Woo! There’s a lot to unpack here just from the album’s title alone. Let’s start with Malcolm McLaren. He was a lot of things in his lifetime — a clothing designer, a punk rock manager, a film producer, and most importantly for hip-hop a recording artist famous for the song “Buffalo Gals” in 1982. Even if you don’t know that song per se, if you’ve been listening to rap music for long enough, you’ve heard multiple samples of it. The twist is that the song is itself a pastiche of sampled sounds tied together by a performance from The World’s Famous Supreme Team. It’s fair to say even if you’re never heard the track you’ve heard a rapper somewhere say “two buffalo gals go around the outside/round the outside, round the outside” in a song.
I have a fond affection for the song but have to admit that it’s a pretty strange track. The song mixes square dancing and rap music, a combination that should go about as well together as peanut butter and sauerkraut on rye bread, but McLaren’s earnest enthusiasm for hip-hop is unforced. While he may be best known to musicologists as the manager of bands like the Sex Pistols, there’s little doubt punk rock and rap music were both outsider movements in the 1970’s that were rebels to the establishment. There was a kinship between both sides that’s hard to explain if you weren’t alive at the time, but I highly recommend the book “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” to get some insight into the rap x punk crossover. I was born in 1974 and needed it to understand, because I wasn’t old enough to be rap, punk, or anything else back then.
Now if we weren’t reviewing “Round the Outside, Round the Outside!” here we could do an incredibly deep dive into McLaren’s successes and failures. His ego led him to mismanage the acts who signed with him and not pay royalties to the artists who worked with him. You can’t blindly give him credit as a hip-hop and punk rock impresario without noting that he didn’t walk the straight and narrow. You also have to note that McLaren might have been completely lost dabbling in rap without The World’s Famous Supreme Team Show, a radio duo whose line “you’re listening to The World’s Famous” has been extensively sampled in rap too. One of the “songs” here is basically outtakes from their broadcasts, and a remix of the original version of it at that.
There’s a saying that “no idea’s original” in media (music, literature, film, et cetera) but I was really struck by that thought listening to “World Tribe.” McLaren or whatever ghost shadow produced this song used the same inspiration Hitman Howie Tee did on “Come On Let’s Move It” … or vice versa. You can’t hear both songs and not notice the exact same use of Belle Epoque’s “Miss Broadway.” McLaren’s version lacks Flavor Flav yelling “Yeah y’all come on!” but otherwise there’s no doubt they come from the exact same place. It’s either a happy accident or one copying the other, and without an exact release date other than “1990” for McLaren I can’t say.
That leads to my ultimate point about “Round the Outside, Round the Outside!” What do we make of Malcolm McLaren in the world of rap? Was he a shameless huckster who lucked into a huge hit, or was he a genuine musical talent whose ideas were ahead of their time? For me this is one of those cases where two incompatible idea can exist simultaneously without either being untrue. McLaren was certainly enamored with himself and believed he was the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread. He also took the kind of risks that people will his fortune, fame and name would not have with his forays into rap. I can’t dismiss him completely, but I can’t pretend he’s the one rapping on “Romeo and Juliet” either. Without the Supreme Team this album would fall apart.
And if we are to give the Supreme Team that credit, we must also note that much of this album sounded corny and out of date in 1990. McLaren and the Supreme Team may have stuck gold back in the “Duck Rock” days, but rap music changed very quickly in the eight years that followed and a lot of people got left in the dust — including all of the parties involved here. Their lack of innovation and ideas is unintentionally exposed when “Romeo and Juliet” is followed by “Wherefor Art Thou?” It’s a glorified six minute instrumental that samples from the previous song just to pad out the album. There’s a lot of such padding here all the way to the end, where “Aladdin’s Scratch” revisits “World Party” and manages to sound even MORE like Special Ed in the process. Filled with remixes of both his prior success and his new attempts to be fresh, Malcolm McLaren’s “Round the Outside, Round the Outside!” is certainly interesting… but far from essential.