David Toop – Ocean of Sound Discography

I recently read David Toop's book Ocean of Sound: Ambient sound and radical listening in the age of communication which I highly recommend as a primer on what we now might call "ambient" music. The book mentions quite a lot of music and even features a discography appendix, so I created a Spotify playlist of the pieces mentioned. It is over 2,000 tracks and 191 hours of a very broad spectrum of music, but would come in handy while reading along with the book. Link to Spotify Playlist

Episode 19 – Electro-funk part 1

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Overview of Electro-funk

Electro-funk, also known as “electro-boogie” or simply “electro”, is a style of music originally developed in the early 1980s that features a mix of drum machines (predominently the Roland TR-808 drum machine), synthesizers, rapping, vocoders and talkboxes, and sampling. The term “electro” can be a bit confusing because other genres of music are also referred to as “electro”, including “electro-clash”, “electro-house”, “electro-swing”, “electro-industrial”, “dark electro” and others. [14]

Also, this style of music was known at the time by a variety of names, including hip-hop, dance, disco, electric boogie and freestyle. [1]

And then in the 2000s there was an electro revival of sorts, which is sometimes referred to as “nu-electro”. For the purposes of this podcast, we’ll use the term “electro” when referring to “electro-funk”, this hybrid of hip-hop and post-disco electronic music that grew out of the Bronx in the 1980s, with tempos usually in the 100-130 bpm range. [1]

Early Electro

Electro became mainstream with Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock in 1982, but its origins go back a few years to the death of disco and the evolution of dance music that followed. Let’s get right into some “proto-electro” with D-Train’s first single “You’re The One For Me” (Prelude) which was popular in dance clubs in 1981.
That was D-Train’s “You’re The One For Me” released on Prelude records. Prelude was a New York based record label that released a lot of early electro music. Another early Prelude release, from which the term ‘electro-funk’ is originally derived is “On A Journey (I Sing The Funk Electric)” by Electrik Funk.

Electrik Funk – On A Journey (I Sing The Funk Electric)

Electric Funk was shortened to electro-funk following the arrival of “Electrophonic Phunk” by Shock, but most significant of these early releases was 1982’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys. This was no longer hinting at a new direction, it was unmistakably the real deal. DJed at the Paradise Garage by Peech Boys member Larry Levan, “Don’t Make Me Wait” would quickly become a cult-classic. [1]

The Peech Boys – “Don’t Make Me Wait”

Personally, I find these tracks interesting because you can hear how the sound is clearly post-disco, and leading towards a new kind of synth-based dance music. But it also sounds like it’s missing some things and maybe sounds closer to the 1970s than the 80s. Those missing elements are futuristic vocals, represented in electo by talkboxes, vocoders, and space-themed or futuristic vocals, and instead of live drummers using drum machines, and one drum machine in particular, the Roland TR-808.

Roland TR-808

In 1980, Roland released the TR-808, its first fully programmable drum machine. I say “fully” programmable because in 1978 Roland released its first programmable drum machine, the CR-78, which was also the first drum machine to feature a microprocessor and user-controlled accents on specific beats. The TR-808 improved upon the CR-78 by having a better front panel for easier real-time programming, volume knobs for each individual voice, multiple audio outputs, and superior sounds, which were created using analog circuits. [2] [13]

Let’s take a listen to the sounds of the TR-808.

Roland TR-808 – Famous Drum Beats

According to Roland president Ikutaro Kakehashi, “the step-writing interface wasn’t so new, but it was the first time that we paid more attention to the people who program in real time. It used to be that our customer was the home-organ player. Then people in the music industry started to pay attention to our rhythm machines. Such a musician was agreeable to programming by himself. That’s why we developed the step-writing system, so that you could slow the tempo down, enter your rhythm events, and then speed it up and hear the realistic rhythm pattern that you had just created.”

A Mr. Nakamura was responsible for the analog voice circuits and a Mr. Matsuoka developed the software of the drum machine. It was in production from 1980 until 1983 with a price tag of just under $1,200 US, which was considered a good price at the time. The 808 initially received poor reviews, generally being deemed inferior to the Linn LM-1, the first drum machine that got its sounds from digital samples instead of analog circuits. The 808 was produced before MIDI was developed, but does feature a kind of precursor to MIDI referred to as DCB Bus, which allows the 808 to be synced with other Roland gear. [2] [13] [15]

It was only after the 808 was out of production that it started becoming popular among hip-hop and electronic artists, who could find older analog gear cheap. [13]

As a side note, when Afrika Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker recorded “Planet Rock” in late 1981, they couldn’t afford to buy an 808 drum machine. They actually found an ad in the Village Voice “Man with drum machine $20 a session” and told him to program the beat. [3] [13]

Since then the 808 has achieved almost legendary status as one of the most sought after pieces of vintage gear among artists and collectors. Bands have named numerous tracks, and in the case of 808 State and 808 Mafia, even their group names, after the iconic drum machine. According to Roland’s website, the TR-808 has been used on more hit records than any other drum machine. [17]

Due to the high demand and low supply of the units, a lot of recent tracks that use the 808 sound are actually made from samples or recreations of 808 sounds. Although these usually sound pretty close to the original, some producers claim that they never sound quite as good as the real thing. For instance, I remember hearing Legowelt say in an interview that the emulations never get the clap sound quite right. Also, since the machines were analog, differences between machines and even within the same machine in different environments can create fluctuations in the sound which give it more character than static samples.

Let’s take a listen to a mash-up of popular non-electro songs that use the 808 and see how many you can recognize:

808 Mashup

“Riot In Lagos”

So far most of the music we’ve listened to was made by African-Americans in and around New York City. But “Riot in Lagos”, the first electro track to use the TR-808, was written in 1980 by Ryuichi Sakamoto, a member of the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra. Let’s take a listen:

Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Riot in Lagos” from the 1980 album B-2 Unit
“Riot in Lagos” got some radio play on New York City stations, where it was heard by hip-hop artists who would become electro pioneers. Here is what DJ Kurtis Mantronik of the electro group Mantronix had to say about his influences:
In the middle of listening to all this disco and hip hop along come Ruichi Sakamoto with Riot In Lagos. It was totally off the wall. The disco stations were playing stuff like that and Yello’s Bostich – they’d never do that today, that’s why it was such a beautiful time. It was a very eclectic scene. A few years later Art Of Noise came along with Beatbox and it was incredible. It was electronic and yet it had real hip hop flavour to it. That’s when I started experimenting with machines and creating my own sound.” [4]
Afrika Bambaataa was also listening to “Riot in Lagos”, and just about anything else he could get his hands on. In his words: “I was really heavy into Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra and I wanted to be the first black group to release a record with no band, just electronic instruments.” [5]

He achieved that goal in 1982 with “Planet Rock”, with help of producer Arthur Baker, keyboardist John Robie and MC group Soul Sonic Force, which constisted of Mr. Biggs, G.L.O.B.E. and Pow Wow.

We heard a bit of it in the last episode, but let’s play it again, listening to the sounds of the 808 and the rythmic similarities with “Riot in Lagos.” Also listen for the Kraftwerk sequences, from Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers”, which apparently were interpolated by studio musicians rathered than sampled from the recordings. [6]

Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force – “Planet Rock”, originally recorded in December of 1981 and released in April of 1982.

Afrika Bambaataa

Afrika Bambaataa was born Kevin Donovan in 1957 and grew up in the Bronx River Projects. He was raised by his mother, a nurse who was involved with the black cultural and liberation movements. As a youth he became fascinated with the 1964 movie Zulu, a film that recounts the 1879 siege of Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa. The battle remains a celebrated moment in the military history of the British Empire, an unlikely triumph of a hundred redcoats defending a lonely colonial outpost against an overwhelming onslaught of four thousand Zulus. Rorke’s Drift is remembered as something like the Queen’s Fort Apache, an Alamo where the whites actually won.

In the climactic scene of the film, British soldiers stand with their bayonets arrayed silently before a pile of Black bodies, a dark tide stopped at the very lip of their boots. When young Bambaataa saw the film in the early 60s, he was captivated by its powerful images of Black solidarity. Before the attack, hundreds of Zulu warriors appear atop the ridge, leaving the Imperial soldiers awestruck. They bang their spears to their shields, give a resounding war cry and storm the garrison.

“That just blew my mind,” Bambaataa says. “Because at that time we was coons, coloreds, Negroes, everything degrading. We was busy watching Hackyl and Jackyl, Tarzan – a white guy who is king of the jungle. Then I see this movie come out showing Africans fighting for a land that was theirs against the British imperialists. To see these Black people fight for their freedom and their land just stuck in my mind. I said when I get older I’m gonna have me a group called the Zulu Nation.” [7]

Bambaataa was drawn into gang life, as inexorably as any young boy from Bronx River would have to be. His first gang was P.O.W.E.R. – People’s Organization for War and Energetic Revolutionaries, whose purpose was to protect Bronx River was being overrun by rival gang Black Spades. But escalating violence and police repression drove P.O.W.E.R.’s leaders underground, so Bambaataa changed sides and became a Black Spade and flipped Bronx River into Spades territory. He had a reputation for being unafraid to cross turfs and forge relationships with other gangs. Eventually he was promoted to warlord, responsible for building the ranks and expanding the turf of the Spades. The Spades soon moved into the projects of Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens and became New York City’s biggest gang. Because Bambaataa knew so many people from different gangs, anytime there was a conflict, he would try to straighten it out through communication rather than violence.

He later formed the Bronx River Organization. Their motto was: “This is an organization. We are not a gang. We are a family. Do not start trouble. Let trouble come to you, then fight like hell.”

Violence between New York City gangs escalated between 1968 and 1973, which contributed to their demise in 1974. Bambaataa puts it down to pressures from the City, drugs and the reaction of women against the fighting among the men. [18] When asked if he thought hip hop killed New York’s gangs, Bambaataa didn’t subscribe to that theory. “The women got tired of that shit,” he replied. “So brothers eventually started sliding out of that ’cause they had people that got killed.” [10]

In 1975 he had won a Housing Authority essay contest, the prize being a trip to Africa and Europe. For a youth who had known nothing but the streets of the Bronx, the trip was life-changing. He said, “I saw all the Black people waking up in the early morning, opening their stores, doing the agriculture, doing whatever they have to do to keep the country happening. Compared to what you hear in America about, ‘Black people can’t do this and that,’ that really just changed my mind.” Bambaataa came back to the Bronx bursting with ideas. “My vision was to try to organize as many as I could to stop the violence. So I went around different areas, telling them to join us and stop your fighting.”

In 1974, he founded the Zulu Nation, the first hip-hop organization. His plan with the Universal Zulu Nation was to build a youth movement out of the creativity of a new generation of outcast youths with an authentic, liberating worldview. He also started calling himself Afrika Bambaataa, adopting the name of the Zulu chief Bhambatha, who led an armed rebellion against unfair economic practices in early 20th century South Africa. He told people that his name was Zulu for “affectionate leader”.

Bambaataa began to codify the ideas he had learned into a set of evolving beliefs known as The Infinity Lessons. The lessons established a fundamental code of conduct and broad directives to the Zulu way of life. They drew on Black Muslims’ evocation of a glorious, original African past, but not their impulse to racial separation. They leaned hard on the language of the Nation of Islam, but disdained dogma and orthodoxy.

In 1977 Donovan started DJing, inspired by DJ Kool Herc and other Black Spades who became Djs. He was known as the “master of records” due to his enormous and eclectic record collection. Tommy Boy Records creator Tom Silverman recalls a Bambaataa set around 1979:
Bambaataa was DJing but a lot of the time he was just picking the records and giving them to Jazzy Jay or Red Alert who were the two DJs that he had at the time…I heard ’em playing Kraftwerk. The invitations would say, “James Brown tribute” and it would say, “Invited guests Kraftwerk”… That was the first time I heard people actually rapping to these breakbeats. Most of the time it was just beats going on and on and there was no MC. Bambaataa would mix different things. Like he used “Mary Mary” by The Monkees, “The Big Beat” by Billy Squier, just dun-daa-duh-dun-dun-duk. Jazzy Jay was more of a technician. Bambaataa was the master of records. He owned the records and could programme the music. It was amazing. [18]
Bambaataa was also the founder of the Soulsonic Force, which originally consisted of approximately twenty Zulu Nation members. The personnel for the Soulsonic Force were groups within groups with whom he would perform and make records.

He then began working with Paul Winley, a former doo-wop singer, who released a few singles under Winley Records – including an apparent ‘bootleg’ called Death Mix which was released without Bambaataa’s consent.

Winley recorded two versions of Soulsonic Force’s landmark single, “Zulu Nation Throwdown”, with authorization from the musicians. Disappointed with the results of the single, Bambaataa left the company.

1980 Afrika Bambaataa Zulu Nation Throwdown
Here’s “Jazzy Sensation”, Afrika Bambaataa’s first single for Tommy Boy Records, and the closest he would come to “pure hip-hop” during his studio career.[8] The track is a remake of Gwen McCrae’s “Funky Sensation.”

Afrika Bambaataa & the Jazzy Five – Jazzy Sensation (1981)
After “Planet Rock” came out in 1982, Bambaataa released “Looking For the Perfect Beat” (1982) with the Soul Sonic Force and “Renegades of Funk” (1983) which were included on his very late first album Planet Rock: The Album in 1986. He’s since teamed up with various artists such as James Brown, Bill Laswell as Shango, and various ex-members of P-Funk, putting out remixes of different tracks including what seems like 100 different remixes of “Planet Rock”. [8].

Here is a quick sample of “Looking For the Perfect Beat”.

Afrika Bambaataa & the Jazzy Five – Looking For the Perfect Beat (1982)
Bambaataa is considered one of the “three kings” of hip-hop music, along with DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and he’s still active in promoting the Zulu Nation and its philosophies.

Warp 9

In 1982, the same year that “Planet Rock” was released, Warp 9 came out with their first single “Nunk”, short for “new-wave funk”.

Warp 9 – Nunk (1982)
Warp 9 was a New York City based group consisting of Lotti Golden and Richard Scher. Their sound is described as having “gorgeous textures and multiple layers”. [18]

Their second single “Light Years Away”, which used live Latin percussion overdubs on top of the 808 beat, was a “cornerstone of early 80’s beatbox afrofuturism” and “born of a science fiction revival.” “Light Years Away” describes ancient alien visitation, partially inspired by “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and also pays homage to Sun Ra’s film Space Is the Place. [9]

Warp 9 – Light Years Away (1983)


Being a Detroit native, I have to mention Cybotron. Formed in Detroit in 1980, Cybotron consisted of Juan Atkins and Richard Davis, later joined by John Housley. The name Cybotron is a portmanteau of “cyborg” and “cyclotron”. Although generally considered electro, they went on to be techno pioneers.

Here’s a bit of their track “Alleys of Your Mind”, recorded in 1981, almost a year before “Planet Rock”.

Cybotron – Alleys of Your Mind (1981)
That was “Alleys of Your Mind”, recorded by Cybotron in 1981. You can definitely hear a strong Kraftwerk influence. “Alleys of Your Mind” is also considered one of the first techno tracks, but to me it sounds very electro.

The track was released under Cybotron’s own Deep Space label, and they sold around 10,000 copies of “Alleys of Your Mind”, along with 10-15,000 copies of their second single “Cosmic Cars” through independent distributors. They were actually in New York trying to promote their band when “Planet Rock” hit the airwaves [12], and history declared Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force the inventors of electro.

Like Antonio Meucci and the patenting of the telephone [11], it’s a story that shows ideas don’t come from a vacuum, and that it’s important to be in the right place at the right time, at least as far as the history books are concerned.

Here is Cybotron’s most popular electro track, “Clear” from 1983.

Cybotron – Clear (1983)
That was “Clear” by Cybotron. You may recognize the arpeggio sound from more recent tracks that have sampled it like Poison Clan’s “Shake Whatcha Mama Gave Ya” or Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control.”

Part 2 coming soon…


  1. Wilson, Greg. Electro-Funk > What Did It All Mean? Retrieved from http://www.electrofunkroots.co.uk/articles/what.html
  2. Vail, Mark (2000). Vintage Synthesizers.
  3. The Record Players: The Story of Dance Music Told by History’s Greatest DJs. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=9fJCAJ-UqRYC&pg=PT308&lpg=PT308#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. Hip Hop Connection Magazine Interview, July 2002. Retrieved from http://www.cheebadesign.com/legends/articleX.html
  5. Perkins, William Eric (ed). Droppin’ Science – Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zGC_ZNOrKDwC&pg=PA12#v=onepage&q&f=false
  6. Who Sampled Who – Afrika Bambaataa “Planet Rock”. Retrieved from http://www.whosampled.com/Afrika-Bambaataa/Planet-Rock/
  7. Chang, Jeff (2005). Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, pg. 93-94
  8. Shapiro, Peter (2005). Rough Guide to Hip-Hop 2, pg 5, 384-5
  9. Fitzpatrick, Rob. The 101 strangest records on Spotify: Warp 9 – It’s A Beat Wave. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/may/14/the-101-strangest-records-on-spotify-warp-9-its-a-beat-wave
  10. George, Nelson (2005). Hip Hop America, pg 18
  11. Wikipedia – Invention of the Telephone. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invention_of_the_telephone#Antonio_Meucci
  12. Sicko, Dan (2010). Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (second edition)
  13. Rule, Greg (1999). Electro Shock – Groundbreakers of Synth Music
  14. Wikipedia – List of electronic music genres. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_electronic_music_genres
  15. Anderson, Jason. Slaves to the Rhythm. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/slaves-to-the-rhythm-1.771508
  16. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Roland TR-808 but were afraid to ask. Retrieved from http://www.factmag.com/2014/01/16/roland-tr-808-beginners-guide-everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-introduction/4/
  17. Valle, OV. TR-808 Drum Machine Flashback. Retrieved from https://www.rolandus.com/blog/2014/02/13/tr-808/
  18. Toop, David (2000). Rap Attack No. 3: African Rap to Global Hip Hop


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