1983, Music

Duck Rock (1983) by Malcolm McLaren

For much of 2017, there was an ongoing public conversation about “cultural appropriation.” It’s a concept and charge that I have a complicated relationship with because, on the one hand, I believe everyone should be freely able to access and to make use of any cultural artifacts but, on the other, I recognize that there are power relationships in society that can and do prevent some artists from being heard and, particularly, allow members of the so-called “dominant culture” to profit when they appropriate minority cultures, while ignoring – financially and otherwise – those within the minority culture who are making similar art.

In a perfect world, we should not worry about cultural appropriation but our world is not perfect. I still think that many if not most charges of cultural appropriation are rather baseless but this record shows me that this belief may not be true.

I think similar charges could be leveled against My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which appropriates all sorts of music. But the difference between My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Duck Rock, aside from the obvious chronological and stylistic differences, is that Byrne and Eno were creating new music with their samples. Though some of the tracks on Duck Rock do appear to be new creations, others appear to be mostly preexisting music re-purposed to make Malcolm McLaren look cool to a British audience as yet unfamiliar with Hip Hop (or the other genres which make appearances).

If you look at the credits, it’s unclear exactly what his contribution is. His voice is detectable to my ears on perhaps a majority of tracks – not knowing what he sounds like, it’s hard to tell – but much of what he says seems stolen from preexisting recordings (I don’t think he made up most of these lyrics himself). And what did he do musically? Did he actually make the samples or did he just supervise the creation of them and the original musical performances? I suspect Trevor Horn came up with most of the music and he and the Art of Noise made the recordings while McLaren maybe ordered them around here and there.

All of this is to say: I don’t know what to do with this. Here we have a famous British impresario speaking over a variety of (likely unfamiliar) musical styles, doing a pale imitation of rap, not that he’s trying, while whoever created the music they’re sampling is absolutely not getting paid. (I assume the Art of Noise got paid.) It’s certainly hard to take this seriously as a work of art by one Malcolm McLaren.

On the other hand, it’s undeniably unlike anything being made in the UK at the time. And, from what I’ve read, it had a huge impact in opening up the UK to hip hop.

But, to me, this is even more exploitive than the Sex Pistols; at least they had their own band name.

5/10??? I have no idea

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