Hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa's historic first records are captured on Death Mix, a compilation of early rap records on Winley, an indie label run by Harlem entrepreneur Paul Winley, who had entered the R&B business as a songwriter in the early '50s. Before "Rapper's Delight" was unleashed on the world, Winley had released breakbeat records and had long been trolling uptown clubs for rappers. With his studio group, the Harlem Underground Band, whose breakbeat cred had been sealed in the mid '70s with "Smokin 'Cheeba Cheeba," Winley first recorded his daughters Tanya "Sweet Tee" and Paulette on the exuberant "Rhymin and Rappin." He also captured daughter Ann's soulful singing on "Watch Dog" and "Back Up Push Baby." Tanya's 1980 single "Vicious Rap" offers pre-"Message" social commentary and remains one of the great lost tracks of the old school.
Winley thought he had locked up the game when he signed Bambaataa, the Bronx's most respected DJ. But Bam hated the two singles he cut — "Zulu Nation Throwdown Part 1" with the Cosmic Force and "Zulu Nation Throwdown Part II" with the Soul Sonic Force. He was further incensed when Winley released an unauthorized bootleg of one of the infamous Zulu Nation parties in "Death Mix, Parts I and II" and ended the business relationship. Despite Bambaataa's feelings about the singles, they remain jaw-droppingly stunning.
The "Zulu Nation Throwdown" tracks capture the loose exuberance of Bambaataa's crew, and are some of the only official recordings of the supremely skilled Queen Lisa Lee. "Death Mix" features Bam, DJ Jazzy Jay and DJ Red Alert cutting up breaks and Sundance MCing sometime in late 1979 or early 1980. For all its hissy cassette-in-the-bassbin fidelity, it has the same real-deal urgency and immediacy of a Charley Patton or Robert Johnson recording.