To immediately follow the success of “The Message” Mele Mel and Duke Bootee came right back with "Survival (Message Part II)". Somewhat interestingly, they decided to abandon some of the key characteristics that made “The Message” stand out. They pick up the tempo significantly and ditch the minimal drumbeats for a more electro-styled flavor. Yet, the subject matter stays the same. The hook is strong, but not as effective as the “Don’t push me, I’m close to the edge…It’s like a jungle sometimes…” impact of “The Message”. Lyrically, it’s not as solid as “The Message”, but the difference isn’t huge. It seems likely this was a rush job to capitalize on the recent success. They actually achieved much better results on their next attempt, this time with Mele Mel holding down the rhyme duties for self with Duke Bootee assisting on the parts of the hook and working with his regular Sugarhill team of musicians to produce the track.
“New York New York” is the song that really inspired this post. While listening to this song a few months ago I found myself wondering why it isn’t as lauded as “The Message”? Virtually everything about it is as good, if not better, about it in terms of music and lyrics. “The Message” mostly wins on timing, which equated to impact. On “New York New York” the drum programming is great with a basic stripped-down effect, but regularly builds up with rolling drum breaks to add character. There’s a simple bassline that also follows the directions of the rolling drums. Then it’s all fleshed out with heavy guitars and echoed keyboard effects. All put together the song sounds big and is perfect pairing of the music sounding as heavy as the subject matter.
The hook is classic and captures the attitude of 80s New York, “New York, New York, big city of dreams/But everything in New York ain’t always what it seems/You might get fooled if you come from out of town/But I’m down by law and I know my way around/Too much, too many people, too much….”
For many years I missed the true greatness of the opening lines to this song. Mel flaunts his poetic nature by vividly describing the towering skyscrapers of New York and how those symbols of corporate greed think so little of those struggling in poverty, “A Castle in the sky, one mile high, built to shelter the rich and greedy/Rows of eyes disguised as windows, looking down on the poor and the needy!” The personification of the windows as eyes is excellent! He was also also doing something stylistically unique in his cadence.
Also, at this time, the idea of the multi-syllable rhyme scheme was a very basic concept that had only been touched on lightly by a few people, namely Kool Moe Dee. On here, Mele Mel includes a impressive usage of the technique with his, “Messed up a nice dream, something about ice cream” line.
However, the crowning moment is the final verse. Mel has always been a great MC, but a lot of his appeal was his golden voice and raw attitude. It was in this era where he was starting to make powerful statements with content. Up to this point, his “A Child is born…” verse from 1979 had been his most impressive literary accomplishment. Finally four years later he reaches the next level, “A baby cries and mother dies/And tears fall from the doctor’s eyes/Because in this room, on this day/The good lord has giveth and taketh away/The gift of life really means a lot/And in the ghetto your life if all you got/So you take to the streets trying to exist/In the trash and slime of a world like this/What you watch on TV tells you what life is supposed to be/But when you look outside all you see is the poverty stricken reality/Abandoned places, angry faces/Much hate and hunger thru out the races/You say ‘I’m grown and I’m on my own/so why don’t everybody just leave me alone’/Now you stay at home, talking on the phone/Doing 90 miles and hour in the 50 mile zone/They never took the time to tell you about sex/So you had to learn about it in the discoteques/9 months later the baby is there/And the ni**a that did says, ‘I don’t care’/You don’t have enough money to help feed two/So you have to chose between the baby and you/The sky was crying rain and hail/When you put your baby in the garbage pail/Then you kiss the kid and put down the lid/And try to forget what you just did/The muffled screams of the crying baby/Was enough to drive the young mother crazy/So she ran in the rain trying to ease the pain/And she drove herself insane!”
That is such a powerful verse. It gives me chills whenever I hear it. As a kid it haunted me. Those images were imprinted in my mind; the crying sky, the muffled baby screams, the mother kissing her baby for the last time before putting down the trash lid and running off into the rain and ultimately into insanity. Writing doesn’t get much better than that. I always assumed that this verse provided some inspiration for 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby”…which also hits my emotions whenever I hear it.
Keeping the momentum going in ’83, Mele Mel releases one more thought-provoking anthem, “White Lines”. In some respects, “White Lines” had the potential to be a bigger song than “The Message”. It utilizes the same concept of a multi-part chorus, but takes it a bit further and breaks it into five parts; 1)The singing harmonizing of the title, “White Lines”, alternated with the catchy “Something like a phenomenon” phrasing, 2)In-between the harmonizing Mele Mel is the harder contrast, acting as the narrator, 3)There are a array of supportive chants scattered thru out, “Freeze”, “Rock”, “Blow”, “Rock It”, 4)the studder-styled warning, “Dddddon’t Do it!”, and 5)The “Higher baby!” build up piece.
I know I’ve heard this before, I believe Mel told me in one of the interviews we did, but perhaps I read it somewhere also, but “White Lines” originally wasn’t written as an anti-drug anthem. Cocaine was quite common in the clubs and parties at this time and the song was initially really just about the popularity of the drug. The “Don’t Do It” and some other additional lyrics were added later, possibly a Sylvia Robinson idea, as surely an anti-drug record had a better chance at being successful.
This record had a lot of opportunity to be successful. The excellently constructed hooks are primed to have favorable results in a live show in terms of crowd participation. The lyrics, while not necessarily breaking any new ground, are well written. Musically, everything is right, technically speaking. It’s got a nice bounce to it with a rolling and driving bassline, which is the defining part of the beat. The horns are sharp and have a controlled since of franticness. You can easily envision this blaring in a dark club and people dancing wildly and happily to it. The problem is that music borrowed heavily from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” and by heavily, I mean pretty much completely, Not just the music, parts of Liquid Liquid’s vocal hook and cadence comes from this track. Essentially, Mele Mel and crew remixed their song by just adding the horns, thicker drums and Mel’s vocal talents. The result was a damaging lawsuit to Sugarhill. It’s often cited as a key devastating blow to the label’s fall from the top.
As things moved into ’84, Mele Mel continued to break down barriers that would benefit rappers to this day. His voice was the opening piece to the “Feel For You” hit record by beautiful and talented songstress, Chaka Kahn. This song exists as the first popular collaboration between notable artists from the Hip Hop and R&B worlds*. Mel appropriately softens up the voice for the track and theme. Similarly, he isn’t trying to flex any lyrical muscle, he’s just playing his part and does it well. Make no mistake, this is no indication that he is losing his edge. By the time ’84 comes to a close Mele Mel would have completed his most impressive lyrical feats to date.
I’ll leave you with that and tomorrow we take a look at Mele Mel’s ability to bring cinema to life, his prophetic visions, and him officially claiming his rightfully place on the Rhyme Throne!
Written By Kevin Beacham
-Editors Note: I like to point out that this collaboration isn’t the first of it’s kind though, just the first one to be successful. Three years early, Sugar Daddy released his “One More Time” single with Rita Saunders (Of Ultimate) singing an R&B styled chorus.