Before 1981 scratching was something you did when you had a rash and sampling was what you did at a wine tasting. Then came “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels Of Steel” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five which was the first record to feature a DJ scratching snippets of different tracks together on the fly – in this case Chic, Blondie and Queen – using his turntables as “instruments” to create something entirely new. I remember hearing it for the first time at a house party that year and my reaction was similar to the first time I heard the Sex Pistols, not so much “this is revolutionary genius!” but more like “what the bloody hell is this?” as I tried to dance to it’s stuttering, cut-and-pasted beat. I literally hadn’t heard anything like it before because no one had made a record like that before and it still sounds absolutely mental today.
The second record to have scratching on it (and the first chart hit) came from a highly unlikely source: former Pistols and Bow Wow Wow manager and notorious bullshitter Malcolm McLaren. Back then the idea of that wideboy making a record of his own seemed like it must be a joke, or a con, or both. Turns out he wasn’t all mouth and no trousers though, as not only was “Buffalo Gals” quite brilliant but also — shock horror — one of the most influential singles of the 1980s. There had been a couple of rap hits before — “Rappers Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” — but it was “Buffalo Gals” (and its video) that really brought all the other elements of New York hip-hop culture — scratching, breakdancing, sampling, graffiti, DJs — to a wide audience for the first time, and pop music was never the same again.
The b-side was pretty silly though.
Download: Buffalo Gals (Trad. Square) – Malcolm McLaren (mp3)
You could be churlish and say McLaren was just a magpie dilettante nicking other people’s ideas for fun and profit. You could also say that a lot of the records brilliance was down to producer Trevor Horn and the funky backing by the musicians who later became Art of Noise (with guest keyboardist Thomas Dolby). The subsequent album “Duck Rock” was full of even more dodgy knock-offs of other musical styles from New York to Soweto, Havana, and Appalachia, producing a collage of global sounds years before your local record shop had a section called “World Music.” It might have all fallen off the back of a lorry but it was a ridiculously entertaining record.
But, apart from having the crazy balls to come up with the idea of mixing hip-hop with square dancing in the first place, McLaren’s talent was being an instigator and ringmaster and there is a certain genius in having the antenna to identify the sounds and people that are right now, and turning that into gold. He did it with the Pistols and he did it again with “Buffalo Gals”. To help start one musical revolution is impressive enough, to blag a seat at the beginning of the next one too does take some talent, and more front than Blackpool.