Rap Moves On: The making of The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (An oral history)

“Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge…”  It’s well known that ‘The Message,’ with its slow, spare, ominous groove and downbeat slice-of-life lyric, opened new directions for hip-hop. Released in July 1982, it pointed away from the good-times boasting and partying of the genre’s early milestones, toward harsher territories that would be explored by outfits like Public Enemy, BDP and NWA as the 1980s unfolded.

What’s slightly less appreciated about this, the most famous song by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, however, is that it wasn’t by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five at all. Flash himself, the pioneering turntablist who formed the group on the streets of the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, had no participation in either the writing or recording of the single. In fact, only one of The Five, Melle Mel, was involved, and he admits he initially participated without much enthusiasm.

The ironic truth about this song held up as a landmark of “urban authenticity” is that it was the product of a system reminiscent of any old-school Brill Building hit factory. It was conceived, written and largely performed by Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher, a studio percussionist who played alongside the Sugar Hill label’s legendary house band. The recording progressed under the direction of notoriously domineering label boss, Sylvia Robinson, a canny music industry veteran who then chose Flash and The Five as the perfect faces to front the song for sale. In some respects, it has more in common with The Monkees of ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ than The Last Poets.

The resulting tensions helped precipitate the group’s break-up. But in the process, an undeniable classic was created. “It wasn’t necessarily an ‘urban’ song,” Melle Mel says today, musing on why ‘The Message’ remains urgent.

message

“It wasn’t necessarily even a hip-hop song. People compared it with Bob Dylan, with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City,’ with The Temptations’ ‘Masterpiece.’ Great songs with the same bloodline. It was bigger than Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. It was bigger than hip-hop. It was everybody’s song.”


VOICES
Melle Mel: Co-writer, vocals
Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher: Co-writer, vocals, keyboards, percussion
Skip McDonald: Guitar
Jiggs Chase: Co-writer, co-producer

MELLE MEL: Flash became our neighbourhood DJ in the early days, when hip-hop was being formulated in the Bronx. Me, Scorpio and my brother, Kidd Creole, we were Flash’s little breakdance crew, then the first MCs. When we started, DJs were the important thing, not rappers, so the group was called “Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.” When we started making records, we had the option of changing to “The Furious Five featuring Grandmaster Flash.” But our attitude was, it would be Hollywood to change. Looking back, we should have. People think Flash is Gladys Knight, and The Furious Five were The Pips. Personally, I think I was Gladys. Flash was The Pips. We originally signed with Enjoy Records, owned by Bobby Robinson, no relation to Sylvia at Sugar Hill. His claim to fame was having people before they became famous. He sold us to Sugar Hill. But we did a single, ‘Super Rappin,’’ at Enjoy, and I’d later use a rhyme from that on ‘The Message.’

SKIP MCDONALD: I’d played at a company called All Platinum, which was owned by Sylvia, and later became Sugar Hill. Around The Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ we came back: myself, Doug Wimbish on bass, Keith Leblanc on drums. We became the Sugar Hill band.

JIGGS CHASE: I first went to Sugar Hill trying to get a deal for an artist. I’d done this nice arrangement for her. They didn’t like her. But they liked my arranging, so they hired me. I did the horns and strings on their records, and they elevated me to producer with Sylvia.

ED FLETCHER: Jiggs and I had been in bands together for years before. So, when he got in there, his plan was to bring our band to Sugar Hill, and get Skip and them fired. But those guys were so good, he gave that up. But he still brought me in.

MCDONALD: The usual Sugar Hill method was, they’d go out nights to discos to see what people were dancing to, then take pieces from different records, isolate one portion, and use that as a springboard for the rappers. Sylvia would be instigator. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is the classic example: a direct take from Chic’s ‘Good Times.’ It was like pre-sampling: we’d learn the groove and physically play it. But ‘The Message’ was different. That music was Ed Fletcher.

FLETCHER: ‘The Message’ started when we were working on something else. I went outside for a break, and I was beating this rhythm on an empty plastic bottle while I got water. Sylvia heard it, and said, “Hey, I want to record that.” Sylvia’s ears were always open. So, I recorded: just percussion, this water-bottle track. It languished, until a period when Sylvia wasn’t hot on anything, and Jiggs said, “You should do something with that track.” He came down to my house, we worked on it. I came up with the lyrics then.

CHASE: I said to Ed, “C’mon, come up with something.” Ed thinks out the box. He was just laying on the couch, smoking, nonchalant, then, from the top of his head: “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.” Then: “It’s like a jungle sometimes, makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” I thought, “Uh-oh.” I rushed back to Sylvia. She thought the same: there’s something here.

FLETCHER: The things I describe in the lyrics were, not in my house, but around the environment. I’m not political. I just wanted to hold a mirror up.

MCDONALD: The Message was originally intended as a Sugar Hill Gang record.

MEL: Sylvia always tried tracks on multiple groups. When we did ‘Freedom,’ that was supposed to be Lovebug Starski, but Sylvia didn’t like him on it. Sugar Hill Gang didn’t want to do ‘The Message.’ We didn’t want to do it, either.

CHASE: It wasn’t the usual boasting thing. It was about the streets, and it didn’t turn them on.

MEL: It was just too serious. At that time, we were making party tracks, y’know, and wanted to keep in the same lane. Nobody wanted that song.

FLETCHER: None of them liked it. They walked out. Flash said, “Look: people don’t wanna take their problems to the disco.” But Mel came back.

MEL: Well, thing was: Sylvia wanted to do it. So I knew it was going to be the next song coming out, and I’d rather be on it than not.

CHASE: What Syliva says goes.

MEL: Nobody, none of us, understood the impact it could have, other than Miss Sylvia. We were, like, “Hey. If you say so…”

MCDONALD: We recorded a very different, very heavy, almost African-percussion version first.

CHASE: This percussion groove, with the water bottles. That might be where the “jungle” lyric came from, trying to go in that direction. That version was all right, but it wasn’t knocking us out.

FLETCHER: I didn’t think it was commercial.

CHASE: Then Ed came up with that simple thing.

FLETCHER: Zapp had just done ‘More Bounce To The Ounce.’ I loved that, and Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius Of Love.’ Also, we’d been listening a lot to Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Musically, ‘The Message’ is kind of a combination of those.

CHASE: It was right to the point. Skip added some stuff. And we knew: that’s it.

FLETCHER: I did some tricky things – like slipping the track around and playing percussion backwards. But otherwise, I kept it simple. I was into what I call “trance music,” I didn’t want any bass-line changes. Skip was the only other player. It was the first Sugar Hill track where Skip, Doug and Keith didn’t play together. It’s DMX drum machine, me on Prophet 5 synthesiser, my percussion, Skip’s guitar. Then the vocals.

MEL: Sylvia chose who’d get what verse: Duke on the intro, me on the first and second rhyme, Duke third and fourth, my rhyme last.

FLETCHER: Initially, I just did a reference vocal, expecting someone else to do the finished song. I wasn’t a rapper. But Sylvia loved it. And she tried all The Furious Five. I thought Rahiem, who mimes to my voice in the video, would wind up doing the vocal. But Sylvia heard something in my voice I didn’t hear. I’ve had Snoop Doggy Dog tell me how much my voice influenced him, because it was different from everybody else’s. There was no “Throw Ya Hands In The Air!” It was just plain: here it is.

MEL: We took the “a child is born…’” rhyme from ‘Super Rappin,’’ and tried it on the end. That became the song everybody knows.

FLETCHER: Sylvia bought Mel’s old rhyme from Bobby Robinson at Enjoy– she took him to dinner, handled business. Great rhyme. The only piece I didn’t write. Mel is still the best rapper ever. Mel was truly a phenomenon.

MCDONALD: Sugar Hill records were done very quickly. Sometimes we’d cut a record Monday, and hear it on the radio Friday.

FLETCHER: Sylvia, Jiggs and I mixed ‘The Message.’ As we faded it down, it came out at 7 minutes 11 seconds. We made ridiculously long records. When Sylvia saw that, she said, “Oh My God. We have to get this to the radio as soon as possible.” Sylvia was very into numerology, and 7 and 11 are considered the two luckiest numbers. Next day, it was in heavy rotation.

MCDONALD: First time I actually heard the finished record, it was on radio, WBLS.

FLETCHER: I remember driving home, hearing it on the radio for the first time. I’d heard things I’d played on before on radio, but to hear myself as percussionist was nothing. To hear my vocals, though, I had to stop and think.

MEL: First time I heard the finished article, Sylvia came to Fever, where the early hip-hop crowd hung out. She played the record. I didn’t think it was going to get much response. Fever was really a dance club. But people kept dancing. That’s when I knew it had legs.

FLETCHER: I knew we had something different going on when the white audience picked up on it. It went gold in 11 days.

MCDONALD: Does Sylvia deserve her credit as co-writer? That’s hard. In terms of writing: no. In terms of organisational skills: yes.

MEL: What Sylvia did is no different to what James Brown or George Clinton did: she’ll tell you, “Play so-and-so,” or “Don’t say so-and-so, say this instead…” That song wouldn’t have existed without her. No one else believed in it.

FLETCHER: There’s always a protocol at any institution. If you wanted your record released on Sugar Hill, you were going to have to give Sylvia a cut. Jiggs also has a co-writer credit; I gave him a cut because he brought me there, he was my man, he deserved a cut. He’s still getting cheques. I don’t regret that one instant. I knew the protocol. And I’m still getting paid.

CHASE: Was crediting it to “Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five” a marketing thing? I guess. We were looking for a song for them. They had a name, they were popular. Sylvia had the reins. She knew what she was doing.

MCDONALD: That record broke up that group. You could tell the same story about The Jackson Five, The Monkees. Groups who, on the studio side, it would be one crew, and in live performance, or selling the record, it would be another. It starts getting mixed up.

MEL: What led to the break-up was, first, everybody’s attitude, and second, the business behind Sugar Hill. The group could have stayed together. But Flash wanted to go to court. They went to court. I went back and wrote “White Lines.”

FLETCHER: Sylvia carries a certain edge with all of us. She was like a mother to us – but she was also a businesswoman. And you learned business from her.

MEL: Flash is known to be bitter about Sugar Hill. But out of that entire situation, Flash gained most. He didn’t have anything to do with ‘The Message,’ yet he’s still getting acclaim for it, because his name is up front on there. He’s in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame because of ‘The Message’ and ‘White Lines’ – and he had nothing to do with either.

FLETCHER: It became an anthem. That’s not because I’m any genius. There were other people in rap trying to say socially relevant things at the same time, even though a lot of it was just who’s got the most money and biggest dick. The genre was growing. But it’s who gets there first, with that right combination of song, artist, label.

MEL: It resonated. We were six young guys from the ghetto, and people were, like, “Uh-huh, this is the struggle of the oppressed from the inner cities…” Well, OK, that’s one side. But this could have been anybody’s song. That’s what worked.

MCDONALD: Those lyrics, that situation is still apparent. “People pissing on the stairs because they just don’t care…” A lot of songs of the time weren’t about the time; they were about a good time, a nice car. That song was about what was going on. Even more now. Everybody’s broke. Everybody’s on the edge.

FLETCHER: People are always on the edge. Even the most sedate-looking situation. For me, the metaphor is when I came to the UK in 1979 with Edwin Starr, it was just when Thatcher got in. Riding from the airport, I saw this guy in a suit, looking very straight-laced. He was riding a bicycle. But he had this basket. And as he rode past stores, he was pulling out bricks and smashing the windows. Boom.

MCDONALD: It’s a reflection of society. That’s why it has stood up so long.

CHASE: And it’s a hell of a groove.

A version of this story first appeared in Uncut magazine August 2013.