In 1982, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5 delivered “The Message,” the first socially conscious rap

By on July 31, 2017

In this original episode focused on style in rap music — part of our occasional “20 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll Style” series — Night Flight made a quick examination of the style presented in a handful of legendary ’80s-era rap music videos, including the very stylish Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” the first “socially conscious rap,” which delivered the truth about what it was like to live in urban inner-city America at the time.

Read more about “The Message” below, and have a look at this nearly 20-minute segment from one of our late-era “Night Flight” episodes, which originally aired on November 18, 1988.

You’ll find it streaming over on Night Flight Plus, and if you’re not yet a member of our exclusive club, we’ll tell you how you can join a bit further down.

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“Born in the inner city, now commercially accepted the world over,” Pat Prescott explained in her introduction to this segment, “rap made its social statement with a look, as well as a sound.”

Style-wise, the group’s key members — Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Scorpio, Cowboy, Rahiem — delivered their messages with a look that was definitely influenced by NYC’s punk and funk rock aesthetics, ultimately showing up in their videos and concerts wearing stud-covered leather jackets and jeans, vests and headbands, feathers and fur coats, even occasional bondage gear.

However, when they first started out, they looked just like a lot of other kids in New York City at the time.

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Their true medium, however, was the tone and content of “The Message,” a gritty rap about ghetto poverty and violence, becoming urgent urban street life manifesto.

“The Message” has been called the first attempt at “conscious rap” — or sometimes conscious hip hop, or socially conscious hip-hop — which is a sub-genre of hip hop that challenges the dominant cultural, political, philosophical, and economic consensus, and/or comments on social issues and conflicts.

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The track — released as a single by Sugar Hill Records on July 1, 1982 and later featured on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s first studio album, The Message — ended up changing rap music forever, shifting rap away from party rhymes and boast records, and placing its emphasis on the rapper being a community voice and a political poet, and not someone who was seen as the leader of a Bronx party crew getting together to have some summer fun on the dancefloor.

Today, the lyrics to “The Message” are even included in academic texts like The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

No inner-city NYC rap group in the early Eighties delivered their message with more clarity — not to mention a mix of party-hearty showmanship and groundbreaking turntable skills — than Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who had an impressive ten year run between 1978-1988 before breaking up.

Watch the entire video here:

Read more about Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and “The Message” down below.

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Nearly seven minutes long, “The Message” was first delivered by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 1982, when the Reagan era was already well underway and cutting a wide swath through inner cities and low-income areas of America, visually bringing what was happening on the streets on New York City straight into our living rooms via television.

“The Message” had almost instant universal appeal, but its greatest coup may have been its unflinching observation about the anxieties of contemporary urban life on the dirty streets of NYC, shifting the focus of early rap anthems away from empty braggadocio and endless partyin’, and toward fearless and honest social commentary, which has since then dominated much of the genre’s most important recordings.

A year earlier, the group had released “Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel,” which many believe was the first example of scratching on record, or which many critics give Flash the credit for doing first in a recording studio setting.

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Then, a year later, in 1982, they were back with yet another important track in rap’s history, one that would in fact inspire others and lay the groundwork for more important rap groups, including Public Enemy and N.W.A, and you can hear its effect, loud and clear, on classic rap albums by Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, the Notorious B.I.G., Mos Def and even Rage Against the Machine.

Public Enemy leader Chuck D would later say that “The Message” was “a total knock out of the park,” adding that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were “the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something.”

in the late ’80s, Chuck D also famously proclaimed that rap’s ongoing documentation of problems for inner city blacks made rap “CNN for black people.”

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Flash first claimed in a 1983 interview that “The Message” showed the world that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five could “speak things that have a social significance and truth.”

Rappers Melle Mel and co-writer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher — who was a staff songwriter and a member of the Sugar Hill Records house band — spat out their lines which depicted their NYC neighborhoods and day-to-day struggles with drugs, prostitution, prison life, and the grim promise of an early death.

There was a warning at the end of each verse, each word enunciated like a blast from a sawed-off shotgun: “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head.”

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Flash and the rest of the Furious Five weren’t too sure after hearing the original version of Duke Bootee’s demo that hip hop clubgoers would dig hearing the song’s subject matter and, especially, its slowed-down beat, which was unusual for an early rap record.

In fact, although Flash would later call “The Message” one of the landmark songs in the evolution of rap, he and the group initially were skeptical about its chances for radio airplay, and they wanted nothing to do with it, and even ridiculed the track when they first heard the demo, since it wasn’t a party record.

It was a reminder of what the Bronx had gone through in his adolescence, and was still going through in the early Eighties.

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“The subject matter wasn’t happy,” Flash would tell one interviewer later. “It wasn’t no party shit. It wasn’t even some real street shit. We would laugh at it.”

Duke Bootee’s original demo version, by the way, was originally called “The Jungle” — focusing on the lines “It’s like a jungle sometimes/It makes me wonder how I keep from going under” — and he’d begun writing it on a piano in his mother’s basement in 1980.

He’d originally been inspired to write something with a relaxed funky tempo similar to the vibe of Zapp‘s “More Bounce to the Ounce” or Tom Tom Club’s “Genius Of Love,” both of which utilized synthesizer hooks over an amped-up funk bass.

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At first, Sugar Hil Records’ boss lady Sylvia Robinson — who was reportedly looking for “a serious song to show what was happening in society” at the time — decided to record it anyway, with just rapper Melle Mel trading lines with Duke Bootee, who, as a Sugar Hill session player and aspiring producer, created most of the background music and all but one of the verses himself.

Robinson even got Mel to write and rap more lyrics to Bootee’s original track, earning him a co-writing credit in the process.

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Melle Mel actually ended up recycling part of a rap he’d done with the first Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five single, “Superrappin’,” which was released in 1979, which contained a verse that began “A child is born with no state of mind…”

The credits actually read: Clifton Chase/Edward Fletcher (Duke Bootee)/Melvin Glover (Melle Mel)/Sylvia Robinson.

Clifton “Jiggs” Chase was a producer at Sugarhill Records who worked on the song, and Robinson owned the label, of course, but other than Melle Mel, none of the actual members of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five received any songwriting credits.

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In the studio, Duke Bootee and Melle Mel combined their forceful and rhythmic raps with a memorable reverberated synthesizer hook, inspired by German art-rock pioneers Kraftwerk, played by Sugar Hill studio keyboardist Reggie Griffin, which could just as easily have been one of George Clinton & company’s ’70s-era Parliament-Funkadelic jams, making for one of the most important pieces of music in the 20th Century.

The single of “The Message,” incidentally, was released hot on the heels of Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” another explosive track which used the futuristic, electronic sounds influenced by Kraftwerk to successfully expand hip hop’s boundaries.

After hearing what they’d done with it, Flash and the group would “cave in” (according to Melle Mel) and asked Robinson if the entire group could perform on the track, but she refused.

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Despite being credited on the record, Flash and the rest of the Five only appeared only in a closing skit in the video, directed by Alvin Hartley, in which they’re harassed and arrested by officers of the NYPD.

The commercial success of”The Message” — which would end up peaking at #4 on Billboard‘s R&B Singles chart — also ended up causing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to fracture and split into competing rap groups.

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As for the legacy of “The Message,” in 2002, its first year of archival, the track chosen as one of fifty recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry, the first hip hop recording ever to receive this honor.

In 2007, the 25th anniversary of “The Message,” solo artist Melle Mel changed the spelling of his name to Mele Mel and released “M3 -The New Message,” as the first single to his first ever solo album, Muscles.

That same year, the original members would reunite for a memorable onstage reunion when they became the first rap group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Watch Night Flight’s 20 Years in Rock ‘n’ Roll Style: Rap,” which also features classic rap videos from Jamaican-born Shinehead, Run DMC’s heavy guitar hybrid track “Rock Box,” Night Flight favorites the Fat Boys and much more. It’s streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.