The week Madonna arrived in London was the same week that the winter we thought had forgotten us called in. In circumstances like this, most Americans I meet have “just flown from LA” and spent their time either shopping or shivering in expensive furs, while they whinge about how “grey” London is.
The girl, born in Detroit and now living in New York, didn’t seem too bothered.
She’s a disciple of the scratch’n’rap’n’break dance sessions help up and down the city, gathering with the faithful every Friday night at the Roxy as part of Afrika Bambaataa’s much publicized “Zulu Nation”. However, more than being a mere camp follower, Madonna could be throwing this culture a much needed lifeline.
Her current release, a forthcoming work, prove that since pestering the DJ at Danceteria to listen her demo tape about a year ago, she has refined the rudiments of the style without ever losing sight of her mentor’s vision. Teflon-coated electronic backing, strong on the repetitive computerized drumbeats, scratched and dubbed, yet through her impassioned vocals it becomes accessible to even the most mild mannered disco fan.
Madonna has recognized the need for commercial viability a concession that has to be made before Bambaataa’s nation can move from its street corner origins into acceptable pop culture. The ease with which she makes this step has much to do with her being a native Detroit, a city that is artistically stimulating but also short-sightedly insular.
“I lived in Detroit for 17 years of my life, and grew up in an almost totally black neighborhood. It was the middle of the Motown era, and the jazz scene was very strong – both my older brothers were jazz musician. That’s most definitely had a strong influence on the sort of music I do now.”
“Music was that area’s only expression of self-assurance or escape. The music of the time was everything to almost everybody – listening and dancing to music, or aspiring to be this or that, was all people were interested in. All my family were studying music, and my girlfriends and I had all these pretend girl groups we used to be in after school – stuff like The Supremes… really silly.”
The dance training Madonna had done before leaving Detroit led to jobs in New York, where she was noticed by the people in charge of international disco star Patrick Hernandez (he of brief “Born To Be Alive” fame), and taken to France as part of his troupe. “When I got there, nobody would let me do anything – every time I complained they’d give me some money and forgot about me for a little longer!”
Back in America, New York was the place where everybody had a chance. The city’s thriving avant garde scene allowed Madonna to try the sort of music that might have been throwned on elsewhere.
“The artistic freedom of New York intimidated me a little at first. It’s very intense, and very enclosed – like a world within the city – and I just had to spend a bit of time breaking into it.”
“Once you’re in, it’s probably the most stimulating cultural environment possible – definitely the only city I could work in America.”
Culturally, The Big Apple is closer to the UK than it is to the rest of America. So that could explain why her single “Everybody”, complete with a Rusty Egan clubland re-mix, got a better reception in British clubs than it did in most of its country of origin.
Madonna’s record company, Sire, has put her under the care of Reggie Lucas (half of the disco production team Mtume and Lucas) to record her album, and presumably improve domestic sales figures.
After hearing a cassette of finished material (Madonna never once called it “product”) due to release this spring, they seem an ideal combination. The tough kid from Motor City has retained enough control over the mixes to keep it sharp, and Lucas’ touched are right to sneak it past those who find the hard time hard to handle.
It is respectable enough to get back to Bambaataa and show him the way to turn the Zulu Nation into a world power, and so live up to the beautiful closing rap of “Looking For The Perfect Beat” – We are your future / They are the past / We are the future / They are the past…”