Some legends never die. They just embarrass themselves. Fortunately, there’s nothing at all embarrassing about Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light, the new album from renowned DJ/producer/innovator Afrika Bambaataa. Now in his mid-40s (which, in the world of hip-hop, might as well be 99), the man still knows how to rock the house. In fact, Dark Matter serves as a kind of self-perpetuating party.
Although Bambaataa’s last studio album appeared in 2000, Dark Matter is being billed (and hyped) as a comeback. That’s because the album reunites him with Tommy Boy Records more than 20 years after he and the label helped make each others’ names with the seminal “Planet Rock”. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Dark Matter largely returns to the combination of James Brown, Kraftwerk and hip-hop through which “Planet Rock” defined a generation of dance music. Ironically, in the decades since, so many artists have used Bambaataa’s music as a point of departure that there’s not much new ground to cover. So, while Dark Matter is less than groundbreaking, it’s certainly fresh, funky and possessed of the confidence of a man who has nothing left to prove.
The driving, sitar-laced “Got That Vibe” gets the party started right. It’s the kind of no-nonsense track that’s reminiscent of “Afrika Shox”, Bambaataa’s 1999 collaboration with British techno duo Leftfield. Bambaataa’s enthusiasm and ambitions for world peace are tough to ignore as he and rapper King Kamonzi give shout-outs to various continents and regions. Bambaataa follows up “Vibe” with a truly ace move: a cover of Gary Numan’s “Metal”, featuring the progenitor of icy post-Kraftwerk synth pop himself. Bambaataa’s whip-sharp beats and squiggly P-Funk flourishes mesh perfectly with Numan’s whooping synths. Just to make sure everyone’s having fun, MC Chatterbox adds a frantic rap while Bambaataa throws in a couple lines of “Heart of Glass” at the end. Word!
Though everything gets the trademark Bambaataa treatment — unwavering, programmed beats; pulsating electro-bass; those shivering, metallic voice treatments — Dark Matter is actually pretty diverse, taking in and reflecting back the styles that have influenced Bambaataa as well as the trends he’s inspired himself. The title track melds classic funk and old-school hip-hop as Bambaataa gives props to James Brown, Sly Stone and others. “Just a Smoke” and “Shake ‘N’ Pop Roll” revel in the Dirty South rap sound, all sub-bass and chanted choruses. They’re enough to make you want to dig up those Tag Team and 95 South discs. “Meet Me at the Party” is straight-up electro funk.
Those in search of the classic “Planet Rock” sound in its most pure form have several cuts to choose from. There’s the Utopia-chasing “2137” and the robo-jazz of “Ain’t Talk’in No Shhh” with its ping-ponging laser gun effects. “Almighty Rah” comes closest to the signature sound. The shrieking, air rain siren synths; creeping, almost sinister bassline and dubby vocoder are definitive elements that still have plenty of life in them. Bambaataa keeps it real and current by bringing in TC Islam for an appropriately tense rap (“This is not your car / this not your house…”). Generally, though, the vibe on Dark Matter is upbeat, positive and infectious.
Not everything works. “Pick Up on This” tries its hand at tribal house, but its only distinctive feature is its annoying, repetitive vocals. “No Dope Fiends on the Floor” is so minimal that it loses your attention, especially if you’re not on the floor. Furthermore, Bambaataa’s sound isn’t one you can cozy up to; musically, Dark Matter can come across as cold and clinical.
It’s safe to say that Dark Matter isn’t the kind of album that’ll be in your regular rotation even a few years from now. But for the moment, it does capture a master doing what he does best. Let’s not overdo it, though: When, in the press kit, Tommy Boy Records’ Tom Silverman compares Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation philosophy to Gandhi, it’s a little much. Anyhow, about the last thing Dark Matter makes you want to do is sit down.