Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Magnificent Seven

Check out The Clash playing a live version of "The Magnificent Seven." The Clash recorded this song in early 1980 -- as the 3rd single off their epic 4th album Sandinista! -- way back when hip-hop was still just a local New York thing, and maybe even just a Bronx thing, not the global behemoth it is today. It has the somewhat asterisky distinction of being the first rap song performed by a white group. (The slower album version can be heard here. ).

Even more amazing is that it's kind of awesome. ("Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)", the other rap track on Sandinista! is also pretty great.) Joe Strummer is clearly rapping in the style of early old-school hip-hop, but you don't want to cringe (at least I don't). It's not just that he sells the song, but that he gets it, he understands the power of this new form, way more than you would think a white Brit in 1980 would get it. He absorbs something from old-school rap and melds it to the collection of sounds and riffs and beats that make up the usual Clash style. It's rap, but it's also a kind of spoken word rant, a furious announcement over the PA. It feels organic and very Clash-like, consistent with their own artistic trajectory and not just opportunistic mimicry of a new style.

The Clash, of course, had always been fascinated with black music, especially reggae and dub. All of their albums included covers of reggae songs, like Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," and Sandinista! in particular goes deep into those styles, turning its back on the punk that made them famous.

The DJ and filmmaker Don Letts is often hailed as one of the people who introduced The Clash to London's black music scene. Letts also directed a pretty cool documentary about The Clash, Westway to the World, which you can watch for free online at Open Culture [*]. I've always felt that The Clash's openness to a variety of music and their solidarity with England's black and immigrant communities is a huge part of what made them such a great band. It sharpened their politics and kept their music diverse and interesting.
White youth, black youth, Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood and ask him for some wealth distribution?
In his fantastic political history of hip-hop, Can't Stop Won't Stop, Jeff Chang describes this brief historical moment in the early '80s after hip-hop's emergence when it caught on with the downtown punk and art scene in NYC, a meeting of the minds between the Bronx and Manhattan. New wave bands like Blondie recorded rap tracks and members of the Talkingheads played as session musicians on some early rap tracks. The Clash, when they came to America, were also huge fans, apparently. They had Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as their opening act for several NYC shows, and actually had to reprimand their fans for booing and throwing shit on the stage.

The moment didn't last forever. And of course the idea of a white band taking a black musical subculture and appropriating it to sell records is rock and roll's original sin. Just ask Mos Def.

I was thinking about all this after reading my friend Sandhya's typically thoughtful post on cultural misappropriation, and how difficult it is to distinguish misappropriation from sincere cross-pollination. She teases out a lot of the ambiguities in the question, and provides a good rule of thumb: don't use someone else's culture as a costume. I don't think that's what The Clash are doing on this track, but maybe I would think differently if rap had been less of a brief detour for them and more of a business plan. Like all many great bands, the Clash had the good sense to break-up before fading away. Who knows, maybe with time and more commercial success, they would have turned into U2: sincere, but increasingly corporate. Maybe the follow-up to Sandinista! would have been Rattle & Hum (an album I enjoy, but let's face it, cultural appropriation is basically it's whole reason for existence).

At its best cultural cross-pollination is a two-way street. And indeed, punk did influence black music as well, one example being the 2 Tone ska revival in Coventry, England. The biggest hit to come out of that scene is also pretty topical -- "Free Nelson Mandela." [via Africa is a Country.]

[*] Open Culture actually has compiled a list of over 600 movies that can be watched for free online (and by free I mean, you know, legally). There's a lot of old classics that have fallen out of copyright, including a fair selection of Hitchcock, silent movie classics, old westerns, as well as more recent documentaries and other stuff.

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