Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Adventures In Rap #4: "The Message"


You know how it goes.

But what you may not know, or may not realize, is just how much of a pure quantum leap Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" must have been compared to most of the laughable contemporary rap of that time. I mean, here we have a genre that suddenly went from "These here breaks will rock your shoes" to "Broken glass everywhere, people pissin' on the stairs you know they just don't care" in the blink of an eye. One might have assumed that the first serious "social commentary" rap song would have been a little more hesitant or cautious, but no. Perhaps it was so inevitable that rap would eventually delve into explicit portrayals of ghetto life that everyone was simply sitting around waiting for someone to have the guts to do it, and then they knew that once someone did, it would be a free-for-all. Or maybe no one genuinely anticipated that rap would go the way of '70s soul and funk and tackle social concerns - although given the inherently linguistic focus of rap, it would seem to be (and indeed is) a natural fit. Still, I think at the time, "The Message" was probably seen as a freak oddity in a sea of silliness, and not the cornerstone of an entirely new mode of urban expression.

Compared to the other Grandmaster Flash singles, the song's genesis itself was a freak occurence. According to Wikipedia, "The song was written by Sugar Hill session musician Ed 'Duke Bootee' Fletcher and Furious Five MC Melle Mel. Flash and the other members of The Furious Five, although credited on the record, were uninterested in recording the song and are not found on the finished record." Such was the case with many a classic single, from "Yesterday" to "Kung Fu Fighting." Perhaps the others thought "The Message" was too controversial, or too uncommercial, or both. And, going by the standards of the day, they would have been absolutely right. But sometimes the masses, as idiotic as they tend to be, display impressive taste, and by golly the song was a hit.

Often with early rap, one has to charitable. "That's a pretty impressive song...for its time," I'll find myself saying. Not with "The Message." Although released in 1982, I think "The Message" would have been a hit in 1992, and it would have been a hit in 2002. The song simply has that indefinable "whatever-it-is." You know what I'm talking about. It's spare. It's cool. And unlike 99% of the rap from 1982, it is not...cheesy.

After having been exposed to later rap, I'll listen to the early stuff and think to myself, "Why aren't they rapping faster? Why aren't they rhyming better?" But on "The Message," Melle Mel sounds like he's giving it everything he's got. As with the best of later rap, the phrases and images fly by so fast here it's overwhelming. And that's only fitting, since the subject of the song is about how overwhelming ghetto life can be. At times he almost sounds like he's out of breath: "Midrange, migrained, cancered membrane/Sometimes I think I'm going insane, I swear I might hijack a plane!" It's not that the rhymes are so amazingly complicated or clever. It's just that nary a word is misplaced, and nary an observation rings false or feels forced. Melle Mel sounds like he intimately knows of what he speaks. Rather than tell a compact story, he simply spews for seven minutes, as if he thought this were the only chance he would ever have to say what he really felt (hell, it's called "The Message," for God's sake, as if rap couldn't have more than one "message" song?). Never does he suggest any possible solutions to these various ills, and never does he hint that life will even be better. But what's affirming is that although he may be "close to the edge," he has not gone over. And that alone is more real, and more inspiring, than any half-baked message about peace and justice Michael Jackson ever threw our way.

Also, it has that cool "wanka-wanka" synthesizer riff.


Herr Zrbo said...

The best part is the last verse, the one starting with 'A child is born with no state of mind...'. Not only is it just such frighteningly perfect description of the course of a person's life in the ghetto, but he delivers it with such intensity and all practically without taking a single breath. Fantastic.

And don't forget the countless other rap songs which utilized that wanka-wanka riff (honestly though I don't think it sounds at all like 'wanka'). Most notably Ice Cube's 'Check yo self' and Puff Daddy's 'Can't nobody hold me down'. It's practically the quintessential rap riff.

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