Album: Planet Rock: The Album (1982)
Charted: 53 48

Songfacts®:

  • 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!"
  • Even though this interpolated Kraftwerk's song "Trans-Europe Express," it didn't sample it directly. The three credited writers of "Planet Rock" are Bambaataa, producer Arthur Baker, and John Robie, who played the synthesizer.
  • Arthur Baker, who produced this song, used many of the same musical elements on another project he was working on around the same time: an electro cover of Eddy Grant's song "Walking On Sunshine" by his group Rockers Revenge. "Sunshine" wasn't a hit in the US, but made it to #4 in the UK. Baker compared what he was doing to jazz, which was taking familiar hooks and adding something new to them. He also knew that Kraftwerk was popular with kids in New York City, but their record company wasn't pushing them there, which left the market open.
  • According to producer Arthur Baker, the vocal effect on the "rock, rock, planet rock" section was made using a Lexicon PCM41 effects unit set to an extremely tight delay. The sound is similar to a vocoder, which funk acts like Zapp were using, but they didn't have one so they had to improvise.
  • The proving ground for this song was a New York City club called The Funhouse, which drew a diverse crowd of about 2,500 revelers on Friday and Saturday nights. Bambaataa's label, Tommy Boy Records, would play their songs there to see if they were release-worthy.
  • Released as a 12" single, Tommy Boy Records claimed that the song sold about 700,000 copies, making it one of the best-sellers ever in that format. The song was wildly popular in New York, where there were radio stations that played the song, but throughout the rest of the country, few stations would touch it. Since the Hot 100 was based on radio play and reports from selected record stores, "Planet Rock" achieved a meager chart position relative to its impact.
  • A year earlier, Afrika Bambaataa released a song called "Jazzy Sensation" on Tommy Boy, this time with his rap crew dubbed "The Jazzy 5." The song was based on "Funky Sensation" by Gwen McGrae, and teamed Bambaataa with producer Arthur Baker for the first time. When they released "Planet Rock" the next year, it was with a different set of MCs: The Soulsonic Force. This was a time when the DJ was considered the star and the rappers could be interchangeable.
  • In addition to "Trans-Europe Express," elements of another Kraftwerk song, "Numbers," also appear in this song, as does some of the synthesizer arrangement from the 1972 cover of "Theme From For A Few Dollars More" by the group Babe Ruth. For A Few Dollars More was a 1965 Western with the theme written by Ennio Morricone.

    Regarding the Kraftwerk influence, Bambaataa said in The Face: "I don't think they even knew how big they were among the black masses back in '77 when they came out with 'Trans Europe Express.' When that came out I thought that was one of the best and weirdest damn records I ever heard in my life... That's an amazing group to see – just to see what computers and all that can do."
  • Note that Bambaataa took us to "Planet Rock," not "Planet Rap." Early practitioners of hip-hop considered their music an offshoot of rock, with rapping just one aspect of the art. Bambaataa was a DJ, so it made sense that his planet would rock, not rap. Over the next few years, Run-D.M.C. proclaimed themselves "King of Rock," LL Cool J Rocked The Bells, and Whodini got spooked in the "The Haunted House Of Rock."

    The term "rap" came to describe this music to a broad audience after "Rapper's Delight" was released in 1979, focusing attention on the rappers, not the producers or the DJ. In 1970, the term was used in song to describe a guy who smooth talks women: "The Rapper" was a #2 hit for The Jaggerz.
  • Kraftwerk took issue with the group using the samples without permission and sued the record label. The settlement gave the German band a dollar for every record sold, leading Tommy Boy to charge more for the single to offset the loss.
  • This was used in the movies White Boy Rick (2018), The Lego Batman Movie (2017), Ali G Indahouse (2002), and Swordfish (2001).

    It was also used in the TV show Trailer Park Boys in the episodes "The F--kin' Way She Goes" (2005) and "I've Met Cats and Dogs Smarter Than Trevor and Cory" (2002).

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