Arguably the finest moment of Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s Planet Rock isn’t the iconic Trans Europe Express riff – rather it comes about 15 seconds in, when a fairly standard rap intro (albeit electronically manipulated) makes its way for a sonic storm of beats, synths and pure energy.
Today, it sounds incredible, but back in 1982, upon the track’s release, it must have been revolutionary.
To call Planet Rock a ‘rap classic’ is to do it something of a disservice – while the off-beat vocal style of the Soulsonic Force, particularly G.L.O.B.E., deserves praise, the rap itself is fairly run of the mill, with lyrics about ‘chasing your dreams’ and other early 80s tropes.
But in the annals of hip hop – as well as electronic music – history, the track is in a league of its own, a ‘year-zero’ for electro, a benchmark setter for later producers (such as Cybotron) to build on, and a game changer in terms of how dance music could be produced.
With a little help from Kraftwerk, of course.
That the track, released on 17 April 1982, was even produced in the first place was a happy case of serendipity. Producer Arthur Baker – a jobbing DJ and music journalist – was reportedly brought on board (originally to produce preceding single Jazzy Sensation, very much a disco-style workout, compared to Planet Rock), simply because Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman didn’t know anyone else.
Also, musician John Robie, whose gliding synths take the iconic Trans Europe Express sample at the track’s core (not a direct sample, rather a ‘reinterpretation’) to new heights, was said to have “hated” the popular music of the time, describing it as “people playing to metronomes, everyone sounding the same, and lyrics that were nonsensical and generally infantile”.
Lest we forget, in 1982, electronic music was in its infancy – barring the visionary explorations of composers such as Vangelis and Isao Tomita, the likes of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gary Numan and Kraftwerk were considered outsiders – although Kraftwerk’s Numbers, released a year earlier, had been a hit in the clubs.
As for the Roland TR-808 – the cornerstone of the track’s electronic vibe? Until Planet Rock came along, it looked set to be a redundant relic of the times, not the Rosetta Stone for a generation of producers that it would become, its tendrils weaving from R&B to new wave, and from techno to baile funk.
As Slate magazine would later put it, Planet Rock “didn’t so much put the 808 on the map so much as reorient an entire world of post-disco dance music around it”.
To combine these elements together – even the Soulsonic Force themselves were reportedly disillusioned by the electronic backing track – and create a track as impactful as Planet Rock was groundbreaking.
It was, in some ways a natural progression of the jazz-funk odyssey established by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic a few years previously, but also hinted at a silicon future in which cyborgs ruled the earth – let’s not forget that Blade Runner was released the same year.
As legendary producer Rick Rubin told Rolling Stone a few years back, Planet Rock was “one of the most influential songs of everything. It changed the world. […] At the time we barely considered it a rap record.”
For Greg Wilson, who first picked up the vinyl in May 1982, it was the “type of record which splits the musical atom”, a track that even upon first listening would live long in the memory.
“We had no real conception of what was going on in the Bronx at the time, and how the hip-hop scene was beginning to gain recognition within the wider New York community,” he wrote on his blog a few years back.
“It would be another six months before the penny finally began to drop, once all was revealed in Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gal’s’ video. We could only view this track in complete isolation, and pretty much everyone who was anyone on the black music scene instantly dismissed it as the worst possible kind of junk.
“I could almost feel the laughter behind my back as I walked out of Spin Inn in Manchester having purchased a copy. A fool wasting his money, or so they must have mused.”
Wilson would go on to play the track over the big sound systems at the venues in which he plied his trade, including The Pier in Wigan and Legend in Manchester, at a time when the musical firmament was starting to shift; the musicianship of the ‘Philly sound’ and its ilk paving the way for a digital future. Within a few years, acid house would be everywhere.
But before that, Planet Rock stood alone, a monolithic glimpse at tomorrow.
According to Wilson, “‘Planet Rock marks the end of one era in the history of dance music and the beginning of another – it well and truly lit the blue touch paper for what was to follow, with Hip-Hop, House, and Techno all indebted to this electronic wonder.
“It’s difficult now […] to fully appreciate just how radically different this record was back then, it might as well have come from Mars – that was how they wanted it to sound and that’s exactly how it sounded, hole in one and a quantum leap in the evolution of dance music.”
Further listening – house producer Frankie Bones has published a mix on Soundcloud to pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of this iconic track, which he first heard at a Saturday Night adult skate session at Skate Key in The Bronx, on 17 April 1982. “Where did all the time go,” he asks. Where indeed?