New York

Malcolm McLaren

The Roxy

The Roxy is a large roller rink done up in the height of disco decor, a sort of Studio 54 on wheels. In the last year it has been dispensing with wheels every Friday night, presenting evenings of dancing to rap music and performances by rap artists and such affiliates as breaker dancers and double-dutch rope jumpers. These Friday nights have been the hottest (i.e., the most chilling) social scene in town. Uptown or outer-borough rap shows draw virtually all-black crowds; the Roxy accommodates a large contingent of the usual rap audience, but it draws an equally numerous crowd of whites, most of them, perhaps, part or partisans of the lower-Manhattan art and music scene. New York is legendary as a melting pot, but it has probably never had a happier or more eclectically mixed melting scene. Neo-Expressionist painters and neo-ex-subway painters join in animated conversation, while perhaps a young white gallery owner dances with a breaker dancer who, when performing, dances on his head, knees, and elbows as much as on his feet. There’s a real sympathy and camaraderie evident at the Roxy. Music and art have served here as a powerful icebreaker, and although ethnic differences are still distinct they are now more a matter of valuable experience and perspective than a cause for separation.

So the Roxy was the perfect place for Malcolm McLaren to put on a show promoting his dance record, “Buffalo Gals” (available on Island Records), a musical melting pot if ever there was one. McLaren is a successful clothing designer and merchant, but he is best known for masterminding the rock groups the Sex Pistols, Adam and the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow. Now he has cut out the middle artist and is making records of his own. His first major project as a solo artist took him around the world, from Appalachian East Tennessee to the South Bronx to Cuba to Santo Domingo to Peru to Zululand, his purpose being to record strong surviving traditional dance music, then to alter that material, intermixing it and adding to it. The result will appear soon as a record album with a radio-show format (i.e., with no separate cuts, a continuous flow of show).

“Buffalo Gals,” the first release from the project, began with a recording of a group of rural square dance musicians known as the Hilltop Boys in East Tennessee. The traditional song was performed as it has been for more than a century, led by a deaf 75-year-old fiddler. McLaren took the recording to New York and, sensing a powerful though to most people invisible link between square-dance and rap music, he decided to combine the two. To do this he found a pair of rappers and rap DJs known as the World Famous Supreme Team, who had set about realizing their dreams by buying air time on a local radio station and presenting the World Famous Supreme Team Show.

Rap DJs make new music by recycling prerecorded music. In their performances they collage records, sometimes taking a rhythmic groove from one and adding horn, vocal parts, or sound effects from another. Sometimes they actually play the records like instruments, “scratching” them—moving the disc by hand—to repeat a figure over and over, creating tension by extending it beyond its expected duration, altering a tempo and pitch, sometimes playing a part backwards, or creating a rhythm by moving the record back and forth across a single recorded beat. McLaren put the traditional square-dance music on records so that the Supreme Team could scratch it. They added a beat from a drum machine; the Supreme Team rapped along in parts, and McLaren did the square-dance calling. Additional parts were added by providing more discs to scratch, including recordings McLaren had made of Zulu singers, and some of callers to the Supreme Team’s radio show.

McLaren considered the Supreme Team perfect collaborators because of their straightforwardly mercenary quality. They thought that it would be impossible to do anything worth listening to with the square-dance music, but for the money they were willing to give it their best. The results are quite amazing. This combination of white hillbilly square dance, black urban rap, records roughly handled on record, and a Zulu chorus works as a coherent whole. I think McLaren has proved his thesis on the rock-the-house/do-si-do connection, a connection I had pondered, as no doubt others had too. There seems to be an ancient ritual form behind both dances.

Scratching is a vital part of live rap shows, but when it comes to making records it’s usually left out, for copyright reasons or through aiming for slickness. “Buffalo Gals” sets a record for scratching records on record. A barrage of scratched repetitions builds up tension like a skipping 45 and can be almost dizzying. More than any other, this crazy record gives the feeling of what rap DJs do with the records they spin. Its scratchiness and total exoticism have made “Buffalo Gals” a hit with blacks and whites, striking everyone as hilarious and danceable.

McLaren’s Roxy performance was appropriately bizarre. His intention was to get the crowd square dancing, and he succeeded, at least in spirit. While the traditional version of “Buffalo Gals” played McLaren roamed the floor with a bullhorn, giving the dancers tips, while a woman who teaches ethnic dance called the dance in a commanding manner. But almost everyone tried to do what they considered to be a square dance. Some couples looked fairly authentic, more looked somewhat confused, and quite a few looked like overheated molecules, spinning wildly, bouncing off others, and setting off chain reactions of confusion. Everyone seemed to enjoy this unreasonable facsimile of American folk dancing, however, and the association is bound to set off interesting reverberations. Maybe rappers will pick up on the do-si-do; it seems to have a lot to offer. And if the rest of McLaren’s revisions of folk-dance forms are as entertaining as this, I think we can look forward to a growing movement of neopagan Fourth World funk fusion dance partying.

Glenn O’Brien