As we will see in this text, the career of artist and businessman Malcom Mclaren helps us to weave a network that connects us to the musical history of punk and hip hop, which shows us that both cultures are two sides of the same coin: inventiveness in the self-representation of young people in late capitalist societies.
Malcolm Robert Andrew Edwards was conceived in the suburbs of postwar London nine months and two weeks after the end of World War II. His father abandoned them him he was two years old, so he was raised by his grandmother -Rose Run Isaacs- in Stoke Newington (London). In the 60s fter a series of works (including one as a wine taster), he began tos study at various art universities. It was not until 1971, and after having been expelled from some schools, when he started designing clothes, a talent that would later use when opening his first “boutique”.
During his artistic studies he was influenced by the avant-garde movement called the Situationist International, which promoted “absurd” and provocative actions as a way to promote social change. In 1968 McLaren tried unsuccessfully traveling to Paris to participate in student demonstrations there. The uprising occurred in Paris and the rest of France during May 1968 had a strong impact on youth around the world: in part because it was the first televised urban insurrection, and also because it marked a whole generation reclaiming their political rights. Back to England, McLaren was a member of the conflicting, anti-authoritarian and nihilist collective King Mob, which in fact was intellectualy related to the French Situationists. But somehow the Situationist International never accepted the King Mob because they seemed a free adaptation of their ideas (one of its founders Christopher Gray was one of the many members expelled from the Situationist group). At the same time that McLaren distributed in England copies of the book “The Society of the Spectacle” by french situationist and philosopher Guy Debord, while his friend Jaime Reid (co-founder of the anarchist magazine “Suburban Press” was writing the book “Coming out of the 20th century”. So as we will understand it’s no coincidence that Reid also became the designe that materialized all the paraphernalia full of of “dirty aesthetics” around the music band The Sex Pistols.
In 1971 McLaren and her partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood, opened a clothing-store called “Let it rock” on Kings Road (London). They sold clothes for youngsters from the “Teddy Boy” musical subculture, while they also designed clothing fortheatrical and cinematographic.productions. The store was undoubtedly a success but McLaren was disappointed with the style of the business due to problems with the main customers who were people from th Teddy Boy scene.
In 1974 McLaren traveled to the city from NYC for a boutique fair, and that’s where he first saw the queer inspired glam band The New York Dolls. After the breakup of the New York Dolls in 1975 he returned to Britain and brought with him everything he had seen and experienced in New York City. It was then when McLaren decided to change the direction of his “boutique” and stopped selling clothes for Rockabilly / Teddy Boy kids, and started to offer a new fashion line designed by Westwood and which was inspired by fetishism and the new “punk” look that McLaren had acquired in New York. The store was renamed SEX and began to attract young people from London which fell in love with this new approach and the “cool” and rebellious nature of the boutique.
Around this same time McLaren became the promoter of a music band called The Strand which will later become the Sex Pistols. During 1975 the group changed its direction and saw the possibility of importing the punk vibe that McvLaren had seen in New York into London. The band at the time consisted of Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and SEX employee, Glen Matlock. The band played some small concerts until eventually signing with the multinational record label EMI in 1976. However the group didn´t became popular throughout the UK until a scandalous appearance Bill Grundy’s TV show “Today” in December 1976. The band released their only album “Never Mind the Bollocks” in October 1977 and played their last concert in England before embarking on a trip to North America in January 1978. This trip saw the band split up after a series of discussions and McLaren was charged by the band members (mainly by John Lydon) of not paying them what he owed them. However as we can see in the mockumentary film “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle” (1980) it seems that McLaren had planned the entire lifespam of the Sex Pistols beforehand.
Back in 1983 McLaren released “Duck Rock”, an album that mixed musical influences from Africa and North America creating a primitive hip-hop sound.. As Grez Wilson narrates in his text “Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Bronx” everybody knows that Malcolm McLaren was the thinking head behind the explosion of punk-rock and anarchy in England following the introduction of the Sex Pistols. But what is not yet mentioned is that he was ultimately the person responsible for bringing hip-hop from the streets of the New York neighborhood of the Bronx and placing it in the collective psyche of british youth. So the gateway for one of the most influential cultural movements of the late 20th century, hip hop, into Europe was McLaren’s single titled “Buffalo Gals” which was released in December 1982 (exactly six years after introduce the Sex Pistols) and introduced europeans to DJing, graffiti and breakdance. This happened half a year before the well-known song “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock was released, which won a Grammy, and where you could see DJ Grandmixer D.ST scratching his records therefore performing those sound effects now popularly known as “scratches”. It happened by chance, as is generally the case in popular cultures, that McLaren ran into hip-hop on a trip to New York. Again, he was looking for something that wasn’t happening in England and he ran into street parties. In the Bronx, then a depressing neighborhood in New York City, he encountered Afrika Bambatta the coordinator of the Zulu Nation collective, responsible for the musical genre called Electro. Bambatta’s song “Planet Rock”, that includes sound samples from the classic german electronic musical group Kraftwek, is an hip hop anthem and the perfect soundtrack for breakdancing.
As we have seen, McLaren adopted these same ideas derived from Situationism for the promotion of various “pop” and “rock” music bands. Meanwhile Stewart Home in his book “The assault on culture” reminds us that “underground” youth since the 70s (and until today) have already been born and raised within an institutionalized youth (and post-youth) culture. The radicality and freshness of the proposals during the 1960s are perhaps due to the opening of new creative euphoria caused by the end of the Second World War… and perhaps, this is a personal opinion, by the intense European culture (centered on the artistic avant-garde such as futurism, dadaism …) which still had not yet begun to be dominated and absorbed by the cultural imperialism of the United States. Stewart Home stresses that the punk movement, for the most part, was in an innocent ignorance regarding its relationship with other utopic art movements, but despite this (and as we can see in current youth-scenes like “graffiti”, “skateboarding”, or “parkour” for example) punk successfully propagated the basic points of anti-art traditions of european avant-garde movements.
As with punk, Malcolm McLaren clearly understood the role of hip-hop as a force for social transformation. These two movements, although they seem to represent the two totally opposite sides of the same coin, have totally changed the post-Second World War european popular culture. Therefore, perceiving the figure of this English “artist” as that of an entrepreneur who takes advantage of the forces and energies of innocent youth scenes could be a big mistake. As he says in a interview on Youtube, he believes (clearly influenced by the ideals from Romanticism) that the artist, due to emotional dysfunction, feels the urge to create… to generate a subjective universe to protect himself from the world in which he has had to live. Today, with all this mega corporations controlling the world, the artist feels insecure and this big companies have a lot of money, and that is precisely what the artist lacks. Therefore artists refuge themselves under the auspices of large mega-brands which by this association get what they do not have, creative energy and imagination that is. As artists don’t want to survive on the periphery all their life with this alliances they tends to seek security in their lives like all workers. Nowadays, if they also get a lot of money to carry out their projects without the need for economic worries (and they are also managed by the multinationals which now try to make us believe that they are the ones that generate the culture) much better. According to Malcolm, it is now difficult to differentiate large corporations from artistic projects, since they are so closely mimicked that any vision of the artistic world is blurred under a brand name. For this reason, he recommends artists to become an entrepreneur, in order to carry out his/her own projects.
During the 90s McLaren worked with Françoise Hardy, and created a band called Jungk with three Asian women emulating the Spice Girls. In 2003 he heard something about Bitpop and Chip music and wrote the article “8-Bit Punk” and predicted video game culture as the next big thing in youth scenes. One of his last work as a producer is the film Fast Food Nation, which was presented in 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival, before unfortunately dying with cancer in 2010. As Hiroshi Fujiwara (McLaren’s japanese colleague and street-fashion leader) proclaimed in an interview with “Street Wear Today” in 2007 the punk way of doing things is still valid today, no matter what the rest of the world thinks, because it taught us how to create without fear to new and different paths. The democratic possibilities that contemporary critical and dissident creation open have never been better explained but by street culture. And in this race, all obstacles are adventures that help us create a better artistic product.
*Text originally published in Husmee Magazine issue #02 (2007) under the pseudonym Mischa Canibal.
*(Picture: "Duck Rock" music album by Malcom McLaren published in 1983 with artwork by Keith Haring, image via Lodown Magazine. Picture of The York Dolls first album (1973). Album cover for "planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force. "Cash from Chaos" still photograph from the documentary "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle").