How the Clash Embraced New York’s Hip Hop Scene and Released the Dance Track, “The Magnificent Dance” (1981)

“Before play­ing gui­tar for Cap­tain Beef­heart and Jeff Buck­ley,” John Kruth writes at the Observ­er, “Gary Lucas worked as a copy­writer for CBS/Epic Records,” where he fell in love with a punk band called the Clash, just signed to the label in 1977. “They weren’t easy to work with,” he remem­bered. “Like Frank Zap­pa, they spoke about pol­i­tics, gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate inter­fer­ence with radio. They were, as I said, when I came up with the slo­gan to pro­mote the album: ‘The only group that mat­ters.’”

The slo­gan stuck and has become some­thing more than mar­ket­ing hype. Of the slew of British punk bands who made their way to the US in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the Clash had more impact than most oth­ers in some unex­pect­ed ways. Their clas­sic dou­ble album Lon­don Call­ing made Tom Morel­lo of Rage Against the Machine (the only 90s rap-rock band that mat­ters) take notice and change direc­tion. “It was music I could relate to lyri­cal­ly,” he says, “much more than the dun­geons-and-drag­ons type lyrics of my met­al fore­bears.”

More­over, god­fa­thers of polit­i­cal rap Pub­lic Ene­my found their cat­a­lyst in the Clash, and went on to cre­ate a rau­cous, mil­i­tant sound that was the punk equiv­a­lent in hip hop, full of snarling gui­tars, stri­dent dec­la­ra­tions and sirens. The song that most had an impact on PE founder and chief lyri­cist Chuck D came from the band’s even more sprawl­ing triple album San­din­ista!. When Chuck heard “The Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en,” the Clash’s attempt to incor­po­rate Grand­mas­ter Flash and the Sug­ar Hill Gang — six months before Blondie released “Rap­ture” — “that’s when I start­ed to pay atten­tion,” he says.

“Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en” came out of the band’s increas­ing musi­cal adven­tur­ous­ness in the record­ing of 1980’s San­din­ista!, in which they soaked up influ­ences from every place they toured. “When we vis­it­ed places,” Mick Jones remem­bered, “we were affect­ed by that… And for me, New York City was real­ly hap­pen­ing at that moment.” Jones took to car­ry­ing a boom box around blast­ing the lat­est hip hop. “Joe looked at the graf­fi­ti artists,” he says, “and I was tak­ing in things like break­danc­ing and rap.” The band, bassist Paul Simenon recalls, was “open for infor­ma­tion” when they met “peo­ple like Futu­ra and Grand­mas­ter Flash and Kur­tis Blow.”

The Clash didn’t only take from hip hop, but they tried to give back as well. Their 1981 run at “an aging Times Square Dis­co,” Jeff Chang writes, proved to be a major oppor­tu­ni­ty for graf­fi­ti artists like Futu­ra, who paint­ed a huge ban­ner that was unfurled onstage every night and got to deliv­er his own rap while the band backed him. When the Clash announced an addi­tion­al 11 shows after the NYPD lim­it­ed capac­i­ty, they showed what Chang calls a “naive act of sol­i­dar­i­ty,” book­ing Grand­mas­ter Flash and the Furi­ous Five as an open­ing act. White Amer­i­can punks sneered at the group; the Clash “respond­ed by exco­ri­at­ing their own fans in inter­views, and future Bronx-bred open­ers, The Treach­er­ous Three and ESG, received mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter treat­ment.”

Even more excit­ing was the fact that the B‑side to “The Mag­nif­i­cent Sev­en,” a dub remix called “The Mag­nif­i­cent Dance,” had made it to New York hip hop radio and made the band unlike­ly stars among black Amer­i­can lis­ten­ers. “The Clash were ecsta­t­ic to tune into WBLS and find that the DJs were not only play­ing ‘The Mag­nif­i­cent Dance’ up to five times a day, but also doing their own remix­es of it,” writes Mar­cus Gray, “dub­bing on sam­ples from the sound­track of Dirty Har­ry.” While the track, with its lop­ing bass line played by Ian Drury and the Block­heads bassist Nor­man Watt-Roy, primed dance floors for the suc­cess of the fol­low­ing year’s funk/disco “Rock the Cas­bah,” it was the lyrics that most grabbed lis­ten­ers like Morel­lo and Chuck D.

“They talked about impor­tant sub­jects,” says Chuck, “so there­fore jour­nal­ists print­ed what they said.… We took that from the Clash, because we were very sim­i­lar in that regard. Pub­lic Ene­my just did it 10 years lat­er.” It may have tak­en that long for the bar­ri­ers between punk and hip hop fans to come down, but to the extent that they did, it was in large part thanks to the musi­cal adven­tur­ous­ness of the Clash and the ear­ly icons and fans who saw their rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

“Stay Free: The Sto­ry of the Clash” Nar­rat­ed by Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D: A New 8‑Episode Pod­cast

The Sto­ry Behind the Icon­ic Bass-Smash­ing Pho­to on the Clash’s Lon­don Call­ing

Watch Audio Ammu­ni­tion: A Doc­u­men­tary Series on The Clash and Their Five Clas­sic Albums

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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