MELLE MEL / “Beat Street Breakdown”
For Part 1 of this post, see last week’s Classic. Following the success of “The Message” and “Message II (Survival),” a third ‘message rap’ from Sugar Hill was virtually inevitable. That record is… #3. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “New York, New York” – Originally released as a 12” single (Sugar Hill, 1983); Available on Message From Beat Street: The Best Of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five (Rhino, 1994) Despite being billed as a song by the entire group, Grandmaster Flash doesn’t appear on the recording and all of the verses are performed by either Melle Mel or Duke Bootee. The writing credits, in the order they appear on the record label, go to Melvin Glover (AKA Melle Mel), Sylvia Robinson (the CEO of Sugar Hill Records), Edward Fletcher (AKA Duke Bootee) and Reggie Griffin (talented multi-instrumentalist who created the backing track for “New York, New York,” “Message II” and many others). My semi-educated guess is that those writing credits are fairly accurate, save the inclusion of Sylvia, or, ‘Mrs. Rob,’ as her former rappers and musicians usually refer to her. The ‘Mrs.’ thing is neither accident nor coincidence. One of the oddest thing about the legacy of Sylvia Robinson is that many of her former employees still respect and perhaps even fear her. Almost all of them complain about her claiming credit for songs she didn’t write and underpaying them for their work, but at the same time, they often talk in glowing terms about her talent for recognizing hits in the making, promoting records and running the overall business. And they almost always call her ‘Mrs.’ When referring to Sylvia’s misdeeds, the artists take an almost deferential tack, as if there was nothing they could’ve said or done to change things, either then or now. Sometimes, it sounds like they’re talking about a loving but abusive parent as opposed to a former boss. With her combination of paternalism, feudal lordship and common thievery, Sylvia Robinson’s office at Sugar Hill records must’ve been a strange place indeed. Musically, “New York” immediately distinguishes itself from its two predecessors with the inclusion of electric guitar. The guitar sound gives the record a slight ‘new wave’ feel, and that different sound was indicative of the shift underway in the world of hip-hop as a whole. As the young and hip outsiders (and by that, I mostly mean white people) slowly became more aware of this exciting new musical style, MCs, DJs and b-boys seized the opportunity to perform at lucrative uptown clubs like the Roxy, Mudd Club and Danceteria. There was a lot more money to be made among the movie stars and pop musicians that frequented the uptown discotheques as opposed to the parks, social clubs, rec rooms and holes-in-the-wall that hip-hop artists had previously performed in. Melle Mel (performing his own lyrics for a change) begins “New York” on a high note:
A castle in the sky, one mile high Built to shelter the rich and greedy Rows of eyes disguised as windows Looking down on the poor and the needy Miles of people marching up the avenue Doing what they gotta do, just to get by I'm living in the land of plenty and many But I'm damn sure poor and I don't know whyThe record ends well too, courtesy of a memorable verse from Mel in which he reprises the format of his “A Child Is Born” rap while changing the gender of the protagonist:
The sky was crying, raining hell When you put your baby in the garbage pail Then you kissed the kid and put down the lid And tried to forget what you just didIn between though, Duke and Mel sound like they’re nearing the end of their lyrical rope. Some of the metaphors are forced and others are lifted from their previous two excursions into the same territory. By this point though, the message raps of “Grandmaster Flash” were too popular to miss. Once again, a hit record by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five was all over the radio, but none of the members of the group save Melle Mel could take any personal pride in it. For her part, Sylvia Robinson was nothing if not shrewd. She saw where her gravy train was headed and began to favor Mel above his band mates. I’ve never found out for sure if Mel, unlike his five friends, was receiving his fair share of royalties, but it is telling that Mel is one of the few Sugar Hill veterans who defends Sylvia to this day. For Grandmaster Flash himself, “New York, New York” was the last straw. Soon after its release, he sued Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill records for non-payment of royalties and as part of the suit requested the exclusive use of the name ‘Grandmaster Flash.’ Sylvia countered that Flash had been paid everything he was due and besides that, the name ‘Grandmaster Flash’ was a Sugar Hill copyright and should remain with the label even if Flash himself did leave. After a protracted court battle, a judge ruled that Flash was due no monetary damages but was free to leave the label. He also ruled that although ‘Flash’ was a unique nickname, the term ‘Grandmaster’ was a title, not a name. That meant both Flash and Sugar Hill could continue to use it. Soon, the world would be treated to dueling ‘Grandmaster & The Furious Five’ groups. Grandmaster Flash, Rahiem and Kid Creole left for Elektra records. They then recruited three imposter MCs and released a forgettable LP. Melle Mel, Scorpio and Cowboy stayed at Sugar Hill and began to record as Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five. (The strangest thing about the breakup is Mel and Creole are blood brothers yet they chose opposite sides of the split.) Of the two groups, I have to say that Mel’s fared better, musically. Mel was as much a virtuoso of MCing as Flash was at DJing. As rap music became increasingly focused on the vocal side of things, it was natural that Mel’s talents would continue to translate better to the recording studio. #4. Grandmaster Melle Mel – “Beat Street Breakdown” – Originally from Beat Street – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Atlantic, 1984); Available on Message From Beat Street: The Best Of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five (Rhino, 1994) No matter the genre, there are aren’t many records that actually scared me. Melle Mel’s “Beat Street Breakdown” is one. Before getting into that, let me quickly describe what Beat Street is, or was. In the early eighties, hip-hop was in its infancy as a marketing juggernaut. Actually, that description doesn’t do justice to reality because back then, no one knew hip-hop was going to be anything but a fad, like hula hoops. Record companies, movie studios, marketing companies and the like were all in a race to see who could make some quick bucks off of this new hip-hop thing that would surely be gone as swiftly as it had appeared. Beat Street was one of several hip-hop-themed movies that came out around this time. I remember buying a ticket to see it at the dollar show on Gentilly Ave. in New Orleans, then sneaking back in through the exit door to watch it two or three more times in succession. I don’t remember enough about the movie to honestly say if it was good or not (it probably wasn’t), but I sure did like it back then. Verse one of Melle Mel’s “Beat Street Breakdown” is loosely based on the plot of the film. The main character is a graffiti writer named Ramon who is struggling to develop his art, avoid the lure of the streets and take care of his young child. If I remember correctly, the movie was virtually a musical, containing many cameos by hip-hop stars of the time, including extended bits of MCing, DJing, b-boying and writing (graffiti art). The movie-makers were covering all the bases. Over the years, Melle Mel recorded many great verses but his second verse on “Beat Street Breakdown” may be my favorite thing he’s ever recorded. “A newspaper burns in the sand…,” he begins, and right away we realize he’s not talking about Beat Street anymore. Using hyper-descriptive, apocalyptic language, Mel’s images come at you quickly, much more quickly than you can actually hear, take in and comprehend them. Because he’s rapping faster than you can listen, the images began to pile up, sounding like movie credits look when you press fast forward. It all sounds important, and unsettling, but you can’t quite get a handle on any of it. As he raps, Mel cobbles together so many disparate facts, images, names and opinions that you figure he has to be either extraordinarily well-informed or completely insane. Or both, maybe. Instead of a coherent argument, as Mel may have intended, all we’re actually able to retain is flashes of words and images: nuclear fall-out, wars between empires, trillions wasted on arms, egomaniacal world leaders, self-righteous politicians and starving African children “living like mice.” It’s a grim, torturous vision of a futurist hell that we could only hope was more fantasy than reality. Even more than the lyrics themselves, I love the style Mel uses to recite them. Even if you can’t understand the words, there’s a searing intensity in his tone that makes his rage both difficult to understand and impossible to ignore. With his fiery cadence and free-flowing rhythm patterns, Mel’s style combines the booming oratory of a Baptist preacher, the schizophrenic zeal of a street-corner crazy man and the implacability of a evening news anchor. I remember hearing this record back when I was in my young teens; my honest reaction was, if even part of this is true the world is going to end. Period. After hearing Mel’s rap, my thirteen-year-old self couldn’t come to any other conclusion. These days, I hear it and still marvel at Mel’s passion and verbal dexterity, if not his historical accuracy. And one more thing. Could we get more scratching on rap records. Please? —Mtume ya Salaam Why? I gotta ask—and I’m sure there’s a good explanation for why no “White Lines”? Mtume, will you please tell me why? —Kalamu ya Salaam White Lines Well.... I wasn't really trying to do an overview of the Furious Five's biggest hits or best music. I was just talking about their series of records that had a similar theme. I.e., their "message raps," so to speak. I have heard of people referring to "White Lines" as a cautionary or "message" type record, but I don't think that's right. Maybe I'll get into "White Lines" and a little Liquid Liquid some other time, but for now, suffice it to say "White Lines" is ambivalent about cocaine, at best. At times, it even sounds like a pro-cocaine record. And I have it on good authority that several of the principle players involved in the recording were high on coke even as they were recording it. How's that for a message? —Mtume ya Salaam
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