As one reviewer on Amazon succinctly puts it, ‘Fans’ is the album that the ‘genre unknown’ option on iTunes was made for. What to call its peculiar mix of rap, r&b, opera and soul? Rapra? Hip-hopera? iTunes itself plumps for electronica but that it only half the story. This is an album that takes all the drama that comes from the best of these genres and slams them against each other to mesmerising and intriguing effect. The result is strangely beautiful whilst at the same time being extremely divisive. Just how Mclaren liked it.
Of course it’s easy to scoff. Mclaren was a shameless profiteer and knew that by piggybacking on two such alien cultures he would create enough of a furore to keep himself in bondage trousers until he hatched his next scheme. To sneer at its motives though, is to forget what a groundbreaking album this was. The year was 1984. Prince Harry had just been born, miners strikes were threatening to derail the country and no one outside of a small group of American graffiti artists and b-boys had ever heard of hip-hop. To take a genre in its infancy and mix it with the well worn and well respected grooves of Puccini and Bizet was an act of genius. As was updating the stories so that Carmen becomes a street smart prostitute and Madame Butterfly a neurotic on the verge of collapse over her failed long distance love affair “Gotta have something to believe in / My white honky I do miss him/ Someday soon he'll come around/ Just to stop my nervous breakdown” This kind of clash of musical cultures had not been done since Westside Story (ballet and gang warfare) and would not be repeated so successfully until Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.
Despite a distinct lack of musical input, Mclaren’s stamp is all over the album. It’s true that the weakest track ‘Boys Chorus’ (featuring a sample from Turandot) is the one where he does most rapping. However, its backstage that he’s working his magic, coaxing performances from the opera singers, choirs and soul mummas and slowing the beats right down to languid trip-hop levels. This allows the operatic vocals the chance to soar through the beats, not be constrained by them and means that the two genres mesh together gorgeously.
It is a testament to his skill as a producer that ‘the most evil man in the world’ never lets the project tip over into camp melodrama. He respects that hip-hop and opera are cross -generational ways of telling stories of love, hope and sadness and allows them to play off against each other subtly. Once again Mclaren had unwittingly landed on his feet. The album that should never have worked was arguably the crowning glory of his solo years. ‘Fans’ is that rarest of achievements- a collection of songs that make you want to get up and dance but that also manage to haunt your soul long after they’ve stopped spinning. Malc may not have always been on the money, but strangely hip-hopera is a beat we can all get on board with.
Another day, another dig around on youtube... This time I unearthed a 1984 'Southbank Show' episode featuring Mclaren and the making of 'Fans'. It's all very enlightening, why not have a goggle?