Peaking at #48 on the Hot 100 in September 1982, "Planet Rock" was just the third rap song on that chart, following "Rapper's Delight
" by The Sugarhill Gang (#36, 1979) and "The Breaks
" by Kurtis Blow (#87, 1980). But compared to other rap songs of the era, "Planet Rock" was in a different galaxy. Built around synthesizers and electronic elements, it was the template for a different class of hip-hop.
Bambaataa (birth name: Kevin Donovan) was a New York DJ with an encyclopedic knowledge of music. One of the songs he often played in his set was a 1977 track by the German Electro band Kraftwerk called "Trans-Europe Express." After Bambaataa signed with Tommy Boy Records, their chairman, Tom Silverman, suggested using the song as the basis for a new composition. In a 1988 interview with Keyboard
magazine, Silverman explained how it came together: "I thought it would be a great idea to use those rhythms and that kind of a sound in a black record, so Bambaataa and I went into the studio with Arthur Baker as the producer. We needed a guy to put synthesizers down, and somebody recommended John Robie, who had a danceable rock record out on this disco deejay service. He came over and we went into Intergalactic Studio, which, for $35 an hour, included a Neve board, a Fairlight, a Memorymoog, and a Roland TR-808. That was pretty much all we used. We had these giant orchestra hits in the tune, played in polyphony to make them sound even bigger. They were stock sounds from one of the Fairlight disks. Today, those chords are still the basis for samples on about 50 other records!"