Thursday, May 19, 2011

86. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, "The Message" (1982)


I have to be honest that I was among those who heard this in its time as compelling, startling, even galvanizing—but ultimately as a novelty. There didn't seem to be very many more places for this rap music to go after this. Of course, it may be the single most obvious place where I have been wrong, from a lifetime of being wrong. (In fairness, I'm sure you have been or will be as wrong about judgments of your own.) It's now easier to hear it as a Sugarhill project, with its whomping beats and mannered keyboard figures, and the way rapper MC Melle Mel steps into it and uncorks the words. In its time, however, it was something of a departure from the more typical good-times Sugarhill fare that just celebrated having fun, with the rapping pushed more than usual well front and center. In fact, no one in the Furious Five besides Melle Mel—including Grandmaster Flash himself—wanted much to do with it, at least until it turned into the giant cultural phenomenon of the year that it became. The tale is a basic wail about ghetto life, a case rarely hard to make, with long lists of concrete details and specific grievances: "Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care," and like that. It's pretty potent stuff, if not startlingly new, but what impressed me most then, and impresses me most still, is that nervous laugh Melle Mel works into the chorus, which really tells the whole story of the stress and the despair with which the rapper is living. "Don't push me 'cos I'm close to the edge," he goes. "I'm trying not to lose my head." And then: "Ah huh-huh-huh. Ah huh-huh-huh." It was chilling then, and it's chilling still.

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