Ron Savage at the Castle Hill Houses, where he grew up. Photo by Cole Wilson.
This story appeared in the October Music issue of VICE magazine, a collaboration with THUMP and NOISEY. Click HERE to subscribe.
Ron Savage grew up in the poverty-stricken Castle Hill section of the Bronx in the 1970s. On the streets, gang violence was a fixture of day-to-day life. At home, he lived in fear of his dad, a drunk who terrorized him and his sister and abused their mother.
One of the few respites he had was the neighborhood hip-hop party, thrown regularly at the Center, a community space in the Bronx River Houses. DJs played breakbeats from soul, funk, rock, and Latin records while b-boys danced and MCs rhymed. The parties drew droves of people, especially teenagers.
It was at one of these parties, in 1979, that Savage met Afrika Bambaataa, the mysterious and eccentric visionary who, alongside DJ Kool Herc and DJ Jazzy Jay, is considered one of hip-hop’s founding figures. A longtime resident of the Bronx River Houses and former warlord of the gang the Black Spades, Bambaataa, among others, identified the four pillars of the nascent subcultureb-boying, MCing, DJing, and graffiti writinglater adding to it a fifth: knowledge. In a few years, he would release “Planet Rock,” widely credited with launching him and the Universal Zulu Nationthe hip-hop and African American advocacy organization he conceived of in 1973to international stardom. Today, the Zulu Nation counts hip-hop royalty like Nas, Lil Wayne, and Big Boi as affiliates, in addition to younger rappers like Joey Bada$ and Freddie Gibbs. Acclaimed TV series The Get Downnot to mention countless documentaries and a recent showcase at Cornell Universitycredit Bambaataa with uniting a divided neighborhood, offering a way out of gang life, and helping to launch a movement that would place African American art forms at the center of global popular culture.
“To me, he was cool. He was like a god,” Savage, now 50, told me. “It was like, ‘This is the guy I had always heard about.’ Everybody knew who Afrika Bambaataa was back then.”
Savage immersed himself in this new world. He began carrying records to parties for Bambaataa’s partner, DJ Jazzy Jay. He loved how Bambaataa gave him and the other neighborhood kids special attention and remembers how the DJ would buy all the kids burgers from White Castle after getting paid for a gig.
Afrika Bambaataa appears in an official Universal Zulu Nation publicity photo from 1990. Notables pictured in the group are deceased member Lucky Strike (far left); Crazy Legs, from the Rock Steady Crew (far right); and Zulu member “King Righteous,” kneeling to the right. Other individuals are unidentified. All archival courtesy of rushtown298 unless otherwise noted.
“He was a father figure to me,” Savage recalled. “I looked up to him as someone doing something positive. I looked at him as a role model, because the role model I looked up to in my house was an alcoholic. I used to see my father always arguing and fighting with my mother, and I didn’t see that in Bam. So that’s how I had the attachment to him.
Savage said the attachment brought him very closetoo closeto Bambaataa. In late March, Savage made headlines when he became the first of a series of men to accuse Bambaataa in the media of sexual abuse. In back-to-back interviews, first with controversial radio host DJ Star on his YouTube channel, the Star Chamber, and later in the New York Daily News, he graphically described how Bambaataa allegedly molested him when he was just 15. Since his accusations came out, at least three more men have accused Bambaataa of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers. Meanwhile, Bambaataa is at-large, his whereabouts unknown.
The accusers, three of whom spoke extensively to me for this story, claim that these accounts of alleged abuse have been common knowledge in the Bronx River community and beyond since the early 80s, including among many of Bambaataa’s closest friends and Zulu soldiers. They tell of a decades-long cover-up by the Zulu Nation and a hidden network of victims whose lives were allegedly haunted by death threats, suicides, drug abuse, and violence. Beneath the disturbing headlines, two questions remain: How could the Zulu Nation have known about this for years, as the accusers and others claim, yet never done anything to stop it? And how did Bambaataaa man universally hailed for decades as a musical pioneer and community heromanage to evade public scrutiny for more than 30 years?
The Castle Hill houses. Photo by Cole Wilson.
Back in the mid 70s, the South Bronx epitomized urban decay. The Cross Bronx Expressway, completed a decade earlier, had cut the area in half; by the 60s and 70s, property values had plummeted, racial tensions ran high, and more than 20 percent of the populationmostly middle class and whitehad fled. Murder rates tripled, and arsons ravaged entire neighborhoods. President Carter called a 1977 visit to the neighborhood “sobering,” and President Reagan compared it to London after the Blitz of World War II.
Amid the poverty and chaos, street gangs with names like the Black Spades, the Savage Nomads, the Seven Immortals, and the Savage Skulls sprang up to take charge. While the gangs provided protection for local residents and gave aimless young men with no opportunity a purpose and sense of belonging, they quickly became notorious for running drug, prostitution, and theft rackets, and engaging in staggering episodes of bloody urban warfare.
Bambaataa, a member of the Black Spades, decided in 1973 to create an organization that would offer an alternative to the gangs that were wreaking havoc on the neighborhood. He called it the Universal Zulu Nation, named after the 1964 war film Zulu and inspired by the Afrocentric and Black Power ideologies that emerged in the late 60s. Members were required to follow a strict moral code focused on self-improvement, closeness to God, community service, and universal equality. Bambaataa called those who succeeded “King” or “Queen,” as a show of respect to improve self-esteem.
Over the next few decades, the organization expanded its activities, which now include planting communal gardens, running neighborhood-watch patrols and after-school programs, organizing urban-reclamation projects, and even providing free legal services to members. Zulus also threw hip-hop block parties and promoted and managed concerts for the genre’s earliest artists, especially Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force. Today, the Zulu Nation has dozens of active chapters across the US, as well as in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, France, Honduras, New Zealand, Australia, and Belgium, among other countries.
In 1982, Bambaataa struck gold with “Planet Rock,” a futuristic electro-rap track that was fueled by TR-808 drum beats and spacey synthesizers. It became a massive local club hit and then a global sensation, one that would open the door for rappers and electronic-music producers across the world. The success of “Planet Rock” made the Zulu Nation a lucrative entertainment business, while an affiliated security arm called the Zulu Warriors provided additional jobs for members. The Zulu Warriors handle concert and VIP security and have been responsible for protecting dozens of artists for years, including Jay Z, Nas, Busta Rhymes, A$AP Ferg, Lauryn Hill, and others.
Party flyer from the T-Connection in the Bronx, 1981.
Savage joined the Baby Zulus, an apprentice group for future Zulus, earned the Zulu nickname “Bee-Stinger” (which he keeps today), and became a “crate boy,” an unpaid position that entailed carrying records and gear for Zulu DJs. It was a goal for many poor, disenfranchised kids in the neighborhood.
“Crate boys are pretty common in hip-hopapprentice DJs trying to learn the craft or looking for a career in the music industry,” Steven Hager, a hip-hop historian and former New York Daily News and Village Voice reporter, told me in an email interview. “But nobody cultivated or recruited them like Bam.”
Savage loved being part of the Zulus, hanging out at the Center parties and having a front-row seat to the birth of hip-hop. But in 1980, just two years before Bambaataa’s career really took off with “Planet Rock,” everything changed. One day that year, when Savage was 15, he said Bambaataa sent a cab to Adlai E. Stevenson High School on Lafayette Avenue to pick him up. Savage, a freshman, ditched class, got in the cab, and was driven to Bambaataa’s house in the Baychester section of the Bronx. Inside the house, Savage was met by Bambaataa and another man, who Savage wouldn’t identify.
“There was a guy there, and Bam said that I could watch TV in the room. When I went in the room, there was a photo book… on the bed,” Savage recalled. “It ills when he is the one who has caused this pain.”
Ron Savage near the Castle Hill houses. Photo by Cole Wilson.
There are also signs that the Bronx River community where Savage, Campbell, and Troy grew up is beginning to address wounds from the scandal. In August, a meeting focused on sexual-abuse awareness and victim support was held at the Bronx River Houses with members of the Association of Black Psychologists, the National Association of Black Social Workers, and Black Psychiatrists of America.
The scandal comes amid a renewed mainstream interest in old-school hip-hop and the genre’s roots, fueled partly by the success of Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix series, The Get Down, the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, and a slew of documentaries, including Ice-T’s Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap and Shan Nicholson’s chronicle of gang culture in the Bronx, Rubble Kings, in which Bambaataa plays a prominent role. And while Bambaataa’s brand has certainly taken an irreparable hit from the accusations, his impact on pop culture continues. Most recently, he was a consultant, along with many of hip-hop’s founding figures, on The Get Down. (Emails to Luhrmann’s attorney were not returned.) Bambaataa’s massive memorabilia and record collection remains at Cornell University, where he’s been a visiting scholar. But Sirius XM Radio’s Backspin channel, which for years aired his ZuluBeatz mix show, has canceled it, a spokeswoman said.
Still, unlike the scandals surrounding black icons like Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, the media has largely ignored the Bambaataa case. Part of that is probably due to Bambaataa’s fading celebrity, but it also could stem from another unfortunately common fact of newsroom decisions: The alleged victims are from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, where despair and tragedy are often taken as a fact of life. And some say there are racial elements at play as well.
Meanwhile, no one I interviewed for this article seems to know exactly where Bambaataa is, or at least they won’t say so publicly. Some speculate that he is hiding in the UK. Others say Chicago or Connecticut. Bambaataa’s attorney, Vivian K. Tozaki, declined to comment for this story. My attempts to reach Bambaataa through Tozaki and social-media channels were unsuccessful. Zulu King EL One said of Bambaataa: “He’s just completely fallen off the radarhe’s kind of just disappeared.”
On a recent, scorching day in East Harlem, the scene at Poor Richard’s Playground on 109th Street and Third Avenue felt like a throwback to hip-hop’s scruffy beginnings. Poppers and lockers practiced their moves on the tarmac. Young men worked up a sweat playing handball. Over at the DJ stand, DJ Jazzy Jaythe groundbreaking turntablist who released the first record with the iconic logo of Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Recordstook his turn at the decks.
Held every Thursday in playgrounds across the Bronx, the park jams are modeled after the legendary original throwdowns at the Center. They are like a living, breathing museum of hip-hop history, attracting a who’s who of the genre’s formative years, many of whom are members or affiliates of the Zulu Nation. Bambaataa attended the park jams for years but has been conspicuously absent since the allegations surfaced.
Savage, dressed in a fuchsia polo, pressed gray denims, and sleek gray Nikes, smiled, laughed, and bobbed his head as Jazzy Jay dropped a dusty breakbeat groove from the Meters. He said he was unfazed by the Zulus and Black Spades, some of whom are longtime friends of Bambaataa’s and are angry with him and the others for going public. Savage was at ease, called the Zulus there his “friends,” and said he harbored no ill will toward the organization as a whole. Like the other two alleged victims I interviewed for this piece, he said he’s not considering any legal action against Bambaataa but would like an acknowledgement and an apology.
Since making his accusations public, Savage said he’s made it his mission to help protect a new generation of kids in the Bronx. He spoke about working with an organization called ULULY that focuses on utilizing hip-hop in education, and has launched a new awareness campaign for child sex abuse that he’s seeking to have implemented in New York schools.
Nearby, some children splashed in a water fountain. “I feel good that I spoke up,” Savage said. “But I wish I had the courage to come out when I was younger, so I could have saved other kids.”