In 1984 something must have clicked inside the mind of Mele Mel. All the sudden he had further control over the most inventive factions of his mind. This was a part of the brain he was previously only granted limited access to, which lead to verses such as “A child is born…” (from “Superappin”, “The Message” and “Survival”) and “A baby cries and a mother dies…” (from “New York New York”). Yet, in 1984 he was able to tune into that zone more frequently.
Actually, 1984 was a huge year for Hip Hop overall. Similar to the lyrical rise of Mele Mel, some seeds planted in ’82 and ’83 finally fully blossomed. For Hip Hop as a whole those seeds were rooted in the B-Boys and B-Girls and what came to be known as Breakdancing. A few journalistic reports and news coverage segments propelled Breakdancing to the forefront of Hip Hop Culture’s popularity. It became the fascination of Suburban and Corporate America. This quickly resulted in Hollywood seizing the opportunity with a quick sneak peek in Flashdance (’83) and then in ’84 we got Breakin’, to showcase LA style, and Beat Street, to give a glimpse into the Culture’s birthplace, New York.
When it came time to tap the Hip Hop talent pool to produce a theme song for Beat Street they went directly to the top of the food chain, Mele Mel*. This is a mission that Mel apparently took rather seriously. He reached down deep to reflect what the essence of the movie was supposed to be about. In fact, he arguably captures it as well in his 7-Minute audio-cinema exercise, as Hollywood did in the whole movie.
The track starts with the sound of bells, signaling your full attention for the lyrical enlightenment about to transpire. Then it drops into a raw drumbeat with a simple bassline. The essential extra touch of flavor and character comes courtesy of the, mostly open crossfader, percussive cuts by DJ Vicious Lee. In the first verse Mele Mel effectively outlines the life of the movie’s primary character, Ramo. He details his talent, effect on his peers, potential, struggles, his tragic death, and the after-effects that result from it. About mid-thru the opening verse he hits his stride and begins to sprinkle in some unforgettable moments. Even in something that seems so simple, he offers what I assume is a deeper message, “You either play some ball or stand in the hall/You gotta make something out of nothing at all.” I assume those three options were meant to mirror what many in the inner city believe are the most likely options of survival: sports, hustling, or Hip Hop. By this point in the song he has drifted slightly from a complete movie focus and starts to intertwine some general assessments of the New York environment in the verse, but he regularly weaves the movie storyline back in to the narrative to keep it all relative. He perfectly captures the final moments of Ramo’s life with, “The soul of the brother who won’t come back/Who died in my arms on the rail road tracks” and then just moments later completes that thought with, “There’s pie in the sky and an eye for an eye/Some people got to die just to be free!”
Immediately following that he falls into his zone. His voice intensifies to the point he almost sounds possessed when he delivers, “Searching for JUSTICE and what do you find?/You find JUST US on the unemployment line/You find JUST US sweating from dawn to dusk/There’s no JUSTICE, it’s, ha! JUST US!”
Soon that verse comes to a close and Mele Mel invites the crowd to join along in some good old school fashioned call and response, followed by a very short break and then we are quickly made aware that the first verse was only a warm up to what should be considered one of the greatest verses in Rap history,
“A newspaper burns in the sand/and the headlines say ‘Man destroys man’/Extra, Extra read all the bad news/On the war for peace that everybody would lose/The rise and fall (of) the last great empire/The sound of the whole world caught on fire/The ruthless struggle, the desperate gamble/The game that left the whole world in shambles/The cheats, the lies, the alibis/And the foolish attempts to conquer the skies/Lost in space and what is it worth?/The president just forgot about earth/Spending multi-billions and maybe even trillions/The costs of weapons ran in the zillions/There’s gold in the streets and there’s diamonds under feet/And the children in Africa don’t even eat/Flies on their faces, they living like mice/And their houses even make the ghetto look nice/The water taste funny, it’s forever too sunny/And they work all month and don’t make no money/A fight for power, a nuclear shower/People shout out in the darkest hour/Their sights unseen and voices unheard/And finally the bomb gets the last word/Christian kills Muslim and German kills Jews/And everybody’s bodies are used and abused/Minds are poisoned and souls are polluted/Superiority complex is deep-rooted/??????????????/Ego Maniacs control the self-righteous/Nothing is sacred, and nothing is pure/So the revelation of theft(?) is our cure/Hitler and Cesar, Custard and Regan/Napoleon, Castro, Mussolini, and Begin**/Ghengis Khan and the Shah of Iran/Men spill the blood of the weaker maaaaan!/The people’s in terror, the leaders made an error/And now they can’t even look in the mirror/Cause we got to suffer while things get ruffer/And that’s the reason why we got to get tuffer/To learn from the past and work for the future/And don’t be a slave to no computer/Cause the children of man inherits the land/And the future of the world is in your hands!!”
He covers the fallout of nuclear war, the hideous living conditions in Africa, the over-spending of the US Government, the growing greed for gold and diamonds, the dangers of religious wars, prophesizes of humans enslavement to technology (that’s happening now for those not paying attention), and let’s not forget that world leader situation. That is 100% pure lyrical excellence. The further beauty of it poetically and simultaneous horror of it realistically, is that virtually all of it is still relevant. Some even more now and others have only changed slightly in the “who” or “where”.
For the songs use in the movie there are a few things different. The first verse is actually lip synced and performed by Ramo’s best friend, Double K. Then Mele Mel & crew come out for the second verse to perform it accordingly. I just noticed there is a slight lyrical difference also. In place of the world leaders line, it is replaced with a list of various key war zones and areas thru out history; Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Veitnam….
He expounds further on some of these ideas on “World War III”. It seems as if they goal with this track was to take the same premise of that final verse of “Beat Street”, which had a real raw freestyle feel to it, and make a more complete song with “World War III”. The track is more musical, there’s some nice harmonizing, and a catchy hook. He mostly revisits many of the same types of issues that he has already addressed before. However, he does offer some different perspectives by introducing alien invasions and alien judgments on planet Earth. It’s not quite as profound as “Beat Street” in terms of concise points and powerful impact, but he’s hitting a lot of interesting subjects***.
Mele Mel’s verbal ingenuity was not limited to rhyming about world issues. He was also determined to make sure that any would be competitors were clearly aware that even though he was being recognized by the world at large for his intellectual social conscious offerings, he still had that fire to dismantle MCs when need be. He reassured us all of this very fact with “Step Off”, where he officially claims his rightfully seat on the throne, and “The Truth”, where the only objective is to verbal pummel MCs until they lay helpless, cowering in a corner somewhere on those unsafe and unclean streets he had become accustomed to rhyming about.
“The Truth” is pure battle all-out aggressive battle rhymes that peaks with, “I always wear black and I always will/Because I’m dressing for your fun-er-real!”
I envision the first verse of “Step Off” taking place in the Summer of ’84 on the stoop of a Bronx Housing Complex with a lone Mele Mel sitting quietly in deep thought and then suddenly, as if this thought occurred to him at that precise moment, he speaks, “I was sitting on the corner just wasting my time/When realized I was the king of the rhyme/I got on the microphone and what do you see?/The rest was my legacy/I was born to be the king of the be bop swing/To have stallions and medallions…big diamond rings/ To own a castle and yacht, two million (?) in gold/Because Rap is a game that I control/I’m like Shakespeare, I’m a pioneer/Because I made Rap something people wanted to hear/See before my reign it was the same ole thing/That ‘Ba Diddy Bob’, that street talk game…”I had no idea there as video to this until right now! I'm tripping out a lil bit!! AND HE IS WEARING A CROWN!!
Those two last lines are very important and sharply accurate. Before Mele Mel was being adorned with a crown in honor of his “Worlds Finest Rap Lyricist” credentials, he had many years previously encouraged a critical evolution in MCing as we know it. As most Hip Hop Heads already know, the person often cited as the original MC in Rap is Coke La Rock, who rocked alongside the Grandfather of the Culture, Kool Herc. Grandmaster Flash’s original MC, Keith Cowboy (R.I.P), is often recognized as a key next step in the process of MC evolution. However, as Mele Mel suggests in those two lines, at that point, the MC was primarily a host and was there to mainly to support the DJ. The MC made sure you knew who was on the turntables. The MC made sure you were aware of where said DJ would be rocking next. Then for extra flavor he shouted local celebs and friends in the place to be and for a touch of style he incorporated it all in scattered rhyme phrases as much as possible. Mele Mel along with his brother, Kid Creole, are said to be the first to write out full routines with rhymes in paragraph form and start to shift the focus to the MC. It is not a stretch to say that Mele Mel indeed “Made Rap something people wanted to hear”****.
*Also shout out to DLB of the Fearless 4 who can be found Rapping on the Beat Street movie opening credit sequence, providing another theme song option. Even though the movie released two soundtracks, neither included the DLB Rap Version, only the Jazzy Jay produced instrumental version. In any event, although this intro piece doesn’t really prove it, DLB is also one of the great writers of that era, but rarely gets his props.
**I believe he is referencing Menachem Begin, the 6th Prime Minister of Israel
***If you really feeling Mele Mel’s songs of this nature, you should seek out a less popular track called “Blackman”. I have no idea when or where it is originally from. I got it on this Grandmaster Flash & Furious Five Box Set that I borrowed from the homie, Jordon Daley.
****In hindsight, this should have been a 4-part special, as this one got a bit lengthy. Plus we didn’t talk about how “Step Off” also had some choice words for Grandmaster Flash (the group) about their split from the Furious 5 or Mele Mel winning the New Music Seminar MC Title Belt in ’88 or his MC challenges on the “On The Strength” GMF & F5 reunion album or the “Piano” album that he wilded out on or his ghost-writing for Busy Bee or his great cameos in the 90s or how he still can rock the mic quite nicely. Mele Mel, the legacy lives on…Bonus: Shout-Out to Keith Cowboy and Scorpio who both drop excellent verses on "The Truth" and "Step Off" as well!!