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Future Shock: The Perfect Beat of The Soul Sonic Force

At the end of the 1970s The Soul Sonic Force consisted of a mixture of members from several different groups headed by Afrika Bambaataa including The Cosmic Force and The Jazzy 5. By 1982 the group consisted of M.C. G.L.O.B.E., Pow Wow, Mr. Biggs and D.J. Jazzy Jay. They changed the face of dance music and pushed the boundaries of rap music by the end of that year. Creating a new sub-genre of rap called Electro Funk, The Soul Sonic Force forever altered the tempo and cadence of rap music with their debut Tommy Boy Records 12-inch single “Planet Rock”. At this time the only rap artists that had achieved commercial success were The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow. These rappers used live bands in their recordings and on their live shows, and their cadences were very much in the vein of Hank Span, Gary Byrd, Jocko and the “jive talking” radio D.J.’s that preceded them.

Although the Soul Sonic Force released “Zulu Nation Throwdown” in 1980 on Paul Winley Records it went largely unnoticed. The music for “Zulu Nation Throwdown” was played by The Harlem Underground Band which was the house band for Winley Records and sounded much like the other rap records available on the market at the time. The Harlem Underground Band lacked the grittiness of Pumpkin & Friends who were the Enjoy! Records house band and the polish of Wood, Brass & Steel - the Sugar Hill Records band.

The Soul Sonic Force created a rapid fire, triplet style delivery and cadence which head writer M.C. G.L.O.B.E. named Emcee Poppin’ and he describes the cadence as mocking the popping movements of street dancers. This vocal style made “Planet Rock” hard to categorize. It wasn’t singing or harmonizing, but it wasn’t traditional rapping as it had a melodic quality that rap recordings before it lacked. The producers of “Planet Rock,” John Robie and Arthur Baker (*credited as Planet Patrol), created an up-tempo track with the Roland TR 808 drum machine as the backdrop with synthesizers that created spacey sound effects that rivaled the group that “Planet Rock” was musically inspired by. “Planet Rock” was the first record in a trilogy of records by The Soul Sonic Force released in 1982 and 1983 that would expand rap music’s international appeal and influence multiple music genres for years to come.

Planet Rock

Musically “Planet Rock” was a combination of 4 songs that were foundational breakbeats in Hip Hop and part of Afrika Bambaataa’s canon of beats that he played in his sets in the infamous Bronx River housing projects which was his home base. According to the BBC documentary “The Hip Hop Years” former music journalist and Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman saw an Afrika Bambaataa D.J. set at a downtown club and approached Bam. “Since you’re putting all these different pieces from records together, I just started a label. Why don’t we put a demo together using all of these records that you’re cutting up”? Bam replied “there’s all of this electronic music out here, but there’s no Black artists doing it. I’m heavily into Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan and I wanna do something like that."

According to John Robie, brothers Dwight and Donnie Calvin from Rockers Revenge (a group produced by Arthur Baker) worked at a record store in downtown Brooklyn called Music Factory and Arthur used to hang out there on Saturdays to see what people were buying. Baker mentioned that he was producing an electronic track for Bambaataa and Tom Silverman and that Bam wanted something in the vein of Kraftwerk. Dwight suggested that he couldn’t lose if he combined the drum pattern from “Numbers” and the string line from “Trans Europe Express."

Interpolations of two other essential breakbeats in Hip Hop - “Super Sporm”, by Captain Sky and Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican” were added and the sonic foundation for “Planet Rock” was laid. Robie says that the Roland 808 drumbeat was already recorded when he was brought onto the project and Baker suggested that he write an original string line to go on top along with the interpolations of Trans Europe Express. “My original string line is a major part of the song, and people listen to the synthesizer parts and think nothing of it. Synthesizers have presets now, but I was dealing with a non-preset monophonic synthesizer and creating all the sounds from scratch, and it may sound like it’s easy but it’s not. I was manipulating dials to create those sounds in real time."

As with most historical accounts involving several parties, G.L.O.B.E. remembers things a bit differently, stating, “Everyone remembers it how they remember, and maybe Bam and Arthur discussed using Numbers at some point later. The brothers from Rockers Revenge did suggest Trans Europe Express as a good choice to go with 'Numbers.' But remember, the M.C. is the one who must rhyme to the beats! Robie, Arthur, Tom Silverman and Bam aren’t the M.C.s! G.L.O.B.E., Pow Wow and Biggs are the M.C.s and we decided which records that we wanted to rhyme over. There was a brother named Pooh who used to hang out and attend our parties. In fact, Pooh gave us the 'It's Working!' chant that we later used on 'Looking For The Perfect Beat.' That chant was used in the Beat Street movie, and it was the Tommy Boy slogan for quite a while. Bam did suggest 'The Mexican.'"

Pow Wow of Soul Sonic Force wears a Native American costume on stage. (Photo by Geoff Butler/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Credits to: Geoff Butler/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

G.L.O.B.E. says further that he was walking home from a party with Pow Wow and Pooh and he was saying that he wanted to rhyme to a beat that no one had rhymed to, and because Pooh knew that G.L.O.B.E. did the M.C. Poppin’ he suggested that “fast beat” that Bam plays. “I said you mean “Numbers” - that’s an excellent idea. I called Bam the next day and said that we wanted to rhyme over “Numbers”. In fact I wrote “Planet Rock” to Numbers before they even had a track. The first track they gave me was them re doing “Trans Europe Express”, but sped up, and I hated it. “Numbers” was hard but the original track that they gave me sounded like some tin can shit."

In what was one of recorded rap music’s early infringement lawsuits (“Rappers Delight’s usage of Chic’s “Good Times” was the first), Tom Silverman asserts “we were sued by Kraftwerk’s publishing company, and we had to pay an ungodly amount of money per record sold”.

M.C. G.L.O.B.E. says that when he wrote “Planet Rock” (which was originally titled “The Body Rock” before Tom Silverman or Arthur Baker renamed it), he was inspired by Earth, Wind & Fire songs like “Fantasy”, “Get Away” and “Boogie Wonderland” which talked about distant places and other worlds. “You're in a place where the nights are hot where nature's children dance and say the chants of this mother Earth which is our rock the time has come, it was foretold to show you really got soul are you ready? The sonic influence of “Planet Rock” on Electro music can be partially credited to Kraftwerk as well, but the subject matter was a direct influence on songs like “Egypt, Egypt” by The Egyptian Lover and “Electric Kingdom” by Twilight 22. Just as “Planet Rock” welcomed the listener to a distant utopia – “Egypt Egypt” spoke of a “freaky kinky nation with a total female population” and “Electric Kingdom” suggested that if you feel that you’re in a “snake pit or lion’s den you need someone to be your friend - come to Electric Kingdom."

“You gotta rock M.C. Poppin’ cause in this century, there is such a place that creates such a melody. Our world moves by the clan of a master jam get up and dance. It’s time to chase your dreams up out your seats make your body sway socialize get down let your soul lead the way shake it now go ladies is a living dream love life live!" - "Planet Rock" (1982)

Mr Biggs from Soulsonic Force performs during the first day of the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park, Central London on July 4, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Ben Stansall / AFP / BEN STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Credits to: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

According to Mr. Biggs, “Planet Rock” was lyrically like a puzzle. “We had lots of separate parts that we used for “Planet Rock”. G.L.O.B.E. had most of it and he was responsible for the style. Pow Wow came up with “you gotta rock and don’t stop it”, and there were a lot of separate parts that we pieced together. We felt that we had something that would totally hit or totally flop. We knew that we had something different, but we had no idea that it would hit the way that it did. The drums were crazy. That 808 was something that no one had heard”. Biggs is correct as the Roland TR 808 was released in 1980 but failed commercially. “Planet Rock” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” were two of the first commercially successful recordings to use the 808. The first recorded usage of the TR 808 was The Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “1000 Knives” which was released in 1981 according to Roland.

Prior to “Planet Rock” rap singles contained the standard vocal version with an instrumental or short version on the flip side. The emphasis of “Planet Rock” (and later Tommy Boy releases) was so much about the beat (specifically the advanced drum programming on their early releases) that the instrumentals became completely different songs almost. The arrangements and breakdowns were different, there were extra drum sequences that didn’t exist on the vocal version, and in the case of “Planet Rock” there was an extended “shout out” portion at the end where a vocoder voice shouted out different boroughs and cities around the world ending with “the Bronx rocks to the Planet Rock – don’t stop”.

In a further effort to highlight the beat there was a third version of “Planet Rock” called Bonus Beats. This one minute and fifteen second version contained mostly the “Super Sporm” drum pattern with some synthesizer sound effects. Never before had a twelve inch single given the listener such bang for the buck or the D.J. such a variety to mix with. The Bonus Beat would play an instrumental (pun intended) part of the next few Soul Sonic Force releases. According to former President of Tommy Boy Records Monica Lynch “the bonus beats were extremely important. They were especially useful for the D.J.’s and they became a powerful tool for them."

In addition to changing the faces of Rap and Dance music forever, “Planet Rock” was responsible for the creation of sub genres such as Electro Funk and Miami Bass. Mr. Biggs says that Planet Rock took the group to Japan, Germany, France and Spain helping to broaden the appeal of rap music around the world. “Planet Rock” has been sampled in more than 400 songs, recently in “Twerkulator” by City Girls.

In 1982 Tommy Boy Records released “Play At Your Own Risk” by Planet Patrol. The credits on Planet Rock read “music by Planet Patrol” who at the time were Arthur Baker and John Robie. Planet Patrol was now the Boston-based R&B group formerly known as The Energetics. “Play At Your Own Risk” used the actual drum tracks and sound effects from “Planet Rock” with all new synthesizer arrangements by John Robie. Described as "the Temptations meets electro funk," “Play At Your Own Risk” spent fourteen weeks on the Billboard R&B charts and peaked at the number ten position.

Looking For The Perfect Beat

“We needed to come up with a beat that could compete with the beat that we made for 'Planet Rock' which everyone was doing," said Arthur Baker on Red Bull’s Beat Repeat broadcast. "We just wanted to do something different and that’s where 'Looking For The Perfect Beat' comes from.” On the same broadcast Robie explains that “Tradition would dictate that you have a sequencer part, a board part and a bass part. '...Perfect Beat' was a free-for-all. Lots of 16th notes doing whatever they wanted to do. We explored the parameters of the 808 on 'Looking For The Perfect Beat.'"

Dropping in 1982, (mere months after the juggernaut that was “Planet Rock”), “Looking For The Perfect Beat” further cemented Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force and the production team of Arthur Baker & John Robie as a force to reckon with. “That’s my favorite song of ours," says Mr. Biggs. "I mean, 'Planet Rock' was literally a perfect beat, but there’s something about the energy of 'Lookin’ For The Perfect Beat.'” G.L.O.B.E. explains the direction that “...Perfect Beat” would take in the wake of the success of "Planet Rock."

“We had done 'Planet Rock' and it was a huge dance record, so even though we still had our street credibility, now I wanted to write something for the clubs."

“Music is a must, its rhythm moves the women to a spacy romantic motion that shows their high potency, at the spur of every moment there’s a space cadet parade with a psychedelic shade to make you party hearty everybody..." - "Lookin’ For The Perfect Beat" (1982)

“Then we had the chant where we repeated round up. That meant hit the dance floor, and I gotta get mine meant I have to dance with that girl. I gotta hit the floor. I couldn’t teach Bam how to M.C. Pop, so just like we did with “Planet Rock” we gave him the intro. In fact Bam did the intro either acapella or over hand claps for our first few Tommy Boy records”. “Looking For The Perfect Beat” spent twelve weeks on the Billboard R&B charts and received critical acclaim. In 1982 Robert Palmer of The New York Times wrote “The year's finest single, ''Looking for the Perfect Beat,'' was an ingenious small symphony in rap rhythms, and a dance-floor favorite. Its producers, Arthur Baker and John Robie, made the blend of chanting voices and electronic beat-box rhythms the year's most widely imitated new sound."

Renegades Of Funk

1983 was a pivotal year for artists from rap music’s first generation. The emergence of Run-D.M.C. and their stripped-down sound with only drums made everything before them sound obsolete. Although it wasn’t done as a response to Run-D.M.C, (whose impact hadn’t yet been fully felt), “Renegades Of Funk” was a slower tempo than Soul Sonic’s previous hits and the ruggedness of the drums allowed “Renegades” to compete with the new drum machine heavy records that were starting to emerge. Once again this was a record that sounded like nothing else that was available at the time in the small but growing world of rap records.

Starting with Bambaataa’s intro chant lifted from “Message From A Black Man” by The Temptations, “Renegades Of Funk” is a sonic roller coaster ride with a lyrical history lesson, African chants, blistering drum programming and of course M.C. Poppin’.

“That was basically a history lesson. Malcolm X, Chief Sitting Bull, Martin Luther King, Tom Paine. Those people were renegades and that’s who I wrote about. Originally I spoke about Hannibal and Hagar The Horrible, but they didn’t fit” says G.L.O.B.E. When speaking on the big drum sound on “Renegades” John Robie reveals: “We used the 808, but I also had an Emulator and even though the 808 is the foundation there’s lots of real percussion there. The way you process the 808 and the console that you use really affect the sound of the 808. I was the mix engineer on all those records even though they credited other people, all they did was plug shit in. If you plug a Linn Drum or DMX into any console it sounds the same. There’s something weird about the 808. The transient nature of the drum sounds makes them sound different depending on the console."

In the early 1980s the record covers of most rap singles contained no artwork or pictures; usually just a graphic of the record label logo on the front. Tommy Boy Records recruited Marvel Comics illustrator Bob Camp to create a comic book cover that featured Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force breaking through a brick wall wearing their signature superhero-like garb for the “Renegades Of Funk” cover. This was a powerful image that adorned the walls of many rap fans at the time and it’s still revered as some of the best Hip-Hop-related graphic work. “Renegades Of Funk” was remade by Rage Against The Machine in 2001 and it's been used in video games and as the entrance music at sporting events.

The music of The Soul Sonic Force is still extremely influential today and is a testament to their greatness and forward thinking. In the era before the rap full length album was a reality Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force along with Baker and Robie created the most influential and innovative three in a row string of releases in the genre.

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