrika Bambaataa was helping to invent hip-hop. Several years later he put all these space-robot-computer effects (except for the orgasms) together on the Soul Sonic Force records "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat," where he and his associates Arthur Baker and John Robie worked out that blips could be funky and that beats could get a ray-gun twist—and that bass beats (and therefore car radios) could go BOOM and that big slow beats could be surrounded by little fast beats. And inside this whirlaround, on "Planet Rock," he put the ethereal melody from "Trans-Europe Express."

Looking for the perfect faucet.
photo: Chris Ottaunick
Looking for the perfect faucet.

"Planet Rock" provoked a cross-genre burst of songs and novelties (e.g., "Jam on It" by Newcleus and "Attack of the Name Game" by Stacy Lattislaw), where the young and the alienated who made music decided they might as well sound like aliens too.

But wait, the culture had already imagined this music before it happened. Electronic dance existed before there was electronic dance music, before there was hip-hop or Kraftwerk. Black teenagers in early-'60s California were doing robot dances inspired by mime and the Jetsons TV show, and jerking dances derived from religious ecstasy; over time these dances rolled into Afro-Caribbean-American-Californian forms like the boogaloo, the popcorn, poppin', lockin', the electric boogaloo, moonwalking. It's as if black culture had just been waiting for Kraftwerk and Star Wars and video games, so that you could have a sound to match the movement. And why this interest in robot-sci-fi motions? I don't have a clue, actually, so let me guess that what may be most crucial in such dancing—this probably varies from dancer to dancer—isn't just the idea of electronics and robots but that these ideas give dancers the excuse to engage in interplay between control and ecstasy, smooth-rolling muscle ripples and spastic jerks, rigidity and sudden collapse. And—I'm thinking of James Brown and of how his music and dancing are about both letting loose and being absolutely precise—the appeal of robots and Kraftwerk and computer music may have been that they seemed to bolster the precise side of the dynamic as well as shooting you into the future and the big wide universe. (And it's not irrelevant that the first electronic pop hit was Hot Butter's "Popcorn" [1972], which played its futuristic blips like popcorn pops. As James Brown had presciently said a few years earlier, "It's a new day so let a man come in and do the popcorn.")

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