The records lay before them, box after box, some 41,000 discs in all. It had taken five assistants just to line up the crates, but the two men rummaging through the albums and 12-inches had large collections of their own and were not afraid of the volume.
Rather, it was the significance of the trove that awed them. Within these boxes was, as close as you could get, hip-hop’s source code.
There were originals for famous samples, from James Brown to Isaac Hayes to the instrumental on the Incredible Bongo Band’s 1973 “Apache.” There were obscure breakbeats and early acetates that painstakingly compiled them.
There was reggae, soca, and dub. There were rock and punk records that supplied unexpected passages to loop and mix. There was disco, techno, and house. And there was hip-hop itself, exhaustively documented from its earliest days well into the 1990s.
The kids in this candy store were DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, two of today’s most prominent turntablists — a craft in which scratching and mixing dexterity is only as impressive as the samples, breakbeats, and deep cuts that are blended and juxtaposed.
And the archive at their fingertips in this New York City warehouse was the personal collection of Afrika Bambaataa — a fundamental figure in hip-hop who did more than anyone to establish the culture’s cosmopolitanism.
As a teen in the Bronx in the 1970s, Bambaataa hosted famous parties and founded the creative-activist collective Universal Zulu Nation. Later, in the fluid way of pre-corporate hip-hop, he was an ambassador of the culture to downtown art circles, an impresario, a recording artist (of 1982 “Planet Rock” fame and more), and eventually one of hip-hop’s pantheon of all-around father figures.
Now, Bambaataa’s archives are being digitized, including album covers and production data, by the Hip-Hop Collection at Cornell University: a repository of key sources on rap, DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing, the four elements of hip-hop. Before the discs were shipped off, Shadow and Cut were invited to dig in the crates and pick a shortlist for a commemorative mix and a tour, which hits the House of Blues on Sept. 3.
“These aren’t just any copies of the records,” Cut Chemist says. “These are the copies played in the beginning of hip-hop, when the culture was forming.”
For Shadow, a respected figure in DJ culture since his debut, “Endtroducing. . . ,” in 1996, and Cut, who belonged to the 1990s hip-hop group Jurassic 5 and the Los Angeles band Ozomatli, handling and playing Bambaataa’s records was a rare opportunity.
“The ears I’ve developed come from people like Large Professor, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, but to see what Bambaataa was doing with these records is to see where it all came from — to see where I came from,” Cut says.
Bambaataa’s discs came marked up with annotations, and some still had patches of tape concealing the artist’s name, to keep rival DJs in the dark. He hand-numbered the first couple of thousand, then gave up once the collection grew huge.
“You can tell his ear was tuned into something no one else was, from the notes on the records, the way he stitched certain songs together,” Cut says. “He searched for a consistent type of rhythm across every genre of music.”
Some records that Shadow and Cut would have wanted to pick were too scratched up to play. “They were loved to death,” Cut says. “It was tempting to go into our own collections and replace them — but we couldn’t do that, it would be against the rules.”
The project has Bambaataa’s blessing. It’s not the first time others have handled his records: “Back in the early days we had other guys play our music, so guys like Jazzy Jay, Grand Wizard Theodore, I used to let them play my records,” Bambaataa says. “It’s great to see these two turntablists bring their own feeling and vibration.”
Nor does he miss his collection; for one thing, he still has several thousand pieces of vinyl lurking around. “I keep them in places I call the dungeon, the bat-cave, and the graveyard.” But the old master is no vinyl absolutist. Rather, he happily embraces the potential of the Internet for new sonic discoveries.
“This way I get to hear things that are getting made all over the world, things that guys are making in their living room,” Bambaataa says. He trawls sites like Soundcloud, and people constantly send him files to check out. Students at Cornell, where he’s been a visiting scholar in connection with the archive, are another source of inspiration.
“They are involved in hip-hop culture, coming from different nationalities but all of them sincere in what they do,” Bambaataa says. They share in what he calls the true-school hip-hop mentality: “If you’re true to the whole course of hip-hop culture, the old with the new, the new with the old, then you’re a true-school player.”
For Johan Kugelberg, the New York curator, former record label executive, and close friend of Bambaataa’s who helped set up the Cornell archive, getting Shadow and Cut to tour playing Bambaataa’s vinyl is a true-school intervention in its own right.
“These are sacred materials for hip-hop culture,” Kugelberg says. “These performances celebrate the trajectory of hip-hop. The master of records creates the idiom in real-time; 40 years later two masters of that idiom celebrate the master of records.”Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.