It’s easy to forget that early hip-hop songs were often protest songs. Not Bob Dylan-style protest songs, I grant you, but protest songs nonetheless.
I love a protest song, but in the 40-odd years since Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five released “The Message” hip-hop, the musical style they helped pioneer and popularise, has too often degenerated into tales of conspicuous consumption and disrespectful misogyny. Often both on the same track.
My affection for the more socially conscious early rap records remains undimmed. My disappointment is that most of those records could be released again today and you’d think they were recorded just last week.
The world has changed too slowly for too many people.
In 1982, when Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five sang…
Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under
…they were singing about life in the housing projects as the deep recession of the early Reagan years hit the poorest the hardest. The economy tanked as the Fed raised the prime rate to over 20% and unemployment quickly spiked to over 10% of the US workforce.
The insistent refrain from “The Message”… “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge”…summed up the feelings of people who had very little to start with and who were now watching in slow motion as what little they had was taken away by the insurmountable pressures of trying to survive with no money coming in the house.
“The Message” is one of two songs from about the same time (the other is 1981’s “Ghost Town” by the Specials) which perfectly captured the dearth of prospects for economic and social advancement in the US and the UK respectively in the teeth of the economic shockwaves of the early Reagan/Thatcher years.
There’s certainly an argument that something had to be done to re-balance two sluggish economies, overburdened by old economic policies which everyone could see had stopped working. But that could perhaps have been done without destroying communities and throwing that generation, and several generations to follow, onto the economic scrapheap.
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 through
You’ll grow up in the ghetto, living second rate
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate
40 years on, the place you’re born and your parents’ economic circumstances still have a disproportionate influence over your own life chances and career opportunities.
And that’s a problem for us all, whether or not we’re directly affected. When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve no stake in society.
People get resentful when they see people becoming billionaires while their own children don’t have enough to eat.
They get resentful when they see the rich laughing about how smart they are to avoid paying taxes while people on the breadline working three jobs to make ends meet have their taxes stopped out their paycheck to make sure they pay their taxes in full and on time.
And they get resentful when they see cleaners paying a higher rate of tax on their meagre incomes than hedge fund managers pay on their million-dollar salaries.
Something has gone far wrong…maybe if today’s rap stars spent less time singing about G5s, Lambos and bottles of Cristal, and more time singing about the challenges facing the most disadvantaged in society, the world might have become a better place since 1982.
That doesn’t detract from what a great record “The Message” was at the time. It’s not the fault of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five that nobody listened. They laid it all out there for people to see, if they chose to…although too few did.
Although a successful R&B hit, “The Message” scarcely made it into the Billboard Hot 100. It did however reach the Top 10 in the UK.
Over here, we didn’t have quite the same experiences as a hip-hop band from a New York housing project, but we had many of the same issues. “The Message” chimed with the feelings of urban decay and economic despondency in the UK that The Specials had so expertly tapped into with “Ghost Town” the previous year.
Despite its relative lack of commercial success in the US, “The Message” was an artistic tour de force and fully deserved its Number One slot in Rolling Stone Magazine’s chart of The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All-Time.
Fittingly, “The Message” was released by the iconic Sugar Hill record label which was as pivotal to the birth of hip-hop as labels like Motown, Stax and Capitol were to their respective genres.
In fact, without Sugar Hill Records, hip-hop might not even exist as a genre. That’s the record company where hip-hop kicked off, chart-wise, with The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979.
Sylvia Robinson, Sugar Hill Records’ co-founder, co-wrote “The Message” along with Sugar Hill Records producer Duke Bootee, rapper Melle Mel and pioneering hip-hop producer Clifton “Jiggs” Chase.
And even though “The Message” is credited to Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, the only voices you hear on the track belong to Duke Bootee, who starts off the song, and Melle Mel, who does most of the rest of it.
The eponymous Grandmaster Flash was more at home behind the turntables, and although socially-conscious lyrics might not have been something he was closely involved with, he did perfect and popularise several seminal scratching and mixing styles which laid the foundations for the generations of hip-hop music to come.
As a creative force, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five didn’t last much past “The Message”. Their follow-up, “White Lines”, by this time without Grandmaster Flash himself, was credited to Grandmaster and Melle Mel, and after that, the occasional attempt at re-grouping apart, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five lived on as part of music history, but no longer released records under that name.
Not long after “White Lines”, Sugar Hill Records closed down amidst a blizzard of lawsuits and the record label which took hip-hop mainstream was no more.
In its brief existence, though, co-founders Sylvia and Joe Robinson brought a new art form to the ears of the listening public.
And they brought us one of the most important songs in music history, “The Message”.
If only we’d listened more closely to what Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five told us 40-odd years ago, and acted on the concerns they raised at the time, the world might not be in the mess it’s in today.
But the question for us here and now isn’t why haven’t we put right what they sang about 40 years ago. The time for that has gone.
The question for us all is what are we going to do differently in the next 40 years…
Here’s Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five with “The Message”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1J2tfINpEHRhCP8CUS15lE