ON THE UNLIKELY ORIGINS OF THE UK HIP HOP MOVEMENT
Malcolm McLaren masterminded the explosion of the Punk Rock scene and brought anarchy to the UK in the form of the notorious Sex Pistols who he managed and mentored. As a result, McLaren’s place in British music history is ensured. Countless words have been written (and will continue to be written) on the subject.
Yet, strangely, little is ever mentioned about McLaren’s later role, which was also hugely significant, for it was he who was ultimately responsible for bringing Hip Hop out of New York’s South Bronx and placing it squarely into the collective psyche of the British youth. The portal for this unlikely introduction to what would become the most influential cultural movement of the late 20th Century was a highly infectious and truly inspirational single called “Buffalo Gals”, which entered the UK Pop chart in December 1982 (exactly 6 years on from the Sex Pistols’ chart debut), climbing all the way into the top 10.
This was more than six months before Herbie Hancock’s Grammy winning “Rockit” was issued, giving the UK a head start when it came to our Hip Hop education, for it wasn’t until “Rockit” came along that the majority of people (even in most of the US) began to latch onto this vibrant and colourful New York subculture. Herbie Hancock, via Grandmixer D.ST, might have scratched the surface when introducing Hip Hop to a global audience, but “Buffalo Gals” had already brought the total package (inclusive of all four elements, not just scratching) to the British mainstream.
As often happens at these pivotal points in popular culture, it all came about by complete accident. McLaren, in New York looking for a support act for his current charges, Bow Wow Wow, was taken to see “something that couldn’t possibly have ever existed in England”. This “something” turned out to be an open-air party, where he was exposed to the full-force of the Hip Hop movement in the presence of none-other-than Afrika Bambaataa, the figurehead of the Bronx’ Zulu Nation (who laid the blueprint for the Electro genre via his hugely influential Kraftwerk-inspired monster cut, “Planet Rock”).
In the illuminating 1984 BBC documentary “Beat This! – A Hip Hop History”, McLaren (thankfully) gave a rare TV interview on his Hip Hop initiation, recounting his impressions of this first awe-inspiring encounter with what must have seemed like another world (especially when you consider he’d have been one of the few white people and possibly the only Englishman in attendance). Watching the DJs at work on the turntables he observed:
“…it was extraordinary cos the sound coming out was totally inarticulate, it was a load of rough noises, noises that sounded a little like guitar, but had a sort of concrete chisel sound and the sound I realised was actually coming from the way they were messing around with their hands on the decks, moving records backwards and forwards…at one point or another people would move to the sides and a group of kids would start freaking out in the middle of doing all this incredible gymnastic dancing!”
McLaren, profoundly affected by what he’d seen and heard that night in the Bronx, incorporated the Hip Hop style into his debut album project, “Duck Rock”. With top British producer Trevor Horn at the controls, the LP broke new ground, taking the recording studio on the road and around the world, absorbing many different musical styles and putting them together in a totally unique way (a number of years before Paul Simon was universally acclaimed for doing a similar thing).
The “Buffalo Gals” track itself has a fascinating legacy. It was based on a famous minstrel song of the same name, which was first published in 1844 by the ironically-named Cool White (although the song is older still and it’s writer unknown). A hundred and two years later, it found its way into the storyline of the classic Frank Capra movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” (which, remarkably, was a box office flop that only gained full recognition in the 1970s, following annual Christmas TV repeats). “It’s A Wonderful Life” is nowadays, of course, regarded as a masterpiece, one of the most beloved of all American films.
If its origins weren’t bizarre enough, to twist things even further, McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” saw him hark back to an earlier type of MC, taking the role of a square dance prompter (or figure caller), instructing the buffalo gals (and boys) to ‘go around the outside’ and ‘do-si-do your partners’! The sleevenotes on the album describe the track as follows:
“…recorded with the World’s Famous Supreme Team and Zulu singers backing them up with the words “she’s looking like a hobo”. The performance by the Supreme Team may require some explaining but suffice to say they are DJs from New York City who have developed a technique using record players like instruments, replacing the power chord of the guitar by the needle of a gramophone, moving it manually backwards and forwards across the surface of a record. We call it scratching.”
The sleeve for the album would be a customised boom box (complete with buffalo horns!), whilst many people saw their first pair of the soon to be essential Technics SL1200 turntables on the front cover of the single.
Before “Buffalo Gals” we were more or less completely unaware of Hip Hop (at least with regards to three of its four elements). We already knew about Rap of course, which had first made its mark in 1979 when The Sugarhill Gang scored a worldwide success with “Rappers Delight”, but the style had been dismissed by the British media as a novelty (although perceptions had begun to change following the August ’82 release of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s street epic “The Message”, another UK Top 10 hit). Scratching was still an abstract concept as far as British DJs were concerned (Flash & The Five’s “Wheels Of Steel” made little impression on it’s UK release in ’81, it’s genius only fully appreciated when it was revived later, during the Electro-Funk era), graffiti, as we then understood it, was hardly considered art, and we knew nothing whatsoever of breakdancing, although Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel, an ex-dancer on US music show Soul Train, had already introduced us to the LA-originated style of body popping via the bands appearances on British TV.
Despite our ignorance of events in the Bronx, we weren’t totally green. In the more adventurous specialist black music clubs a new type of sound, which became known as Electro-Funk, was being played on import (mainly arriving on New York labels like Tommy Boy, Streetwise, Sugarhill, West End, Prelude, Sunnyview, Emergency and Becket). During 1982 the landmark early Electro-Funk tunes (which pre-dated “The Message”) were the mighty Peech Boys, led by the legendary DJ Larry Levan, with “Don’t Make Me Wait”, as weighty a slice of Dub/Funk as we’d ever heard, and, of course, “Planet Rock”, by Bambaataa and his Soul Sonic Force, which would cause major controversy within black music circles due to its no-holds-barred technological assault.
As more and more of these innovative ‘electronic’ releases began to make their way across the Atlantic, the Electro-Funk scene (which attracted a predominantly black audience) took root at two clubs in the North-West of England where I then deejayed, Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester. Ignoring the mounting flak I was taking for playing what my critics regarded as ‘soulless’ records, I became increasingly associated with this music, not only as a result of featuring it in the clubs (which drew people from all over the North and the Midlands, and even as far as London), but also because I’d incorporated it into my regular mixes for Mike Shaft’s show on Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio (which was known for a more orthodox selection of Soul, Funk and Jazz).
“Buffalo Gals” was despised by the purists, the very idea of playing a record by Malcolm McLaren on a black music night was absolutely abhorrent to them, but it fitted perfectly into my playlist as the backing track was pure Electro-Funk, giving the whole crazy concept a solid foundation that would truly rock the dancefloor. Following on from “Duck Rock”, Trevor Horn would continue the Electro experiment, via his own ZTT label, as a member of The Art Of Noise, most notably on the influential singles “Beat Box” and “Close (To The Edit)”, whilst cleaning up in ’84 with his groundbreaking work with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Horn set new standards in Pop music production, his studio wizardry a major inspiration for the next generation of music makers.
However, it wasn’t until the promotional video for “Buffalo Gals” was unleashed onto a totally unsuspecting British public that the full impact of this truly revolutionary release hit home. It would be no exaggeration to say that from this moment onwards British youth culture was never the same again. The contents of this video quite literally changed people’s lives!
Malcolm McLaren ‘Buffalo Gals’ video
It wasn’t an overnight change, how could it be when the full implications of what had appeared, as if by magic before our eyes, would take months to fully sink in, but change gradually came. The video opened up the Pandoras box of Bronx street science; it was a full-frontal introduction to what we would later learn was Hip Hop. It was all there, rapping and scratching, colourful graffiti pieces and, of course, the most amazing of dance styles (courtesy of the soon to be internationally famous Rock Steady Crew), which we’d come to know as breaking (although the original term was b-boying). This included the execution of a move that none of us could have imagined was possible at the time, somebody spinning around upside down on the top of their head! Had we been watching a news report with footage of the Martians landing, we’d have been no more awestruck than the moment we saw that first headspin!
The effect of all this on young blacks cut particularly deep. It hadn’t been long since the inner-city riots, which resulted from the black community becoming increasingly isolated and marginalised within British society, and now, having made a stand against the system, young blacks were asserting their identity in a way that had never been possible for the older generation (most of whom had immigrated from the West Indies in the 50s and 60s). This Hip Hop spoke directly to the youth, and needless to say, once they’d seen what it entailed, things would never be the same. Society might have closed the doors, but Hip Hop burst them wide open and it would be difficult to calculate just how many black kids in this country became breakdancers, body poppers, DJs, rappers or graffiti artists as a direct result of watching that video.
By the summer of ’83 breakdancing exploded onto the streets of the UK. After painstakingly practicing their moves (ideally on the kitchen lino) during the intervening months, the British b-boys finally emerged, ghetto-blasters at the ready, giving impromptu performances to bemused shoppers. This first wave of breakers were mainly black and their all-action entertainment worked wonders for race relations! Their white contemporaries, who may previously have felt threatened by what appeared to be a gang (rather than a crew) of black lads, no longer thought about fighting, but wanted to find out more about the dancing and the distinctive music that was booming out of the speakers. For many people, this was their first conversation with someone of a different skin colour, and major barriers began to break down during those initial exchanges in the streets and shopping centres. Apart from anything else, Hip Hop (or Electro-Funk, as we still called it) was a unifying force as far as the youth of this country were concerned, with black and white kids now communicating to the rhythm of the perfect beat. Nowadays Hip Hop culture is so much a part of British youth culture that we barely notice anymore, but back then this was a remarkable development. We were right on the cusp of social change.
By the end of 1983 Morgan Khan’s era defining “Street Sounds Electro” compilations had hooked in the mainstream audience and now white kids in the suburbs, many of whom had never even come into contact with black people, were tuning into the b-boy vibe. The “Electro” series provided the soundtrack for this new British breakdance generation and the UK dance scene would never look back as the seeds were well and truly sown for the clubbing boom that followed later in the decade.
Malcolm McLaren (Photo by Bob Gruen)
As with Punk, Malcolm McLaren could clearly understand Hip Hop’s role as a force for social change, for when all’s said and done, these two major youth movements represent opposite sides of the same coin. Both Punk and Hip Hop made a lasting impact on popular culture in the UK and McLaren’s role was absolutely crucial in each case. To view him only in context with the Punk years is to miss the full scale of his role in music history (not to mention the related areas of dance, art and fashion).
It’s difficult to bring to mind another 80s release that had a greater impact, or longer-lasting effect, on the youth of this country than “Buffalo Gals”, and as such, McLaren can lay claim to another title to place alongside his Punk Rock plaudits, that of British ambassador for the Boogie Down Bronx. It’s about time that this fact was finally (and fully) recognised; the tributes are long overdue, for this was undoubtedly a monumental contribution to British popular culture and black British culture in particular.
© Greg Wilson, 2003