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Malcolm McLaren: Hip Hop Pioneer

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Punk godfather Malcolm McLaren, who died this past week, may be best known for managing the Sex Pistols, the New York Dolls, and the early ’80s group Bow Wow Wow ("I Want Candy"). What is little mentioned, however, is McLaren's contributions to hip hop's early years; in a Swindle Magazine interview from 2006, he stated that "I always thought hip-hop was the black punk rock. It had similar DIY aspects." Perhaps it made sense for him to dive into a related musical territory.

McLaren's seemingly unlikely foray into hip hop began in 1980, when he first met Afrika Bambaataa on the streets of Manhattan. At the time he performed as a DJ with his own crew, just a couple of years before they dropped their pioneering single "Planet Rock." As he told Swindle Magazine, he eventually persuaded Bambaataa to open for Bow Wow Wow on some club dates. While some audiences seemed intimidated by this new kind of sound, McLaren saw its commercial potential. "These guys started to spin on their heads and it was phenomenal. They already had the attributes that would become ubiquitous in hip-hop style: the caps, the baggy t-shirts. . . all of that was already assembled, but it hadn’t hit anybody downtown on a commercial, even independent level," he said. He then tried persuading RCA to sign Bambaataa and his crew, but to no avail. Therefore McLaren produced his own hip hop records, sometimes performing on them as well.

In 1983 McLaren released what would be one of the most interesting albums in his catalog–Duck Rock, a salute to world music and street beats. Produced by Trevor Horn (formerly of the Buggles, who would go on to produce such artists as Yes and form his own group, the Art of Noise), Duck Rock would later be credited for introducing hip hop to the UK. The album spawned two hits: "Buffalo Gals" and "Double Dutch," the latter being a slice of afro pop mixed with McLaren's unique rapping style. "Buffalo Gals" evolved into a hip hop classic, incorporating folk with the famous repeating line "buffalo gals go 'round the outside, 'round the outside, 'round the outside." The scratching and throbbing bass beat reflect such groundbreaking tracks as Herbie Hancock's "Rockit."

Along with McLaren, serving as co-narrators on Duck Rock was the World's Famous Supreme Team, a rap collective who hosted their own radio show on New York's WHBI. Listening to them trade raps with McLaren on "Buffalo Gals" is an amusing experience, yet somehow the combination works. Today, artists salute the classic track by sampling it in their own songs, such as Eminem's "Without Me."

Another McLaren classic is "Hey DJ," with rapping by the World's Famous Supreme Team. The 1983 single features charming salutes to DJs around the world, including radio, club, and street disc spinners. Adding some humor, the group references "Buffalo Gals," with one of the Supreme Team members interrupting, "No, that's our last record!" Years later, Mariah Carey would sample the track on her hit "Honey." A subsequent mini-LP, D'Ya Like Scratchin', offered remixes of "Buffalo Gals" as well as other Duck Rock tracks and B-sides; the album experienced some success on the American charts in 1984, according to All Music.

McLaren continued his hip hop experiments, adding in electronica, classical, opera, and disco in 1985's Fans and 1989's Waltz Darling. The latter album produced two UK hits: the title track and "Something's Jumpin' in Your Shirt." Boasting such musicians as Jeff Beck and Bootsy Collins, the work proved that McLaren enjoyed toying with people's expectations while expanding his musical palette.

1998 saw the release of Buffalo Gals–Back to Skool, a tribute of sorts to Duck Rock. Rappers Rakim and KRS-One contributed to the album, and other artists such as De La Soul remixed "Hey DJ" and "Buffalo Gals." Interspersed with these tracks are soundbites featuring McLaren reminiscing about his '80s career, and clips from the World's Famous Supreme Team's radio show. All of these tracks lead to a pleasant trip down memory lane, where you can hear the roots of today's rap and hip hop.

My favorite track has always been "Hey DJ," as it perfectly encapsulates the burgeoning scene in New York. It may seem dated today, but it represents the early days when artists rapped about DJs' ability to get a party started–or at the very least, about the rapper's own skills. Combine the lyrics with the video's fashions and break dancing, and you get an instant time capsule.

McLaren may forever be known as the punk innovator, but his stint in the hip-hop world deserves recognition. Try Duck Rock and Buffalo Gals–Back to Skool, and relive the early days of '80s rap.

For more information on McLaren's life and hip hop influence, visit Popmatters, All Music, and Swindle Magazine's sites.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice piece, Kit.

    Duck Rock is a great one, but I never really got into the other stuff. Thanks for the overview.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for commenting, Greg!

  • Rosemary

    Congratulations on making Editors Picks. Interesting column!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Nice to see someone writing about McLaren acknowledge the hip-hop contribution. The “Do Ya Like Scratchin” EP is a classic. Thanx Kit.

    -Glen

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks, Glen and Rosie, for commenting!

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for your comment! It is indeed important to know about the roots of hip hop. I also liked McLaren’s statement about hip hop–it does have clear parallels to punk!

  • Greg Richard

    I honestly think Duck Rock is one of the most under appreciated albums of all time. He anticipated so many musical trends in a single album and it is just so much fun to listen to. I can understand why so many articles have focused on his Sex Pistol days so I’m very glad that you completed the picture.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thank you very much, Greg! Indeed, McLaren spanned many genres, and I thought it was important to focus on his contributions to hip hop as well as punk.