In 1982 I was a seven-year-old kid growing-up in the UK obsessed with “Star Wars” and comic books. Then I heard a record that would literally change the course of my life by introducing me to the music and culture of Hip-Hop. That record was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.
I can still remember hearing “The Message” for the first time like it happened yesterday. A classmate of mine had come into school with a cassette excited about a new song that his older brother had been playing continuously and, as young kids always want to emulate the cooler older kids, he’d brought it in on tape to share with anyone who wanted to listen.
I can’t remember exactly how he described the track, aside from that it had some bad language in the opening line, but I do remember that I was curious to hear what my classmate was so excited about. I borrowed the tape and took it home.
In 1982 I didn’t have anything that resembled my own stereo-system. Neither were Walkmans readily available. So, I borrowed my dad’s small mono cassette player, took it into my bedroom, slid the tape in and pressed play. For the next seven minutes I was mesmerised.
First, the beat started and it sounded nothing like the music my parents played around the house or that I’d heard on the radio. That slow, deliberate drum programming combined with those strange keyboards that sounded like they were being played underwater immediately had me both hooked and confused.
Then came that voice. When Melle Mel started rhyming, I didn’t know what to think. Who is this? Why’s he talking instead of singing? Why is there broken glass everywhere? Where does this person come from?
By the time the Bronx emcee had reached the infamous “Don’t push me…” hook, my young mind had been introduced to a world I didn’t know existed and I was as intrigued by “The Message” lyrically as I was musically.
Of course, as a young, working-class white kid from England, I couldn’t comprehend much of what was being described and addressed in “The Message”. But with Melle Mel delivering his rhymes in what I would come to know as his trademark gruff, authoritative style, even though I might not have fully understood everything I was hearing, I knew from the way it was being said that it was something important.
Melle Mel’s voice literally demanded and commanded my attention.
With my official introduction to Hip-Hop made and a series of lucky coincidences meaning I was around older brothers of friends who were already listening to rap and electro, Melle Mel became the standard by which I judged all other emcees I heard.
Listening to artists like Captain Rock and Divine Sounds on the “Electro” compilations of the time from UK label Streetsounds, the question I always asked myself was, ‘Are they as good as Melle Mel?’
By the time Mel had parted ways with Grandmaster Flash and was leading his own incarnation of the Furious Five, dropping singles like “Beat Street Breakdown” and “Step Off”, he was like a lyrical super-hero to me.
At that moment in time, I would have probably even argued that Mel’s trademark “Urrrghrah!” was more impressive than some other artist’s entire verses!
Of course, as the years have rolled by, plenty of other supreme lyricists have risen to prominence and left their own indelible mark on the culture of Hip-Hop, from the likes of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Chuck D, to Nas, Ghostface and Black Thought, just to name a few.
But regardless of how many other microphone fiends might have captured my attention since I was first introduced to Hip-Hop over thirty years ago, to me, Melle Mel will always be the first name I mention in any conversation about the greatest emcees of all-time.
To refresh your memory, here’s ten reasons why…
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “Superappin” (Enjoy Records / 1979)
In the wake of the surprise late-70s success of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, some of the same crews who’d been busy laying Hip-Hop’s foundations on Bronx street corners were eager to make the jump from block party to wax, with labels like Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy Records all too happy to cash in on what many viewed to be a musical fad.
Clocking in at twelve minutes of fluid disco-flavoured funk, “Superappin”showcased a tighter Furious Five than was heard on the Brass Records “We Rap More Mellow” track released the same year (without the group’s actual consent) under the name Younger Generation.
But whilst members of the Furious Five such as Rahiem and the late, great Cowboy rhymed about their microphone prowess and success with the ladies, Melle Mel clearly had bigger things on his mind, literally predicting the success he would go on to experience in the 80s with lines such as, “It was something in my heart from the very start, I could see myself at the top of the chart..” and “My name on the radio and in the magazines, My picture on a TV screen…”.
Ending that particular verse with a confident, “It ain’t like that yet, But, huh, you’ll see…”, Melle Mel was either daydreaming outloud or could clearly envision the potential his talent had to be heard around the world.
The BX emcee was already looking forward to the days when he’d no longer have to take the train, take the train.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “It’s Nasty” (Sugarhill Records / 1981)
Putting their own unique spin on Talking Heads spin-off group Tom Tom Club’s infectious early-80s new wave hit “Genius Of Love”, “It’s Nasty” once again found the Furious Five committing well-rehearsed crew routines to studio tape as well as demonstrating some slick dance moves in the accompanying low-budget video.
But what I’ll always remember about hearing this track for the first time as a young kid in the 80s was Melle Mel starting to rhyme in French after bragging about the water-bed seats in his limousine! I had no idea what he was talking about at the time but I knew it had to be some ol’ fly ish, otherwise why would he have gone to all the trouble of learning another language to say it?!
In my opinion, “Je m’apelle Melle Mel…”remains one of the simplest, yet most memorable lines in Hip-Hop history.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “The Message” (Sugarhill Records / 1982)
In the same year that Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” took Hip-Hop into a futuristic musical universe, “The Message” kept the music well and truly rooted in the Rotten Apple gutters that it was born from with vivid images of ghetto life in New York City.
Although it’s been well-documented that not all members of GMF & The Furious Five were excited about recording this slow-paced slice of social commentary that appeared to be at odds with the party-rocking style rap was known for at the time, “The Message” deservedly became one of the most important records in Hip-Hop’s evolution.
With Melle Mel only sharing mic duties with Sugarhill-affiliate Duke Bootee, “The Message” showcased Hip-Hop’s potential to address social issues and makes listeners think at the same time as it was making their heads nod.
It could be argued that had the majority of the track’s rhymes about junkies in back-alleys, stick-up kids and unemployment been delivered by any voice other than Melle Mel’s dominant bark, “The Message” could have easily lost some of its initial sonic impact.
Although he was guilty of lifting lyrics from the previously released “Superappin” for his final verse on the track, Melle Mel’s performance on “The Message” remains one of the most captivating and influential displays of lyricism in popular music, highlighting the full effect of 80s Reaganomics on inner-city America.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “New York New York” (Sugarhill Records / 1983)
Another brilliant example of Melle Mel’s ability to place his poignant social commentary of the time within a wider political / economical framework, “New York New York” painted pictures of corporate skyscrapers and a robot-like workforce inadvertently reinforcing the status quo (“A castle in the sky, One mile high, Built to shelter the rich and greedy…”), whilst also graphically describing the plight of the “poor and the needy” on the streets below.
Amidst funky guitar licks and shimmering synths, Mel goes on to describe the limited options for young Black Americans of the 80s, seedy goings on in Times Square, and the tragedy of a young mother abandoning her baby in the city streets, setting the stage for the vivid lyrical portraits the Bronx emcee would find himself painting the following year.
Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five – “Beat Street Breakdown” (Atlantic / Sugarhill Records / 1984)
Arguably Melle Mel’s finest lyrical accomplishment, the lead single from cult Hip-Hop flick “Beat Street” went far beyond simply being a catchy ode to the film’s central graffiti-obsessed character Ramon.
Weaving elements of the “Beat Street” story-line into an epic seven-minute long display of verbal mastery, Mel compared the end-to-end burners seen on NYC subway cars of the time to the work of Michelangelo, tackled social inequality and predicted a future filled with economic struggle and religious conflict in a world populated by people who had become slaves to technology.
By the time this track reached its stirring climax, with Melle Mel shouting “And if you believe that you’re the future, Scream it out and say ‘Oh yeah!'”, it was impossible not to feel inspired.
Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five – “World War III” (Sugarhill Records / 1984)
As a child in the early-80s it felt like the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was everywhere. The Cold War between America and Russia was in full effect and with the UK being a close ally of the US it seemed natural at the time to assume England would be a target if disaster struck.
It seemed like every time my parents watched the early-evening news there was a story involving Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and the possibility of either one of them pressing that little red button.
In school we were even shown an animated ‘educational’ programme that gave advice on what to do if a warning of an imminent nuclear attack was given and how to survive a blast. Ban The Bomb-style graffiti slogans could be seen around my local town centre. As a kid with a vivid imagination, I was shook.
So by the time Melle Mel dropped his own lyrical bomb, the nine-minute masterpiece that is “World War III”, my young mind was already convinced that the planet wasn’t going to make it past 1985.
Covering everything from the potential horrors of a nuclear holocaust and the futility of war, to the struggles faced by veteran soldiers trying to fit back into civilian life (with Vietnam having only ended less than a decade before), Mel painted disturbing end-of-the-world images on a grand scale throughout this track from 1984’s “Work Party” album.
Descriptions of post-nuclear streets filled with “mutant dogs and sabre-toothed rats”, bloody battlefields and communities forced to live underground to survive the fallout might sound far-fetched today, but thirty years ago the possibility of approaching a point in history where “the world is a ghetto, high and low” didn’t seem out of the question.
With “World War III”, Melle Mel brilliantly captured the fear, anxiety and paranoia that surrounded the nuclear debate of the time, turning the subject of potential global conflict into one of the most instense, emotionally-charged examples of lyrical skill ever to be committed to wax.
Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five – “The Truth” (Sugarhill Records / 1984)
Melle Mel’s contribution to this raw, block-party-style lyrical tour de force remains one of my favourite verses of all-time from any emcee.
Following spirited bragging and boasting from Scorpio, Cowboy and King Lou, the Grandmaster almost bursts through the speakers as he grabs the mic to close this track with an ego-driven verse of gargantuan proportions.
In less than sixty seconds, Mel crushes the competition in no uncertain terms, asserting his legendary status, demanding respect for helping to lay the foundations of Hip-Hop, whilst also aiming some less than subtle verbal shots at then new kids on the block Run-DMC, who’d made a huge impact on the rap world a year earlier with the release of “Sucker M.C.’s”.
With Melle Mel, as always, not ready to give up an inch of the ground he’d claimed at this point in his five years of already making records, he ended his verse on “The Truth” with some stern words for the upcoming kings from Queens (“You got a little bit of fame and wealth, Now you think you did it all by yourself, Huh, I am you, But you ain’t me, Because you didn’t start rockin’ ’til ’83, Melle Mel is the best that will ever exist, And if I gotta be a sucker, suck on this!”).
Chaka Khan ft. Grandmaster Melle Mel – “I Feel For You” (Warner Bros Records / 1984)
Before Alicia Keys sang about the streets of New York with Nas, Mary J. Blige breathed new life into an old-school soul classic with Method Man, or Jody Watley tackled the subject of friends with Rakim, iconic vocalist Chaka Khan enlisted the help of Melle Mel to add some Hip-Hop flavour to her remake of a track originally recorded by Prince for his self-titled 1979 album.
In hindsight, this was my first experience of dealing with the conflicting feelings shared by many true-school heads when seeing Hip-Hop being given exposure on a mainstream level.
On the one hand, to me, in 1984, Hip-Hop was still very much an underground secret shared by a select few that in a pre-internet age wasn’t easily accessible to the masses. Hip-Hop was still largely being viewed as a here-today-gone-tomorrow youth fad by the older generation. So, as as fan, you wanted the music to gain more exposure and be taken seriously so that everyone could appreciate and understand the brilliance of this innovative, creative culture.
But on the other hand, I remember not being totally sure how I felt about hearing my dad mimicking Melle Mel’s opening “Chak-Chak-Chaka Khan…” line from “I Feel For You” when the record would come on the radio station he listened to when we were out in the car. As far as I was concerned, my dad didn’t know who Melle Mel was, he wasn’t a fan of Hip-Hop, and therefore it didn’t feel quite right for him, or other casual listeners, to be reducing the talent of an artist such as Melle Mel to one catchy sing-a-long line with no real intention of investigating his catalogue of material.
That might all sound a little over-dramatic now, but that’s how seriously I took this Hip-Hop ish even back then.
Either way, “I Feel For You” was, and still is, a great record, which, thanks to that brief, to-the-point Melle Mel appearance, played its part in pushing the art of rap into places it might previously not have been welcome.
Afrika & The Zulu Kings – “Cars” (Posse Records / 1986)
I can remember hearing this track for the first time on British radio icon Mike Allen’s Hip-Hop show on London’s Capital station.
By the time 1986 had come around, I was already becoming a huge fan of then upcoming West Coast legend Ice-T thanks to tracks such as 1984’s “Reckless” from the “Breakin'” soundtrack and the vicious single “Ya Don’t Quit”.
So to hear the Iceberg rhyming alongside Melle Mel on this Afrika Islam-produced gem at a time before collaborations in Hip-Hop were commonplace was a big deal.
Even now, when I hear Mel’s third verse description of his custom ride with its plush interior, state-of-the-art phone, Uzi in the trunk and a button which, if pushed, might make the car “sprout wings”, I can still remember hearing this record and picturing the NY legend driving through the Rotten Apple in something that looked like a cross between K.I.T.T. out of “Knight Rider” and the Batmobile!
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “Cold In Effect” (Elektra Records / 1988)
Even in 1988, as a new generation of artists were changing the sonic landscape of Hip-Hop forever with a variety of revolutionary styles and sounds, Melle Mel still wasn’t giving up his throne for anyone.
In the same year that classic albums such as “It Takes A Nation Of Millions…”, “Follow The Leader” and “Strictly Business” dropped, the original Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five line-up reunited for one last album, the Elektra-released “On The Strength”.
During a period which saw Mel publicly battling new-school emcees of the time KRS-One and Queens legend Mikey D at the infamous Latin Quarter and New Music Seminar respectively, he still found time to give some spirited performances on what would be the Furious Five’s last group project.
Declaring his rap dominance on this track almost a full decade after he’d initially emerged on wax from his Bronx stomping grounds, Melle Mel wasn’t ready to let anyone retire him to the old-school history books, coming out swinging like a veteran boxer determined to prove he could still go a few rounds with the young bucks.
Or, in this case, just prove that he was still, and always will be, cold in effect, boyee!