"I was always into Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gary Numan. I said, there is no black group out here that plays strictly electronics. Herbie Hancock and all of them did that but I'm talking about a strict funk type of groove.
I thought it was just gonna please the punk rockers and the hip-hoppers, but suddenly you started seeing Chinese people singing it, Chicanos, other people, and it really amazed me how it took off. After that came out, every record that came out of New York had beat boxes and synthesisers."
The team that produced "Planet Rock" was Bambaataa and his MCs - G.L.O.B.E., Mr. Biggs and Pow Wow - along with Tom Silverman, Arthur Baker and a keyboard player named John Robie. Robie had produced a synthesiser track for DiscoNet called "Vena Cava". Having met Baker, Bambaataa and Silverman, he was invited to the session.
"We did the music in one night," says Baker, "and we did the music for 'Play At Your Own Risk', which was Planet Patrol. We did that the same night. Two days later we did the rap. It took a while for the rap. We fought a lot about the rap. Soul Sonic Force, they didn't like how the record sounded. They didn't trust us because we'd only just met so they slept out in the lounge so they could get cassettes. They thought we were going to fuck it up, basically. There were mistakes in it and they wanted to keep going for perfection. I said, rap records aren't perfection. What makes a rap record great are the little things that happen by accident that you keep in."
Silverman laughs about one of those accidents. "Pow Wow forgot the words," he says, "and he went 'Zuh-zuh-zuh, zuh-zuh-zuh'. I said, keep it, that's great. He was always spaced out, this guy." Programmed by John Robie on a Roland 808 drum machine and the studio synthesisers, the track featured a huge orchestral chord played on the Fairlight sampling keyboard. "Can you play the orchestra hit polyphonically, like 10 orchestras hitting at the same time," Silverman had asked. "That ended up on a billion records afterwards," he adds.
Musically and lyrically, the track was revolutionary. The style of rap, called MC Popping, had been invented by G.L.O.B.E., a rapper who had met Bambaataa at Bronx River High School. "MC Popping was pauses and phases," Bambaataa explains. "It was symbolic. Chase your dreams, jump out your seat, if you can't do it on your own, socialise. Anything that's your perfect beat - love, astrology, sex, music, whatever it is - that's your perfect beat. I like to keep reality and the fun stuff mixed together."
From the first moments of its recording history, hip-hop had encountered problems with copyright. The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight", for example, infringed copyright on Chic's "Good Times". As for "Planet Rock", the lead melody was Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express", with a second melody taken from Babe Ruth's "The Mexican", originally composed by Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone's spaghetti western, For a Few Dollars More.
"We liked it, we danced to it," said Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter, asked if he felt flattered by "Planet Rock". "Before, we were like outsiders. We've been attacked or put down and suddenly you get artistic response. It's wonderful in a way." Less wonderful for Tommy Boy was the predatory response from the publishing company who handled "Trans-Europe Express", No Hassle Music. With "Planet Rock" growing into a huge hit, their demands for payment reflected the success of the record. "I had to settle for a number three times higher than anybody pays now for publishing clearing," Silverman says. "They were trying to get 25 cents a record. I think I ended up paying 7 and a half cents. It was highway robbery. They were getting 200 per cent of the publishing. It was outrageous."
With "Planet Rock", Afrika Bambaataa and Tommy Boy rocket-launched a futuristic new sound, a black science fiction music that exploited cutting edge technology in a way that was totally accessible to young street kids. Planet Patrol's "Play At Your Own Risk" was inspired by the craze for electronic arcade games like Pac Man, Defender and Galaxian. The track was recorded on the same strip of