Friday, November 11, 2011

Mel's Message Week, Day 2 - The Actual Message

So, three years later, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five built a song around that famous verse from "Superrappin'." Or, rather, Melle Mel did, almost on his own. Apparently the rest of the group weren't convinced at all of this bold concept: to make a hip-hop record that was serious and political as opposed to light and bouncy. Little could they imagine the world of Public Enemy, NWA and Edutainment that hip-hop was about to define hip-hop - "the black CNN" as Chuck D famously described it - for the latter half of the decade.

So Melle Mel hooked up with one of the members of Sugarhill Records' house band, Duke Bootee, and they crafted this song on their own (note the billing on the label... Flash and the Five developed a long history of confusing and ever-changing billing on their records like pretty much no other group). Bootee didn't just work on the instrumental for song, he actually wrote and performs one of the verses - the only one not by Mel. In fact, it even goes further... according to an interview with Bootee at The Foundation, he wrote all of Mel's verses, too (except for that famous, final verse).

While "Superrappin'" may've had the famous verse first, and other rap records managed to make some social and political points, "The Message" turned out to be revolutionary. While the instrumental is still by The Sugarhill Band and contains your standard disco/ funk elements, it's much darker and atmospheric, and it's set to a drum machine instead of live percussion. Instrumentally and lyrically, it lead hip-hop into a whole new direction. Not that every rapper took it (care free party rap remains a staple of the genre to this day), but it opened the door to so much, from the post-Run DMC era of stripped down beats to pretty much the whole concept of serious and "hardcore" MCing.

I have a fun memory of this record. In high school, we had to do a presentation where we typed up the words to a song, played the song in class, and discussed the lyrics. Most of the kids were surprised I listened to stuff like this, considering it was so old school - I'm not so old that I went to high school in the 80's, guys. But one of my best friends had already called dibs on The Geto Boys' "Chucky," so I figured I had to go in a different direction.

Anyway, my English teacher was impressed I figured out Duke was saying "sacroiliac," but marked me wrong on another line of the song, where Mel tells the tale of the "Zircon princess" who, "seemed to lost her senses. Down at the peep show, watchin' all the creeps so she can tell her stories to the girls back home. She went to the city and got so, so siditty, she had to get a pimp; she couldn't make it on her own." She was convinced the song had to be saying she got "social security." So, since I'm looking back at this record, I decided to do a little research and see what the rest of the world thinks about this line.

The original hip-hop anthology, Rap: The Lyrics actually has it as "social security." But the later Anthology of Rap agrees with me. Being on the side of "the big book of plagiarism" was almost enough to make me rethink my stance on the subject, but it occurred to me that whatever they had must have originally come from the internet, so I checked The OHHLA, and they also have it as "siditty". Actually, they have it as "seditty." In fact, googling around, I've found literally over a dozen spellings of this word. But however you spell it, I'm convinced they meant the term found in this Urban Dictionary link. This is just one of those old school slang words everybody was using back in the days, and it hadn't even occurred to me that they could be saying anything else.

I mean, I can understand the logic of wanting to think it must be "social security." Rapgenius has it as "seditty," but then if you click the word, they say, "My guess, from listening to the song and given the context ('she couldn’t make it on her own'), is that what’s actually being said is 'Social Security' — which maybe is being used euphemism for welfare, or disability given that she’s a 'crazy lady'" - it makes sense. But I think that's just a case of us trying to re-edit the song afterwards. I mean, just listen to the song: there aren't enough syllables for it to be "social security." I can hear "so so" as "social," but "security" has a whole other, distinct syllable with a definite "your" sound in there. And Mel's not exactly a midwestern mumblemouth-type rapper. He comes from the old school tradition of enunciating the Hell out of whatever you're trying to say. Hell, Maya Angelou even uses the term in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: "St. Louis teachers, on the other hand, tended to act very 'siditty' and talked down to their students from the lofty heights of education and whitefolks' enunciation." ...I wish I had that Angelou quote back in English class; I think that would've gotten that incorrect mark off my paper! hehe

Anyway, I apologize for the long tangent. It's a powerful song, from Mel's dynamic opening, "broken glass everywhere!" to the mature and heartfelt lyrics of all the verses, including Bootee's, talking about, "the bill collectors that ring my phone and scare my wife when I'm not home." It works and holds up on every level. Even today, you're not going to find many rappers with metaphors and imagery like, "rows of eyes disguised as windows, looking down on the poor and needy." And, of course, it has one of the most famous and bitten hooks in hip-hop history: "don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge... I'm tryin' not to lose my head. It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under."

There are multiple pressings, of course, but pretty much only the one version of the song (not counting remixes made by other artists long after the fact), about seven minutes long with the instrumental on the B-side. Unlike songs like "Superrappin'" or "Rapper's Delight," no one really pares this one down. I mean, maybe a compilation or two will shave a bit of the extended instrumental at the beginning or the skit at the ending (that Newcleus famously imitated on their classic, "Jam On Revenge"), but you'd be hard pressed to find any versions that cut any of the verses, all of which are iconic and essential. This song is one of the few real game changers, even moreso than other songs that managed to set trends. And Grandmaster Flash and the rest of the Furious Five, who originally didn't want to get down with this song, wound up making it the title of their debut album.


  1. nice write up dude, Im enjoying this series. See what you think of this 'jackin for beats' remix I did of The Message -