“Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head.”
It doesn’t take too long for someone to delve into the realm of Old School Hip Hop before that line comes crashing into your consciousness.
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five was released in summer of 1982. It went on to peak at #4 on the R&B Chart and #62 on the Pop Chart and changed the face of hip hop forever.
But it almost didn’t happen at all.
A session musician/producer for Sugarhill Records named Ed Fletcher, also known as Duke Bootee, laid much of the groundwork. He developed the line “It’s like a jungle…” to go along with an African track he was working on and ran it passed the head of Sugarhill, Sylvia Robinson. She liked the verse but wanted to switch the track to something more commercial.
Fletcher wrote the remainder of his verses and Robinson took the track to the Furious Five. At first none of the five were able to adapt their personal styles to the song, eventually complaining that they were doubtful that the song would be ever be popular.
It’s certainly important to note that up to this point, the majority of the main stream hip hop songs were party oriented. While there are exceptions, so called “message” songs were not usually going to sell many copies.
Fletcher and more importantly Robinson were both adament that the song would be successful. Finally Melle Mel returned and thought that a few of his lines from a previous song would match up nicely with this new concept.
Unfortunately the verse was used on the song “Superrappin” which was originally recorded on Bobby Robinson’s Enjoy! label. Sylvia did what was needed to gain permission use the lyrics again.
In addition to breaking new lyrical territory, “The Message” was also one of the first records to use bass sythnesizer instead of a live bass player as in the previous Sugarhill sessions.
So basically Sugarhill Records had this amazing song that used Melle Mel and essentially an unknown rapper. Still, they decided to release it as a Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five song despite the fact that only Melle Mel had any creative input.
When the record took off, it sent the group into a new league. Suddenly The Audubon Ballroom wasn’t the biggest venue around. They began touring with well known R&B and rock acts in arenas and stadiums across the country.
As they say, “time is everything”. The early 80’s was a perfect setting for the song. Melle Mel has stated, referring to the opening line of this column, “At that time anybody could have said that…half the people in America probably wanted to say that”. (quoted from Alex Ogg’s “The Hip Hop Years- A History of Rap”) Almost twenty years later, true hip hop fans still are.