The Universal Zulu Nation had its start in the 1970s. It was, so the story goes, an organization that attempted to steer the youth of New York City away from gang violence and into artistic production. In the 1980s, these artistic activities evolved into what is now called hiphop. There were four basic elements to this movement: rapping, DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing. There was also knowledge, a more obscure fifth element. (Other hiphop organizations and activists replaced the fifth element, knowledge, with fashion, which is justified, considering the impact that Dapper Dan had on the look of hiphop in the '80s.)
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The Zulu Nation was founded by Afrika Bambaataa, a Bronx-born DJ who, with the help of producer Arthur Baker, rewired rap and gave it a galactic vibe. Bambaataa also worked with Johnny Rotten to produce a track, "Time Zone," that expressed one of the deepest fears of the times, nuclear holocaust. Bambaataa, however, recently left the organization he founded because of allegations of child sexual abuse that apparently date back to the '70s. (Had these allegations appeared during the #MeToo movement, instead of the fall of 2016, they would have been a much bigger story.) But one man does not an organization make, and the ideas and community principles of Zulu Nation empowered inner-city people, first in the New York City area, and then across the world. In 2004, it reached Seattle.
Based at Washington Hall, the Seattle chapter of Zulu Nation, 206 Zulu, is lively, promotes breakdancing and art events around the city, and has a program, Zulu Radio, on KBCS (91.3 FM) that airs live on Saturday from 3 to 5 a.m. If that sounds late to you, then you do not know the history of hiphop—recall Chuck D's line from the 1987 track "Don't Believe the Hype": "In the daytime, radio's scared of me... I get on the mix late in the night."
The local and national organizations represent the pre-commercial virtues of hiphop. It is really about loving not so much the culture but its power. This power saved many lives and kept thousands of men out of prison. Hiphop culture was (and still is) for real. You could devote your whole life to one of its elements. And this almost spiritual commitment explains the Zulu Nation as a whole. It also explains why the local chapter is celebrating its 15 years of existence with a performance by Bay Area hiphop legends Souls of Mischief, a group that's part of another spiritually-minded hiphop collective called Hieroglyphics.
And now I must say a little something about Souls of Mischief. To this day, I do not go a week without four minutes of it being filled by the sad melodies and pounding beats of that crew's masterpiece, "93 'til Infinity." The song is one of the highest aesthetic achievements in hiphop production. The music says the same thing as the words. It is always about the diamond infinity of moments that, in glittering rings, radiate from 1993 until the present, the now, the moment that's being crystallized by the sorrowful soul of the looped electric piano, the lonely blow of the Pete Rock–like horn, and the man-machine compression of the drum machine. Hiphop rarely gets better than this.