Saturday, May 15, 2010

May 15

It's amazing what one song can do. Melle Mel was recruited by Grandmaster Flash, a prominent DJ adept at the up-and-coming artform of turntablism, to join his Furious Five in 1978. Their job was to provide entertaining distractions (call and responses, poetic witticisms) to back up the deejay while he spun the records that got the crowds dancing. Shortly after "Rapper's Delight" made the radio charts, Grandmaster Flash's crew began recording tracks themselves.
In 1982, their label released the debut album's title track "The Message" as a single. It slowed the beat down, and put the lyrics front and center. The lyrics, instead of typical "get on the floor" rhymes, dealt with heady subject matter: the crime, poverty, and ills of modern life. Neither Grandmaster Flash nor the rest of the Furious Five were interested in recording the track; it's basically Melle Mel and a studio musician from their label.
The single went platinum in a month. "The Message" signaled rap music's transformation from the next sound on the dance floor into the voice of all disenfranchised, or what one artist would call "the CNN of Black America." "The Message" also shifted the balance of power toward the rapper, and began the deejay's relegation to the rhythm section, the background.
As for Melle Mel, he started his own group a few years later, then solo for another decade. His first Grammy, for his appearance on Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You", would be the first awarded to a rap artist (he would win two more in his career.)
He and Flash would reunite to accept the band's induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. He even released a children's book, with a CD featuring two songs by Lady Gaga - back in 2006.
"The Message" has become one of the most celebrated and emulated songs in hip hop. The song was inducted in the National Archives in 2002. Not bad for a song that missed the Top 40 in its initial release (#62, 1982).
I'd have also liked to have posted their pre-album recording "Birthday Party", but no luck finding a vid of it. Instead, let's enjoy a national treasure:

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