Looking at the cover to The Message provides an overview of the entire album. You’ve got Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five and Duke Bootee looking fresh—striking a pose on the street as if this brief bit of posturing were done while en route to a B-boy party—while in the background you’ve got glimpses of urban decay best depicted by the torn up storefront sign. It’s an eclectic and solid album all the way through that epitomizes all that’s great about old school hip-hop, but it’s the combination of the party atmosphere and urban decay that makes The Message an important creative social statement for everyone involved. Given this combination, it’s fitting that the album that opens with a playful shave-and-a-haircut gag and closes with the entire posse getting hassled by the man and arrested.
Said-shave-and-a-haircut gag can be found in the concluding moment of the album’s opener, “She’s Fresh.” Propelled by flirtatious dancefloor funk from the Sugar Hill Gang’s house band, “She’s Fresh” is one of The Message‘s throw your hands in the air tracks. After some come hither lines to woo the ladies and formal introduction of the group’s members—Melle Mel, Mr. Ness (aka Scorpio), Rahiem, Kidd Creole, Cowboy and, of course, Grandmaster Flash—the song strays into an enthused shout out non-sequitur finale.
“It’s Nasty” follows “She’s Fresh” in a similar fashion. Previously a hit single for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five prior to it’s addition to the album, borrows from the Tom Tom Club’s slinky “Genius of Love” as Melle Mel and company continue to woo the women with smile-inducing similes, metaphors and analogies such as “He makes better love than a mint makes money” and “I’m chocolate all over like an Almond Joy.” The next song, “Scorpio” is the type of electro made for breaking. Its vocoder vocals and laser beam blasts eliciting images of helicopters on cardboard and Turbo dancing on the ceiling.
The remainder of the album shows off the diversity of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which includes the heartfelt Stevie Wonder tribute/pastiche ballad “Dreamin'” and the sultry, soulful crooning on “You Are.” “You Are” is the type of song made for shut-eye slow dances and mouthing the words “I love you,” its straightforward sentiments interrupted by a spoken-word call for heavenly forgiveness and a better world.
One of the two social snapshot songs found on the The Message, “It’s a Shame” puts Grandmaster Flash’s scratching and quick mix skills on display as he creates a danceable though mellow groove throughout the song’s screed against greed, inequality and war. The question and answer, back and forth vocals recall the shouting back on Edwin Starr’s “War” or the teacher and children section of Wonder’s “Black Man.”
The album ends with the famous title track, a bleak commentary of life in the ghetto. The song’s synth groove would later be borrowed by, amongst others, Ice Cube for the non-album version of “Check Yo Self.” Like “It’s Nasty,” “The Message” was originally released as a single prior to the release of the eponymous album. It’s a jarring snapshot of life in the Bronx that depicts both the poverty on the streets and the train of thought that leads people in desperate situations to lives of crime. It’s both a document of the urban jungle and a condemnation of the hopelessness it creates and perpetuates. While particular to the Bronx, “The Message” has a universal quality that keeps it relevant and timeless even though it is inextricably linked to its period. An important hip-hop song, a powerful work of social commentary and an anthem for ghettos and barrios worldwide, “The Message” was added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.
Though credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” was actually the work of Melle Mel and Duke Bootee, leading to strife in the group and, coupled with contract disputes with label Sugar Hill, contributing to the departure of Grandmaster Flash, Raheim and Kidd Creole. It’s unfortunate that the group basically ended just after it began, but they did leave behind an important snapshot in the form of The Message, an album that captures the time in which it’s created; one which endures and epitomizes the potential of rap and hip hop to be both pop-oriented and socially aware.
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