Monday, November 14, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 4 - The Silly Message

So, for a long time, "The Message" was done. Sure, there were remixes (Sugarhill's 1990 remixes... "The Message '95"... "The Message '97"... that 12" on P-Vine with a bunch of Japanese artists trying their hand at it, or the one on DeepBeats, which had a whole bunch of newjack remixes... jeez, there have been a lot), and compilation appearances. But there were no new "Message" records for a decade. Finally, all that would change on "The Message"'s tenth anniversary, when Danish pop rocker Nikolaj Steen came to New York in search of new, American audiences.

"Now, wait a minute, Werner," you may be thinking, "I thought you said in 'Day 1' that you weren't going to be posting about silly covers and junk; just the real, authentic stuff by Mel." Yeah, but this isn't one of those. This is Melle Mel (who'd now inexplicably changed his name to Mele Mel) back to record a whole new "Message" song. And while Duke Bootee didn't come along for this ride, Mel now had fellow Furious Fiver Scorpio in tow.

I used to watch Yo! MTV Raps (and Rap City, and Video Music Box) religiously in these days. I can only remember Dre and Ed Lover singling out two videos as being personal favorites of theirs, and this was one of them (the other was Rappin Is Fundamental's collaboration with Miles Davis). Now, that may be overhyping it a bit, but if you can get over the fact that they've got this corny rocker adding his voice to the proceedings, it's really not bad. And it was certainly pretty awesome to see Grandmaster Melle Mel back in the saddle again after having been pretty much out of the picture since the Furious Five's failed reunion album in '88.

If you've only seen the video for this (either back in the day or on Youtube), you've seen a bastardized edit of it. See, this song can essentially be broken up into three acts. In act 1, they reprise material from the original "Message" with a few updated twists. One twist is that Nikolaj jumps into to perform some of the lines, and the other is that they alter some of the lyrics. So,

"Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far,
'cause a man with a tow-truck repossessed my car."


"Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkies in the alley just smokin' that crack.
I tried to get away 'cause life is a drag,
But the tow-truck man came and took my Jag."

This is admittedly the worst part. I mean, the changes aren't awful, but they are a small step down, and surely nobody but Nikolaj was thought it was important for him to make arbitrary changes to put his spin on it. It's not that he says anything embarrassing or especially wack, but so far it's pretty pointless. We're obviously better off just playing our old copies of the original "Message."

But the second act is more compelling, and stupidly, that's the one that gets chopped in the music video. Because in the second act, Mel and Scorpio (who have 100% of the writing credit on this song) write and kick all new material for the majority of the song. You did get some of that in the video, including:

"Took the train 'cause a cabbie got gunned down.
A water main broke; can't go downtown.
I shoulda stayed off,
Cops gettin' paid off;
Pops got laid off,
He tried to play it off.
Up at dawn, home at dusk; he's flippin',
Mad at the world so he gave me a weapon.
He ran out of cigarettes;
He went for another pack.
It must've been a good smoke,
He never came back!"

But, either for time or due to a politically incorrect reference to AIDS by Scorpio (probably both), they trim out a good chunk of the middle of the song, like:

"I'm in the bleachers with the Yankees fans.
Sayin', 'yeah, yo, you sucker,' as your boys got slammed!
DEA rolled up on the block,
And two little kids watched as their mother got knocked.
Didn't get bailed out, didn't have no clout;
Been locked up twice, now it's three strikes, she's out.
The city took the kids right quick;
Moms is upstate, sleepin' with a broomstick."

Then act three, predictably, is Mel kicking his "a child is born" verse. This time Steen jumps in and does a couple lines of it, but mostly it's just Mel doing his tried and true thing. And what can I say? Hearing Mel bring it back in '92 was pretty effective.

Now, this single actually has several mixes. Steen produced them all, but he has several co-producers, from punk rock guys (including a member of The Vomit Pigs) to house DJs working with him, and it's not really clear exactly who did what, especially since the credits seem to differ whether you're looking at the cassette single or the 12" label. So, we'll just say a mess of these guys collectively worked on these various versions. So there's talent on hand, but none of them are really hip-hop producers, which means, naturally, the results are mixed.

Surprisingly, it's not the Album version you hear in the video. That version's okay, but kinda boring until the guitar solos kick in - those are effective, and appear in pretty much all the mixes. The one in the video is the Smooth Mix, and I actually think that one's the best. It relies on a lot of drawn out synth notes, which is pretty cliche, but actually works surprisingly well with the harder elements of the song. Then you've got the Close To the Edge Mix, which is the most traditionally hip-hop of all of them, and that's pretty decent, but for some reason it just doesn't jive well with the vocals. Someone would need to go back in and rejig some of the elements to really make it work right; but as it stands, it's a little off. And finally there's the Hot Mix, which is more of a dance track and definitely the worst of the bunch.

So, how to call this in the end? The song obviously gets dismissed a lot just because it's got a corny rocker guy in an otherwise dead serious rap video... That would have a hard time flying today, much less back in 1992. And some of his input really does come off as silly, regardless of the times (hey, at least he doesn't human beatbox!). It's certainly not a song you'd proudly drive around blasting out of your jeep; and obviously it's not as good as "The Message," or even "Message II." But Steen is a genuinely talented musician. And having Mel and Scorpio on the mic giving an earnest go at hard MCing with socially important lyrics is certainly a good thing that real heads shouldn't entirely be sleeping on. This was a comeback I really wanted to happen, but unfortunately it took a bunch more years for Mel and Scorpio to get more projects off the ground. And this is definitely better than a lot of those.

If you appreciate Mel, you'll be down with this. But "The New Message" is certainly no substitute message.

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