Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 1 - A Verse Is Born With No State of Mind

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's classic record, "The Message" is easily one of the most important rap records in hip-hop history. And that's why I'm dedicating a whole week to it - or, rather, its many iterations. And I'm not even talking about funky remix 12"s, like the one by Stunt Nuts, where they turn it into a trance/ Euro/ electro/ whatever/ dance record, or random covers by unrelated artists like Motiv or this guy. This week is dedicated solely and specifically to Melle's Mel's "Message." ...You'll see, by the end of the week, it'll all have made sense. ;)

Now, the primary reason "The Message" is held up as so important is because it's known as the first record to have, well... a message. It's regarded the single to take the hip-hop from hip-hoppin', show-stoppin', body-rockin', poppin' and lockin' party rhymes to rebellious street music with a serious bent. And it did. But to be fair, it's not really the first rap record to have any kind of socially conscious message in it. In fact, Melle Mel had already done it a few years before. In fact, he did it with many of the exact same lyrics before.

"The Message" is a great song with many great verses from the Five, but certainly the signature, most memorable verse is the final one - hell, I don't even need to play the song now to type it out:

"A child is born with no state of mind,
Blind to the ways of mankind.
God is smilin' on you, but he's frownin', too,
Because only God knows what you'll go through.
You'll grow in the ghetto livin' second rate,
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate;
And the places you play and where you stay
Look like one great big alleyway.
You'll admire all the number book takers,
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big moneymakers,
Drivin' big cars, spendin' twenties and tens;
And you'll wanna grow up to be just like them.
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers,
Pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers.
You'll say, 'I'm cool, huh, I'm no fool,'
But then you wind up droppin' outta high school.
Now you're unemployed, all non-void,
Walkin' round like you're Pretty Boy Floyd.
Turned stick-up kid, but look what you done did:
Got sent up state for an eight-year bid.
Now your manhood is took and you're a Maytag,
Spend the next two years as a undercover fag,
Bein' used and abused and served like hell,
'Till one day you was found hung dead in your cell.
It was plain to see that your life was lost,
You was cold and your body swung back and forth,
And your eyes sang that sad, sad song
Of how you lived so fast and died so young."

That's a hard verse. But another reason it might stand out as being particularly memorable is that we'd heard it before. Melle Mel kicked that exact same verse three years earlier on "Superrappin'."

"Superrappin'" dropped in 1979 on Enjoy Records, before they made their move to Sugarhill Records where they released the majority of their hits. It's often referred to as their first record, although strictly speaking, they released another single earlier: "We Rap More Mellow," under the alias of The Younger Generation. The version pictured here, by the way, is the second pressing Enjoy put out after their small initial run was such a success. I don't actually have this pressing but I stole the picture from discogs because I love the spelling error on this pressing - they title the song "Supperrappin'," in the meal after lunch.

Now "Superrappin'" is one of those classic, marathon golden age rap records where the MCs just spit and spit for well over ten minutes to the accompaniment of a live band. Man, they don't really don't make records like that anymore. But I especially bring it up to point out that, because it's so long, many (most, in fact) hip-hop compilations over the years would edit this song and all the others like it to a more manageable 5-minute or so length. That way they could fit a lot more songs on the album and it'd be more marketable. But that means a whole lot of you may've grown up knowing "Superrappin'" in an abbreviated form without that final verse (and plenty of other parts).

Now, "Superrappin'" isn't a particularly message-y song for the most part. In fact, after this verse, Melle passes the mic right back to Rahiem who rhymes about how, "all the fly girls, you got to beware, because Rahiem will be in your hair!" But you can't deny that any song that has that verse in it has a serious (albeit homophobic) message in it... years before the actual "The Message." It also features tons of memorable lines, including the famous count up, count down hook that so many other rappers have borrowed over the years, "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, rappin' like Hell but make it sound like Heaven. Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, come on, _____, come and get some!"

I have one little anecdotal memory about this record... when I was working at The Source, I had to write a brief biography for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five for their awards show. It was just a couple short sentences, like, "responsible for such influential songs as 'The Message,' 'White Lines' and 'Superrappin'." But the owner of the mag contacted me, indirectly through my supervisor, like, "what is this kid doing? Grandmaster Flash didn't do Superrappin'!" You couldn't contact this guy directly, his door was always locked and you couldn't call him... so I had to run out, buy a copy of this record that day, and fax him a label scan. I never heard back from him; but I saw "Superrappin'" was in the final copy of the bio when it came out.

Anyway, "Superrappin'" was followed up by "Super Rappin' No. 2" on Enjoy the following year. But it's really just an abbreviated version of "Supperappin'" that cuts about five minutes of (great) material out of the song and adds nothing except very minimal instrumental changes - the body of the music is the same. And no, it doesn't have the famous, "a child is born" verse.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Werner. I love the full 10+ min version of this song, and in general enjoy a lot of those 8-12 minute full-band old school songs that just flow on and on, verse after verse, sans chorus. Now that we're 30 years down the line, it seems like it's time for a revival of that aesthetic; I bet the Daptone crew could easily pair up with some MCs and knock out a disco funk party groove for a 12" or two...