Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Sugarhill Gang's Message

In some ways, this is The Sugarhill Gang's last record.  Strictly speaking, it's not the last record released under the Sugarhill Gang monicker. I mean, even if you discount all those represses, compilations and foreign remixes, there were a couple more singles on released by the group in 1985, the year after this one. But by those '85 records, Kory O had already come in and replaced Master Gee. And of course, for their 1994 record, Joey Robinson had inserted himself into the group, making the famous trio a quartet. So "Troy" was the last new record released by the full, original trio.

And it's one of their best. By 1984, both the Sugarhills - the Gang and the Records - were no longer the hip, new thing in hip-hop. The next generation was taking over the genre and all the guys were breaking up and/or out. Melle Mel split from Grandmaster Flash, The Treacherous Three broke up and Kool Moe Dee reinvented himself as a solo artist on Jive, The Sequence broke up, etc etc. The records were no longer selling; it was over for those guys. So, no matter how good a record the Sugarhill Gang made at that point, it was going to get slept on. It's just unfortunate timing that they took so long to create "Troy."

One thing to note is the production credits on the label. Yeah, Sylvia Robinson gets credit, of course. But then you'll see that the first three producers' credits are actually the three members of the Gang themselves. The timing was bad commercially, but the good thing about this being later in their career is that they were given more artistic freedom to follow more of their own creative drive. And they used that to make possibly their most socially conscious record (you could say it's neck and neck with "Living In the Fast Lane," which they released that same year), and absolutely their darkest. It's certainly unique and different enough, but in some ways, you could certainly say that this is their "The Message." Even their voices sound like they're channeling some Melle Mel.

The Gang got into some more traditional/modern hip-hop style production by creating the beat using the core elements of Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals," but stripping the upbeat and silly stuff and replacing it with moody instrumentation. The opening keyboards remind me of "Thriller" more than anything. And then it gets a little more rock-ish and upbeat towards the end. There are still live band members playing on this track, but there's also a super 80's drum machine, electric guitars and police sirens. It's a real hybrid of an instrumental, which I think works in its favor. It can't be called "too disco-y" like their earlier records, or too mechanical and programmed like a lot of mid 80s stuff. It's a very alive, slightly unusual mash-up.

Big Bank Hank sets the stage with a narrative about a vicious, nighttime gang fight. He might not've been a writer like the other two, but his voice and delivery are top shelf and he really dominates this record, "the leader called Blade still standing tall, his shadow cast big on the bloody wall. He faced the death with the life he chose, and his sweat ran thick to drench his clothes. He rules the street with an iron claw; and everybody knows that his word is law." Like, holy shit, this is coming from the Sugarhill Gang? The second verse details a nightmare Blade has of getting shot dead in the streets; it's some pretty seriously evocative stuff.

Well, as I said, the song does take a more positive turn. Blade decides to focus on break-dancing as a way out of the ghetto, and soon this song starts to feel more like Melle Mel's "Beat Street" than "Message." But both are great songs, so there's nothing wrong with that. And this song doesn't just take the easy way out to a happy ending, as it comes back from the breakdown to tell us, "Blade tried hard to become a break dancer; just couldn't cut it so it couldn't be the answer." And when the story finally does get to his moment of triumph, just listen to the Gang's performances: their rapping is intense, they sound like an entirely different group than the guy's who brought you "Rapper's Delight." Like, I think that last verse is by Wonder Mike but honestly I'm not even sure because he's on such a different, harder vibe.

Unfortunately, the B-side is perhaps the Gang's worst and corniest. It's "Girls" with short, almost embarrassing rap verses lightly peppered between an admittedly catchy chorus that dominates the song. It's based, heavily, on a 70s funk song, also called "Girls." Craig G made a version of it, too, called "Girl Fever" on his second album, and Ultimate Force had a "Girls," too. It's a super catchy hook and instrumental riff, and so in that regard all those songs do work to some degree. But again, particularly on the this Sugarhill Gang version right here, the shit is so corny. In fact, I think at least some of their raps are literally the actual lines that were sung in the original version, just turned into short raps here. So, I suppose at least some of the fault in the writing can be kicked back to the original group. But where ever you choose to lay the blame, "hey, well I tried to swim the whole ocean, just to see the girls in motion. When they were those black mesh stockin's, my heart goes a tick-a-tockin'," "even ones that ain't good lookin', they're the ones that do the best cookin'," or "I wish I was a magician, so I could start with this wishin'," are fairly cringe-worthy. Especially with the over-the-top, cheery enthusiasm they deliver them all.

But I still whole-heartedly recommend this single, especially if you only know the Gang for one song. This one might change your mind about their artistic credibility and the longevity they had to offer if hip-hop wasn't unfortunately as ruled by trends. I'd even suggest their whole last album, Livin' In the Fast Lane, for serious listeners. Songs like "Space Race" and the afore-mentioned title track will probably surprise you. But "Troy" is the real essential. It's the stand-out on the album for sure, and one of their best singles over-all, so if you're at all appreciative of rap from this era, you should really check out this 12".

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