Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 3 - The Sequel

Still 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the rest of The Furious Five have come around to "The Message" - it's a runaway hit, the title of their album. But now that it's time for the sequel, Melle Mel and Duke Bootee are still doing it on their own. Flash and the Five aren't even credited on the label this time, though Sylvia and Joey Robinson are still taking writing and production credits.

It's called "Message II (Survival)," and once again it's just Mel and Bootee rapping on this. But there's another MC who should have writing credit on this record. Check out these lyrics:

"In jail they got a game and they call it 'survival,'
They run it down to ya on your first arrival.
They tell ya what you can and can not do,

So if you ever go to jail, watch your (mm mm)."

Duke Bootee kicks that short verse near the beginning of the song. But now check out these lyrics to another rap classic, and see if you notice anything familiar:

"For you sucker sucker crews who commit the crime,
You wanna do bad but don't do the time.
I say you wanna be this but then you wanna be a crook,
You find and old lady and take her pocket book;
And then you steal your mother father's money on the sly;
You can run, but you can't hide.
When the cops grab you, your face turns pale;
And I'ma tell you a little story about the jail:
You see, in jail they got a game and it's called 'survival,'
And they run it down to ya on your first arrival.
They tell ya what you can and can not do,
But if you go to jail, watch your poo poo."

That's right. That's from Spoonie Gee's debut single "Spoonin' Rap" on Sound of New York (1979). Of course, Spoonie took it a little further...

"'Cause when you go in the shower, he's a-pullin' his meat,
And he's a-lookin' at you, and say you look real sweet.
And at first there was one, now ten walked in,
Now how in the hell do you expect to win?
I said you better look alive, not like you take dope,
And please, my brother, don't drop the soap.
And if you get out the bathroom and you're alive,
Just remember: only a man can survive."

For ages, I just assumed the lines were bitten. After all, Bootee is a musician first and foremost. He rhymed on these records, but he never really made any claims of being a serious MC. The original intention was for his vocals to be replaced on the original "The Message," and he was only rapping on this one because of the success of the last one (and the growing divisions within the group over the whole mess). So I assumed he had a little trouble coming up with some rhymes and figured he could sneak a lifted passage or two under the radar.

But, actually, in an interview with The Foundation (by the way, have I mentioned that The Foundation is fucking awesome, and if you haven't gone there and ready every single interview than you're really missing out?), Rahiem, explains that, "Spoonie G wrote that song to get out of his contract [with Sugarhill]."

The beat should be familiar, too. There's some new instrumentation by the usual players on top, but the basic track is Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's earlier hit, "Scorpio" with the fast, electronic sounding beats and sound effects.

Still, this is a pretty great song. Some of the added music, especially the super funky bassline, really elevates this above "Scorpio" IMHO, which gets kind of monotonous and dull. And it sure doesn't hurt that Mel's simple vocoder effects have been replaced by some great new lyrics by Spoonie, "you've got to lock all your windows, chain up all your doors, to protect what's inside of your houses, stores. Beware of the food - it might be no good, 'cause there's someone trying to poison the whole neighborhood! Today they found something in somebody's store they said, killed ten people, and hurt four more."

Mel also changes up his flow for majority of the song, and instead of giving his usual, ultra-aggressive delivery, gives a very earnest, softer, almost pleading delivery for most of his lines. You might almost think it was another member of the Five doing his parts, but no, that's Mel. He only really switches back to his traditional style for the ending, when he brings back a portion of his famous, "a child is born with no state of mind" verse for an encore performance.

Of course, this record didn't have quite the impact the original did. A lot of the recycled elements feel like quick cash-grabs, and you just can't have an important, musical and cultural First twice. The hook, while effective, didn't become the anthem that "The Message" or even "New York, New York" did. But it's still a really great record that stands up to the test of time a lot better than many other records from that era, even other hits by Flash and the gang. If this record had gotten formulaic, it was at least a terrific formula.

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