Pack Jams: Technological Funk & Afrofuturism

The Fontaine Ferry Roller Rink, at 230 S, Western Parkway, was alive with the whir of skate wheels last night as young people raced around the rink. July 13, 1973.

In the 1980s, roller skating rinks in black neighborhoods all over the country played songs such as Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and Newcleus’ “Jam on It.” Another group on heavy rotation at the time was Jonzun Crew, who, along with Newcleus, popularized electro-funk, and riffed on Germany’s electronic dance music and P-Funk’s sci-fi themes of Afrofuturism. We skated and danced to songs such as such as “Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC),” “Space is the Place,” and “Space Cowboy.”

Jonzun Crew’s Lost in Space album (1983)

Recently I drew a link from that moment in time to the present, through art and technological innovation and the production starts with “Pack Jam (Look Out for the OVC),” a song I remember hearing on the radio; also linking collaborations with engineer Bill Sebastian who (in the 80s) invented the OVC or Outerspace Visual Communicator with Sun Ra and the Arkestra.

Creative production in the 70s and 80s formed a bedrock for what we call Afrofuturism today. Jonzon Crew and Newcleus channeled jazz maverick Sun Ra’s film “Space is the Place” in their song/album titles, as well as in the overall aesthetic and vibe of the music. Listening to “Pack Jam” I was struck by how similar it sounds to drum & bass, electronic music that originated in the United Kingdom in the 90s and is characterized by fast breakbeats with heavy bass and sub-bass lines, sampled sources, and synthesizers.

What also struck me was the authentic technological innovation that was taking place during this time frame. In the 1980’s Sun Ra was touring the Boston area with Bill Sebastian and the OVC. Groups such as Newcleus and Jonzun Crew were playing around with drum machines, leading the way for Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” that centered hip-hop in the electronic dance music scene. In 2017, I collaborated with Bill Sebastian and his new OVC-3D that uses virtual reality (VR) as the platform for experiencing music visualization.

OVC-3D
“Afrofuturism Amplified in Three Dimensions”

“Afrofuturism Amplified in Three Dimensions” was on view at Flux Factory, as part of an exhibition called We Have Always Lived in the Future. The show was featured in Art in America. A year later, I installed the sculpture at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery for Probability & Uncertainty, a show that featured the works of contemporary female artists. Projected on my acrylic sculpture was a music visualization of Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me.”

My music visualization was featured on the cover page

Flying Lotus’ 2015–2016 performances featured “Hypercube” a newer platform that used a combination of materials and surfaces to create a projection-mapped, 3-D video-driven apparatus that surrounded the artist in a spectacular array of shape, light, and movement.

Flying Lotus and the Hypercube

Well one of my partners was an innovator… He created this musical instrument that had the Johnson Brothers name and every key would spell a letter of our name and different notes would display different colors. This was very outer space and futuristic at the time.

In this interview Michael Jonzun seemed to be unaware of Bill Sebastian or Bill was actually working with the Jonzun Crew “keyboardist” at the time. For me, the most important part is how the technology was developed as a way to visualize the music, which is what we refer to as data science today. These creative, innovative technological developments should not be lost it time.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.