There may not be another album, hip-hop or otherwise, that sounds as constantly manic and locomotive as Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock (1986). A sonic strobe-light, the album is a space shuttle of funk and electricity that blasts off into the rap stratosphere with the first bash of resonating bass on the album's opening title track. Throughout, Bambaataa displays the bombast of George Clinton hand-in-hand with the meticulousness of Kraftwerk.
It is tragic that modern-era rappers often fail to include Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force when paying homage to the grandfathers of hip-hop. Never one to pigeonhole himself within the confines of a genre, Bambaataa and his Planet Rock masterpiece are as influential as music gets: The album's sound expands into a mushroom cloud that engulfs everything from fusion to dance to electronica. The album was also the first of its kind to prominently feature an 808 drum machine, a tool which subsequently grew incredibly popular and helped rap evolve into the bass-heavy incarnate it is today.
At the centerpiece of Planet Rock is the aforementioned title track, but the subsequent songs are just as strong, if not stronger. In fact, its immediate successor, "Looking for the Perfect Beat," is one of the most infectious dance songs ever created. A better name for the song would be, "This is the Perfect Beat." Also of note is the deliciously-80s groove, "Go Go Pop," and the volatile "Renegades of Funk," famously redone by Rage Against the Machine on their album of covers, Renegades.
Perhaps the greatest thing about this album, however, is its innocence. Planet Rock was originally released in 1986, three years before N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, two years before Ice-T's Power and seven years before Snoop Doggy Dogg debuted with Doggystyle. In only a few years, rappers would discover a violent passion to inject into their music like venom. Rap would soon grow its ugly tumor of negative connotations - gang violence, degradation of women, drugs and all kinds of other excesses. Dr. Dre and others built a legacy out of this new, gritty kind of rap, but Bambaataa's blasts of bass and soaring synth beats have a sort of peaceful freedom to them (same with lyrics like "Party people/Party people/Can y'all get funky?"). This is rap before the streets forced rap to grow up, and that gives it a uniquely youthful appeal.
Planet Rock is a joy to listen to and even a greater joy to dance to. "Looking For the Perfect Beat" belongs in the triple crown of rap's genesis, along side the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message." In a 1989 interview, Bambaataa claimed, "We gotta understand that hip-hop is now universal. Hip-hop is not East coast or West coast." That's the kind of thinking that makes great music, and it's the kind of thinking that finally seems to be filtering through the modern rap community.