"Old-School Three Times Over": Meet Afrika Bambaataa, Cornell Professor

Joe Conzo
Joe Conzo

Afrika Bambaataa has been an unofficial professor of hip-hop for so long, it makes perfect sense that Cornell University would appoint the pioneering Bronx-born DJ and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation to a three-year term as a visiting scholar.

"Wherever I go on the planet, I'm always teachin' -- tryin' to wake people up to what hip-hop culture is and how people should love the culture that brought so many people together," says Bambaataa (who, incidentally, is credited with first coining the term "hip-hop" in a 1982 Village Voice article). "I guess [Cornell] wanna have somebody that's talking the whole culture movement, and I've always been speaking on that since the beginning of hip-hop."

Bambaataa's foray into the world of Ivy League academia -- which kicks off with his three-day visit to Ithaca at the end of this month -- is happening thanks to Cornell University Library's Hip-Hop Collection (part of the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections), which facilitated Bam's appointment.

Established in 2007, the collection houses some 7,000 hip-hop recordings -- including live recordings and more than 1,000 pre-1983 studio recordings on vinyl--plus hundreds of party and event fliers dating back to hip-hop's early-'70s birth; photos by photographer Joe Conzo, who documented hip-hop's beginnings in the South Bronx; graffiti blackbooks; and more.

Prior to the announcement of his professorship over the summer, Bambaataa had been to Cornell twice -- once for a conference surrounding the opening of the collection in '07, and again for a hip-hop symposium and performance last year -- and was fascinated not only by the Hip-Hop Collection but the rest of the library's rare materials, which includes, among other things, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"The last time I'd been in any archives [before Cornell] was in one of the Masonic buildings down in Virginia," says Bam. "So seeing something like this is amazing because I'm always about history and studying people's different ways of life, city to city, country to country, planet to planet.

"I liked the atmosphere and the interaction with the people," he continues. "And [Library administrators] liked what I was saying at the panel and when I was speaking to one of the classes, so they decided to bring me there for this and I said, 'No problem.'"

"One of the goals in starting the collection and building it is providing a role for the people who created the culture alongside the artifacts to help articulate what they mean," says Katherine Reagan, curator of rare books and manuscripts for the library, who was instrumental in bringing the Hip-Hop Collection to the school and naming Bambaataa their first visiting scholar.

She explains that Bambaataa will come to the school a few times a year to teach classes and participate in moderated panels aimed at illuminating the contents of the archives. For this inaugural visit, there are also plans for Bam to talk with students from nearby Ithaca College, to give a presentation at the Finger Lakes Residential Center (a juvenile detention facility), and to meet with members of the local community involved in sustainability efforts.

"We were just looking for a way to bring his knowledge to the university," she says. "We went over some of the elements of his appointment in advance, and he was open to all of our ideas, but we're giving him a tremendous amount of leeway in terms of the format of interacting with people and what he wants to convey."

The class in which he'll be dropping his knowledge, science and wisdom is the university's new cross-disciplinary course "Hip-Hop: Beats, Rhymes and Life," overseen by professors from the music, Africana studies, and English departments. But as you might guess, given the colorful, mystical character he is, Bambaataa won't be your average lecturer.

"I don't want no talkin' to wallflowers just sittin' in there," he laughs. "I'm not with the professor thing where you're talking and everyone's writing down what you're saying. I don't really have a lesson plan. We wanna intermingle and talk and share ideas--that's where it gets more interesting. They got a thousand questions that they really wanna know, so I'm like, 'Ask the questions, let's get it on!'"   Bam says that last year, when he first spent time with some of the students, the "gettin' to know ya" period started with basic inquiries about the parties he used to DJ back in the day, or what he thinks about today's hip-hop.

"And then they get into the deep things," he says. "Askin' about gold, silver, money, dollar bills, 'What you think about the economy?' and all these things. It starts getting heavy, political, and about masons and things like that. I love it when it gets into the other things--it needs to be more than what you ate or what you did or what record you played. When they start asking all those other questions that deal with life and the self on the planet and outside the planet, I'm relieved to know there's others that think like I do."

"The freshmen this year were born in 1994, so he's already old-school like three times over by the time our students were even born," laughs Ben Ortiz, assistant curator of the Hip-Hop Collection. "To them, there's kind of a sense of awe, a sense of 'What was it like back then because we hear so much about it and we want to hear your story, your experiences.' The students we have are obviously very bright, very hungry for knowledge, and they are not shy about asking questions of all stripes. It's always a really great dialogue, so it's pretty satisfying for people like Katherine and myself to just sit back and watch it happen and be like, 'Look at him go!'"

While Bambaataa's looking forward to his time up at Cornell, he's still a little miffed that you can't find a similar collection here in the city. Bam, rapper Melle Mel, and other hip-hop oldheads have recently been lobbying Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to turn the Kingsbridge Armory into a hip-hop museum -- right now, Diaz is supporting plans to transform the building into an ice sports center instead.

"I don't understand it, I don't know what this mayor thinkin', what these borough presidents thinkin'," Bam grumbles. "The politics and politricks, there's too much that goes on and they need to show respect for this thing that brought people together. It's really a shame on New York City that you have the Smithsonian Institute, you have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and now you have Cornell University doin' something, and here in New York City, birthplace of hip-hop in the Bronx, they still ain't doin' nothin'."

Reagan says the library's Hip-Hop Collection was started with the donation of the extensive personal collection of Johan Kugelberg -- an NYC author and former Matador Records exec on a mission to preserve early hip-hop history -- who had initially reached out to universities and other institutions in the New York City area to house all of the recordings and ephemera he'd amassed before approaching Cornell. "He wasn't able to make headway with them--they either didn't have the facilities to make the commitment, or they didn't have the staff or other resources, or they just didn't see it as a good fit with their programs," Reagan says. "But we were quite happy to acquire it."

"We're not that far away from New York City, and anyone can come look at the collection," says Ortiz, "but hip-hop is something that belongs to the world at this point. So it's less about where it's physically located than the fact that it's being preserved in the best possible way by a group of people at an institution that cares. And since its strength is the earliest days of hip-hop, to have Bambaataa come here and tell us what these things all mean in his own voice is just huge."

Bam's not just gonna be talking. "I'll be DJing up there, too," he says. "They really party up there--last time I DJ'ed there the place went into a frenzy, so I'm gonna funk and rock it again. The classes are more serious and gettin' down to the nitty gritty of ideas, but the party aspect is where they really let their body go."

"It's gonna go anywhere and everywhere," Bambaataa promises of his three-year professorship. "Hip-hop can take you from the past to the present and bring you to the future, around the planet and beyond the planet."

Afrika Bambaataa and many others will funk and rock Gramercy Theatre Friday and Saturday nights as part of the 39th Zulu Nation Anniversary Celebration (8 p.m./$21)

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