The other day I had an uncontrollable urge to hear Grandmaster Mele Mel & The Furious Five “The Truth”. I had to dig thru boxes of CDRs to find the disc I thought it was on. While listening to that I also got to hear Mele Mel & Duke Bootee “New York” and that reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write this article for some time.
Let’s just get this out of the way. Mele Mel is easily one of the greatest MCs and Lyricists in Hip Hop of all time. If this is something that you do not agree with then sorry, you are wrong. This is essentially indisputable data. There was a point circa ’83-’84 were he hit a peak and composed some of the greatest verses Rap has every known in an approximate two year window.
In a sense, it all started in 1982 with “The Message”. If I may be so bold, as well as right again, “The Message” is easily one of the most important Hip Hop songs of all time. It kicked down a lot of doors. Beyond the song, the story of how the song came to be is nearly as much a legend itself. I’m assuming most people who would be bothering to read this already know the story, but here’s a brief recap.
Sugarhill Records session musician Duke Bootee (a.k.a Ed Fletcher) wrote the lyrics and produced a demo of “the Message” just for reference purposes and presented it to label president Sylvia Robinson. Sylvia liked it and the intent was to get one of her Sugarhill artists to record. It was a bit more challenging then they thought. The story is that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five didn’t care to record it and two specific reasons are often cited; 1)The Tempo: It was a slow tempo record and at the time most Hip Hop was more upbeat and prime for dancing* and 2)Subject Matter: The general sentiment was that people went to experience Hip Hop in order to escape their problems, not confront them. Some people didn’t see the value in telling the fanbase what they already knew and lived every day. Apparently, Mele Mel saw the vision and felt he had something to contribute, so he opted to record it without the rest of the group. Sylvia liked Duke’s voice on the reference vocals and decided to keep him on it. So, despite the song always being credited as Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five as the artist, that’s not really the case. It is just Duke Bootee & Mele Mel**.
That in mind, in true essence, it all really started in 1979 with the Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five debut single on Enjoy Records, “Superappin”. On this 12-minute party rap extravaganza there’s an explosive hidden jewel tucked away at the very end courtesy of Mele Mel. He seems to forget that him and the fellas are at a party trying to have a good time and he unexpectedly takes us to a darker place, “A child is born with no state of mind/blind to the ways of mankind/God is smiling on you, but he’s frowning too/because only God knows what you’ll go thru/You’ll grow in the ghetto, living second rate/and you’re your eyes will sing a song of deep hate/The places you play and where you stay/looks like one great big alleyway/You’ll admire all the number book takers/thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money makers/Driving big cars, spending 20s and 10s/and you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them/Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers/Picket-pockets, peddlers, even panhandlers/You say ‘I’m cool, I’m no fool’/but then you wind up dropping out of high school/Now your unemployed, all non-void/Walking round like pretty boy Floyd/Turned stick-up kid, look what you done did/Got sent up for a eight year bid/Now your manhood is took, you’re a may tag/Spend the next two years as a undercover ***/Being used and abused & served like hell/Till one day you were found, hung dead in your cell/It was plain to see that your life was lost/You were cold and your body swung back and forth/But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song/of how you lived so fast and died so young!”
I can pretty vividly recall being about 10 years old and hearing that and having my mind-blown. I had never really heard anything so grim in music…maybe at all. Every moment is captivating, but I think the greatest testament to Mel’s skill is the way he outlines the evolution of the character. Basically, in one verse he gives a vivid snapshot of key turning points in a person’s life:
- Birth: A child is born with no state of mind
-Infancy: You’ll grow in the ghetto living 2nd rate
-Youth: The place you play and where you stay look like one great big alleyway
-Adolscence: You’ll admire all the number book takers, thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money makers
-Young Man: Turned stick-up kid, look what you done did/Got sent up for an eight year bid
-Death: Till one day you were found, hung dead in your cell
There’s also a great writing “trick” included. In the start of the verse, the eyes “sing a song of deep hate.” The consequence of that hate is an ending where those same eyes “sing a sad, sad song.” Additionally, there’s a powerful conclusion with the extra details in the explanation of the death, describing the cold, lifeless body swinging…this is the conclusion of a life long cycle of allowing your environment to define your choices. I can’t think of a better warning.
When Mele Mel revisits this verse in the final minutes of “The Message”*** it far more gripping and visual. The slowed tempo and stripped-down nature allow him a better-suited soundscape to accentuate his point, as he injects more emotion, inflections, and increases the sense of urgency. Besides great writing, what the origin of this verse reveal is that “The Message”, topically speaking, didn’t open any new doors in Hip Hop (hence my “kick them down” reference early). These topics were already being discussed and not just by Mele Mel. Artists like Trickeration, Jocko Henderson, Maximus Three, Nice & Nasty 3, Casper The Groovy Ghost, Brother D with Collective Effort, Kurtis Blow and others were already discussing poverty, politics, crime, world issues and social consciousness years before “The Message”. “The Message” was just able to better package it. The different sound, great hook, music video, and a label president that strongly believed, all resulted in its success, along with the fact that it is a great song.
I would never attempt to or be able to undermine the overall impact and greatness of “The Message”. It is a song rightfully commanding the utmost legendary status for what it accomplished. However, most often when the song is discussed, it is the lyrical contribution that is generally given the highest praise and in that regard I don’t feel like “The Message” is best representation of Mele Mel in that time period. He would soon surpass the cutting edge lyricism of “The Message”…more than once.
Tomorrow we’ll start to analyze the lyrical rise of Mele Mel from “The Message” to “The Truth”…
In the meantime, here’s “The Message” video that is entertaining in so many ways. Excuse the scantily clad woman inserted in the beginning, this was the best quality of the video I could find online and the uploader apparently had his own side agenda as a sideline hustle…
*I’ve heard this before but it seems like that might be a odd argument at the time, particularly when songs like “Heartbeat” and “Genius Of Love” were hot in dance clubs and were slow in tempo.
**In the music video for “The Message” Raheim of The Furious Five was used to lip sync Duke Bootee’s lyrics. I assume for aesthetic reasons. For more on this whole story visit Jayquan’s Foundation Site, it’s a magical place and it is HERE.
***It should be noted that the final verse, which Mel pulled from Superappin, are the only lyrics on the song not written by Duke Bootee. Even thought Mele Mel is clearly a better lyricist, I’m not sure if Duke Bootee ever gets his full writing props.
Written By Kevin Beacham