What would you say to the godfather of hip-hop? What do you ask one of the originators of electro-funk and breakbeat? Hailing from the Bronx, Kevin Donovan, created the Universal Zulu Nation, a collective born in the ’80s that was responsible for spreading hip-hop culture throughout the world. When we got over our nerves we sat down with the pioneering artist, ahead of his Aus/NZ tour, to talk radio, online crate-digging and what hip-hop might sound like on other planets.
Your music has now spanned decades, but how would you describe yourself to newer generations of hip-hop fans?
As the architecture of hip-hop with a funkadelic sound – all about the good vibrations, for those on a musical journey.
Zulu Nation is almost 40 years old. What is it, and how did it come about?
It was the quintessential hip-hop awareness movement. It is also a nation within many nations, which has it’s own constitution and different chapters around this great planet we call Mother Earth. It stands for a lot of things – freedom, justice and equality, peace, unity and having fun, overcoming the negative to the positive, science, facts, mathematics, and the supreme force whether we call it Him, Her, or It, Allah, Jehovah, or any of the ancient names…
Your discography has never slowed down from the ’80s. Is it still those things that created Zulu Nation inspiring you to keep making and playing music?
Music itself is very universal and powerful. It can make you feel all things: happy, sad – it can make you go to war, bring you peace, it can make you feel different vibes, it can keep you in tune with nature and the universe. There are so many styles of music for many moods. If you go into a store to buy things, you don’t even notice what is playing sometimes, and then something comes on and it makes you stop talking to people, stop doing what you doing and take notice, like ‘This is my song’. You might hear a song on a cartoon and realise they’re actually playing a classic. That’s the main part of music to me, the part that keeps me going.
As an ambassador of hip-hop, you’ve travelled all over the world. How do you think the original message of hip-hop is received around the world today?
You’ve got people who follow just rappers, you’ve got people that follow the whole culture, the people who only know what’s been played on the radio – you’ve got a whole bunch of different styles of the hip-hop message being received differently. It’s now the same as those other genres: you know, soul, jazz, reggae, metal, jungle… There are so many other styles of music that take on the principles of hip-hop, like hip-hop did with those styles.
It’s always mentioned that you cite Kraftwerk and their early electronic music as an inspiration – can you see your original brand of hip-hop being reflected in todays emerging electronic hip-hop scenes?
It’s basically all you’re hearing these days, the electronic side of it. It’s making people go crazy and that’s all the radios seem to focus on. I think they should play all the hip-hop, not limit to just the specific parts of gangsta rap, or hip-house – play all of it. It can’t be hip-hop if you don’t play no James Brown, no Kraftwerk – all of that is part of it. Though it might be called soul or electronic, it’s still part of what made it what it was, back in the day. Peace, unity, love and having fun is the only message that should matter.
Some seem to think that electronic-made music can’t have soul to it…
It depends if you’re playing the kind of music that do got soul, or ain’t got soul. It don’t matter if it doesn’t have lyrics or a soul singer – if it was made from the meaning of it, it don’t matter what you call it.
With the current state of technology many people can create music a lot more easily than 30 years ago. How do you feel about the web generation of music, with streaming websites and the ability to share music so quickly?
I love it. That ability to play so much music from anywhere. You can make something in Australia and I can hear it right here in America. You can hear music from all around the planet, from other planets.
Do you think that sharing music so easily takes away from the digging aspect?
No, because you just do it online now. You’re still diggin’ when you’re looking for a song – whatever medium. You can still do it at a record store but now you’ve got the whole internet to dig in too, all of the styles that you can think of.
I read of a recent New York University report, that outlines that people now have an emotional investment to hip-hop and are concerned it it’s place in cultural history. What are your thoughts on the future of hip-hop?
As we become extraterrestrial beings and find many other planets in our universe, we will see many different styles of hip-hop from planet to planet. Mark my words, there will be hip-hop on other planets.
Will hip-hop sound the same on other planets?
There will be different styles. There is always going to be something added to it and as we meet other beings in other places we don’t yet know what sounds will be created when we meet each other.
As far as where it is today, what do you like that you see? And what do you think are the changes that should be made?
That radio stations should play more styles of music. It’s such a shame that they play the same ten songs over and over, but there’s millions of tracks out there. Play all the music, ever.
Do you think that people will turn to just to listening to music online, if radio doesn’t keep up?
Yes, that’s why everyone’s turning to online stations, community and college stations, because they just don’t play enough.
I saw Sly and The Family Stone last year and it was one of the most uplifting live shows I’ve ever seen, what is ‘timeless music’ to you and is there anyone currently making music that you feel will last the next 50 years?
Timeless music to me will always be James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Rolling Stones and motown music. All different, but people that are referred to as having class, music that means something. Some have messages, some have a sound that is still powerful today. Play any James Brown record, it will still be kicking today.
There’s this rapper called Sun-Ra, she’s incredible, and her music will last forever – it’s off the hook. There are all types of music out there that will last.
You’ve collaborated with some of the most legendary musicians there are, but what would you say has been your greatest achievement as an artist?
Taking people on a musical journey. Letting them know there’s all types of music out there and that’s why I work with so many different musicians and make so many different songs with different people.
Do you have any words of advice for younger musicians that want to create their own hip-hop?
Study your game, know the industry and know your rights. Make the music that your soul wants you to make. There are so many people that put all these rules on hip-hop, but just make what your soul decides to make. Most people when they say hip-hop just mean rappers; they don’t mean the whole movement. The people that are into the culture know what it is, but if you’re brainwashed into thinking it’s just rappers and what the radio plays, you don’t know what’s out there.
Do you think there is a way to educate those people?
Keep listening to music online and through the community radio stations – that’s the key.
You first toured Australia in 2004. How was the experience then and what can we expect at your 2013 tour?
That was great, I ended up playing with the Black Eyed Peas – me and Fergie rapping on stage together tearing the place apart. I think the Australian crowds are funky: they like to get down. This time, I’ll be playing the music, dancing to the music. I’ll be having a good time.
Win tickets to see the legendary Afrika Bamabatta on his Aus/NZ tour here.